In Old City, Irish music and memory

The Plough & the Stars, a restaurant and pub in Old City, hosts public Irish music performances to celebrate the heritage of Philadelphia’s musicians and music-lovers.

Musicians gather around a pair of tables at The Plough & the Stars to perform Irish music. The restaurant hosts Irish music performances every Sunday night from 5-9 p.m. | Don Otto TTN

The seven musicians didn’t have much elbow room around the small, short tables. An orange glow danced out from the fireplace, casting a shadow behind Uilleann pipe player John Donnelly. Traditional Irish songs echoed through the pub, reminding the musicians of their heritage.

The Plough & the Stars, a restaurant on 123 Chestnut St. in Old City, hosts traditional Irish music sessions Sunday nights.

As natives from the country immigrated to the United States, so did the music, said 1998 exercise physiology alumnus John McGillian, a returning performer at the Plough.

Ireland native Marion Ryder and husband Jerome Donovan opened the traditional pub in 1997. Ryder celebrates her Irish heritage at the restaurant, incorporating options into the menu like Guinness casserole. In past years, she celebrated Bloomsday, a holiday in June honoring Irish writer James Joyce.

Several of Ryder’s employees are also from Ireland—some permanent residents, others studying abroad in university programs.

Ryder grew up in Dublin and played the accordion as an adolescent. To open an Irish restaurant, the co-owner knew there needed to be a music element.

“We’ve had live musicians since the beginning,” Ryder said.

Several of the musicians from the pub’s Nov. 1 performance were exposed to the works of traditional Irish tunes at a young age.

“I am the last of six kids who grew up playing accordions, whistles and banjos,” McGillian said. “I had no choice.”

McGillian was one of three accordion players for the evening’s session. With parents from counties Tyrone and Donegal, music was played every night for years in his household, he said.

South Philly resident Warren Burke has only been playing Irish music on his guitar for a few years. Burke, whose parents are from Ireland, was a fan of rock music, but fell in love with the sound after hearing an Irish song during a session.

“I can’t even remember the rock ‘n’ roll songs I used to play,” Burke said. “Out of all the kids in my family, they say I am the only real Irish one.”

Most Irish tunes are played in sets of three. McGillian and the other musicians played a set of reels, a type of Irish dance music, titled “The Silver Spear,” “Cooley’s” and “The Maid Behind the Bar.”

John O’Malley, an alumnus and former adjunct professor, said he finds Irish music’s tempo as a healthy medium in comparison to other genres.

“The blues pull it back and old-time music pushes it forward,” O’Malley said. “Irish music’s tempo is right in the center.”

The Plough is one of few places that holds Irish music sessions in Philadelphia. The average size of a session is usually around seven, Donnelly said, but there are 40 different musicians who attend the sessions at the Plough.

O’Malley said these events are not “jam sessions” because the tunes are memorized.

“You absorb the tunes,” McGillian said. “If you came here every Sunday to drink beers and you didn’t even like Irish music, by your fourth Sunday, you’d be tapping your foot and whistling to one of the tunes.”

O’Malley said Ryder once told him the sessions will be at the Plough as long as the restaurant is open.

“A lot of people are maybe second or third generation and feel a connection here,” Ryder said. “They have a little piece of Ireland and that is what we really wanted to bring here.”

Emily Scott can be reached at

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.