Ryan Thomson's List of Common Irish Session Tunes
Learn some of these if you want to play along at sessions!
There are several thousand different Irish dance tunes either on recordings or in tune
books. Out of these there is a smaller collection of what traditional musicans call "session
tunes." There are probably about 400 to 500 tunes in the general pool of commonly played
pieces. I travel widely and have attended hundreds of Irish sessions from California to
This is a list I've compiled from memory of what tunes seem to be played the most often in
my experience. I don't yet play all of them myself, because I'm learning as I go. Sometimes
I attend a session and get sidetracked, and decide to learn some new tune that I've never
heard before. Therefore, this is merely my personal list, not intended to be the be-all and
end-all authoritative source for session music.
This isn't a complete list since I haven't yet learned the names of many other regularly
played tunes. I've purposely left out dance tunes that I like personally but that I don't
consider "common" session tunes. For example, I like playing "Flowers of Edinburgh" and
"Banish Misfortune," but I don't hear them often in Irish sessions where the standard format
is three different tunes, three times each, so they're not on this list.
I will keep updating this list as I go along however. Many people categorize O'Carolan's harp
tunes in a different class than "traditional Irish music," so I haven't put them on the list
either even though I play a number of them personally. Then there is the class of newly
composed tunes. Many experienced players compose new tunes and if others like them
enough, they may enter the general session repertoire. One of my own tunes - New
Hampshire Hornpipe, is beginning to be played widely in New England. I've even heard of
someone playing it in a local fiddle contest.
To be able to attend a serious session and play most of the time, one's repertoire needs to
be a bit over 200 tunes. However, if you are just getting started, I'm confident that you
could learn any 5 or 10 of these tunes listed below, and go to any regular weekly session in
the US or Ireland, and someone else there would know at least half of them to play along
with you. The more tunes you learn, the less you'Il have to sit out at a session and wait for
the regular musicians to play a tune that you know.
Violinists often ask me for sheet music that they can read along with at sessions.
Unfortunately this is not very practical for several reasons: A medley of 3 tunes is often
spontaneously selected by the person who starts a set. If that person has to preselect the
tunes and playing order to announce to the group, it takes away a bit from the fun and
continuity of the session.
Yes, a lot of the fun for experienced players is TO NOT KNOW what tune is coming up next!
There is often a noticeble quieting of the music when a set reaches the third time through
the first or second tune, and then everyone leans forward to hear what the next tune is
going to be - like unwrapping a present! Those that know it jump right in, and those that
don't listen carefully to it, and make a note to put that one on the "to learn list."
I have witnessed frustrated players trying to shuffle through written music at sessions, in
dimly lit pubs, desperately trying to locate a tune before the session leader finishes
playing it and gets on to the next tune in the set. Also, there is no one particular source
for written session tunes, rather, there are several different tunebook compilations which
cover about 90% of the common tunes. Each tunebook is likely to have a different version
of each tune. You can listen to alternate versions of most tunes on Youtube to get ideas
about creating your own personal version.
Session playing is a "style" of music. To participate fully, one need to memorize the music,
since this meets one definition of a "session." There's an old saying, "when in Rome, do as
the Romans do." This advice is true for other styles of music as well. To play classical
chamber music, for example, one must brush up on sight reading and technical violin
playing skills. You can't just show up at a chamber group expecting to play by ear!
The standard session format is three tunes of a similar type, each played 3 times: jigs,
reels, hornpipes, slip jigs, and slides. Some special tune types can be played by themselves
and not in a set: aires, waltzes, mazurka, O'Carolan tunes, set pieces like "The Blackbird,"
and "barn dances."
Its important to keep in mind that most of these tunes have alternate names, though I've
tried to pick the name that is used most often in my experience. Also remember that the
traditional repertoire doesn't remain constant, but gradually changes as new tunes are
composed and older obscure tunes are rediscovered and released on recordings by popular
groups. Sometimes tunes also seem to get "worn out," from being played too much, and
lose favor at sessions.
I've started adding the "key" of the piece after the name, but I'm not finished yet. Note
that I haven't labeled any tunes as to whether they are jigs, reels, or other tune type.
Session Tunes in Alphabetical Order:
Another Jig will do
Bank of Ireland
Behind the Haystack ...D
Boys of Blue Hill....D
Boys of Wexford
Chief O'Neils Favorite.....D
Clifs of Moher.....Am
Crabs in the Skillet
Cup of Tea...Em
Dennis Murphy's Slide
Dust on the Windowsill......Am
Far from Home......G
Faral O' Gara
Farewell to Ireland
Father Kelly's Foggy Dew......Em
Hardiman the Fiddler
Haste to the Wedding......D
Home Rule/Hangman's Noose.......D
Humours of Tulla
Hunting the Hare
Jig of Slurs
Kid on the Mountain.......Em
Kilarney Boys of Pleasure
King of the Fairies
Lark in the Morning.....D
Love at the Endings......D
Maid Behind the Bar......D
Martin Wynnes 1 &2
Mug of Brown Ale
My Darling Asleep........D
Nine Points of Roguery
Off to California.......D
Out on the Ocean...D
Paddy on the Turnpike
Plains of Boyle
Rights of Man.......Em
Road to Lisdoonvarna.......Em
Rocky Road to Dublin.......D
Rolling in the Ryegrass........D
Rose in the Heather
Saint Annes's reel........D
Sally Gardens reel.......G
Sean Ryan's jig(the Banshee)
Ships are sailing........Em
Star of Munster......Am
Swinging on a Gate.........G
Ten Penny Bit
Top of Cork Road(Father Kelly's)
Toss the Feathers
Tripping up the Stairs......D
Walker Street reel.......G
Wind that Shakes the Barley.......D
This article by Ryan J Thomson 2001, revised 2016