A nod of the head and a wry smile and they're off, fiddles hopping, feet stomping and the gravelly voices belting out the tunes. Music seems to run in the blood of the Irish and once you set foot in the Old Sod, it seems you're never more than a stone's throw from a session.

For all but the most ardent disciples, it's the lively atmosphere that matters as much as the music – the friendly banter, wild stories and back-slapping good cheer of a pub session are like nothing else on the planet.

Musicians gather for a session in O'Donoghues, Dublin © Tim Clayton / Corbis via Getty Image
Musicians gather for a session in O'Donoghues, Dublin © Tim Clayton / Corbis via Getty Image

Here are our some of our favourites for the best craic agus ceol (fun and music) in the country.

Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann, changing venues

Held in late August, the Fleadh is the mother of all Irish music festivals and attracts about 250,000 people over eight fun-filled days. You'll have to qualify to enter the music, singing, dancing and even whistling, competitions but really they're only part of the story. It's the impromptu evening sessions, rowdy sing-a-longs, concerts and céilís (traditional dances) that really draw the crowds.

Hughes, Dublin

You'll find trad music session in pubs all over Dublin, from the manufactured craic in Temple Bar to the folksy tunes in ever-popular O'Donoghues, but if you want to see some serious musicians head for Hughes. Expect a decent pint, excellent sessions, set-dancing and shaggy-bearded locals with misty eyes.

The Cobblestone, Dublin

Call into this cosy Smithfield institution and pull up a chair beside some of Ireland’s best players. The Cobblestone has been in the Mulligan family for five generations, and they take their music very seriously, hosting a session seven nights a week. The first Tuesday of every month sees the venue running Na Piobairí Uilleann (pipers session), while the back venue regularly hosts gigs, sessions, classes and talks.

The Crane Bar, Galway

The music at the brightly-coloured Crane is just as it should be: no egos, no pretension, just addictive, toe-tapping rhythms and a heartfelt love of the craft. Few pubs have space to dance but the atmospheric old Crane is an exception and is the best place in Galway to catch a céilí in full swing.

Murray’s Bar, Inishbofin Island

Just off the coast of County Galway lies Inishbofin, a tranquil island that measures just under 6km long by 4km wide. Spend the day walking its beautiful, unspoilt beaches before calling into Murray’s Bar in Doonmore Hotel for a music session led by local and visiting singers and musicians. Warm yourself by the turf fire and try their fresh seafood and home-cooked specialities!

Willie Clancy Summer School, Co Clare

Some of the best musicians in the world gather in Miltown Malbay for Ireland's largest traditional music school. Along with the expert workshops at this eight-day event are lectures, recitals, céilís and exhibitions. Day and night the pubs are jammed and music comes from every direction as informal sessions pop up in the town's bars and spill out onto the streets and into people's homes.

DeBarras in Clonakilty Cork
The cosy nooks of DeBarras © James Gabriel Martin

De Barra's Folk Club, Clonakilty

Flutes, fiddles, bodhráns, pipes and mandolins cover the walls at this temple of traditional music in Co. Cork. De Barra's with its vibrant but easy-going attitude offers intimate gigs in the sitting room (really), a purpose-built auditorium and a long list of big-name regulars.

McDermotts Pub, Doolin

Tucked away in the wilds of west Clare is a small town with three great music pubs. Lots of musicians live in this uniquely rocky area and McDermotts is the locals' favourite. If it's standing room only, head for nearby McGann's or O'Connor’s, though there's no guarantee of a seat there either.

An Spailpín Fánach, Cork

Sitting just across the road from the Beamish brewery, you're guaranteed a decent pint at the old-world Spailpín Fánach. Much loved for its laid-back sessions, open fires and snug corners, it's the place to quietly nurse a drink, join the craic or just nod in the corner and let the melody waft over you.

The Corner House, Cork

A truly traditional family run pub in the heart of Cork City, The Corner House always offers up great music. Most Mondays include sets from the Lee Valley String Band, while Wednesday night trad sessions led by The Four Star Trio have garnered a cult following. Sessions also take place on Thursday evenings, and the first Friday of every month.

Joe Watty's Bar, Kilronan

Take a trip to Joe Watty's Bar on Inis Mór, the largest of the Aran Islands, and you're almost guaranteed a jig. This is one of the island's oldest and most traditional pubs, with trad sessions every night in summer and a mellow atmosphere that's lets the tourists shake a leg.  Purists might object to the come-al-ye attitude but there's no arguing with the music.

Leos Tavern, Crolly, Donegal

The enigmatic, undulating rhythms of Enya and Clannad wooed the world in the 1980s and Leo's Tavern is where their sound was born. Set between the Atlantic Ocean and the rugged peak of Mount Errigal, it's a place for legendary sessions and glitters with the gold and platinum discs of Leo's famous children.

The Marine Bar in Dungarvan, County Waterford © The Marine Bar
The Marine Bar in Dungarvan, County Waterford © The Marine Bar

The Marine Bar, Dungarvan

This family-run Waterford establishment is renowned far and wide for having one of the best Irish Music Sessions. Led by owner and musician Christy O’Neill, the Marine Bar hosts live traditional and folk music every Saturday and Monday night, while every Friday sees The Fireside Sessions taking place, an intimate evening of music, song and stories by the fire. Everyone is encouraged to join in if they want to, so if you play an instrument or can sing a song, stop by and don’t be shy.

Matt Malloy’s, Westport

Matt Malloy, the fife player from the Chieftains, runs this old-school pub where Mayo's musical heritage vividly comes to life. Head to the back room most nights and you'll probably catch lively trad session taking place. Veteran musicians have been known to stop by to croon a few classics. Out the back, you’ll find Matt Molloy’s Yard Bar, a venue in its own right, where many night-time gigs take place.

The Harbour Bar, Bray

As well as being one of the cosiest pubs in all of Ireland, The Harbour Bar always serves up something interesting, whether it’s a local live band in the main venue, a pint of delicious craft beer or a mouth-watering toasted sandwich. Unmissable trad sessions take place in the front bar every Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 9pm – 11pm and Sunday evenings from 4pm – 6pm.

Make it happen

For more information on traditional Irish music and culture, festivals, events and gigs visit www.comhaltas.ie.

This article was originally published in March 2011 and was last updated in July 2019 by James Gabriel Martin.

Explore related stories