With so many musicians from the emigration waves of the 1940s and 50s meeting in local London
pubs, it seems inevitable that they would play music together. The reality was less straightforward. It
sounds ridiculous now, but in the buttoned-up England of the 1950s, spontaneous public music and
dancing, especially if ‘ethnic’ or non-mainstream in character, was often frowned upon and even
actively discouraged by the authorities. Irish music historian, Reg Hall once recounted an instance
where the local constabulary insisted, on pain of relieving the landlord of his licence, that if a
traditional musician played in a pub, that musician was required to keep one foot on the pavement
outside the front door, so that he could be legally classed as a street performer. Fortunately for us,
such attitudes did not prevail and the area became a focal point for Irish music in the capital, where
many noted musicians played on virtually every night of the week. In Camden Town, Kentish Town
and Holloway (two or three square miles at most), there were at least a dozen famous session pubs,
including The Bedford Arms and The Oxford Arms. On any night of the week, one might pop in to
one of them for a drink and hear musicians of the calibre of Bobby Casey, Willie Clancy, Michael
Gorman, Margaret Barry, Jimmy Power and Roger Sherlock.


Fortunately the presence of traditional Irish music in London remained strong for decades to follow.
Any attempt to give a true picture of the level of activity and key figures in the city since the 1950s in
a mere few paragraphs, would be futile - Step, Céilí and Set Dancing, influential singers, Legendary
Céilí Bands, Irish Dance Halls all over the city, Irish Music teachers giving first formal classes to the
next generation, the first Pipers Club and a number of the first Comhaltas branches outside of
Ireland, London wide sessions in the 60s through to early 90s (including iconic residences at the
White Hart in Fulham and The Favourite in Holloway), Irish musicians in concert at venues (The
Mean Fiddler, The Powerhaus, Aras na nGael) and so much more. All this leading to the last two
decades, where the impact of Return to Camden Town Festival, its fringe events and the formation
of ‘Irish Music and Dance in London’ began to be felt. For a chance to read a proper overview of
Irish Music in London, we are hugely fortunate that Reg Hall has published his in depth 1,000 page
book ‘A Few Tunes of Good Music’ online for all to access at www.topicrecords.co.uk/a-few-good-
tunes/.

Since the first outing of Return to Camden Town Festival in October 1999, the Festival team
have also been working on events and projects outside of Festival time, bringing the
community together on a more regular basis as well as working to bring traditional Irish
music to wider stages in the capital city. Highlights of this additional work have included
curating the BBC Proms Folk Day (featuring the first ever céilí to be held at the Royal Albert
Hall) and jointly hosting the ‘St Patrick’s Festival at the Roundhouse’. In 2014, the
Community Interest Company ‘Irish Music and Dance in London’ (IMDL) was founded to
formalise the team’s desire to present more across London throughout the year.

In 2008 the organisation’s youth project ‘The Trad Gathering’ was founded. This first incarnation of
this now annual project, drew 60 of the best players between the ages of 12 and 25 from schools of
music across London and further afield. The group regularly enjoy high profile performance
opportunities. In 2011 the Festival team commissioned Leitrim composer, Charlie Lennon to write a
suite of music for ‘The Trad Gathering’ – entitled ‘Recollections of Camden Town’. In more recent
years, project leaders Karen Ryan and Pete Quinn have focused on rehearsing and performing music
from the repertoire of a high profile musician from the London Irish music scene to give the young
musicians a strong sense of their musical heritage. The group have performed music from the
repertoires of Leitrim’s Bryan Rooney, Clare’s McCarthy Family and Sligo’s Roger Sherlock in the last
3 years.

In 2018, alongside Dublin accordion player, Paula Hanley, Karen formed ‘Fair Plé Ladies of London’
(recently renamed ‘In Good Company’), a performance group of London based, female musicians
and singers, raising the profile of Ireland’s ‘Fair Plé’ campaign to promote gender equality in
traditional Irish and folk music. Each set of rehearsals and performance draws a representation from
80 women who are committed to the project.

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