In the upstairs bar of Joe May’s pub on Harbour Road in Skerries, nine men and women grab seats and stools around the edge of the room. Some hold sheets of paper with lyrics, others clasp pints of ale and stout.

It was after four o’clock last Sunday.

On the ground floor, the chatter of the room, and the roar of a football crowd through the TV, was overwhelming. But overhead, the room was near silent, save for the whirring of a drinks refrigerator.

At a table with a glass of orange juice and an acoustic guitar was the singer and flautist Dónal Kearney from the folk trio TRÚ.

He is also the organiser of the Skerries Folk Club, a traditional singing circle, which convenes on the last Sunday of every month, and he politely greeted old and new faces.

One first timer, a elderly man with a bushy white beard, came in with his wife. He hadn’t participated in a singing circle for a long time, he said excitedly.

Decades ago even, he said. “I sang for Ronnie Drew around Christmas-time in Dún Laoghaire, in Cooney’s.”

Once a couple more people had filed in, settling on stools at the counter or tables huddled away in the back out of sight, Kearney said that he’d kick things off. “We’ll go around in threes.”

After he got two attendees to agree to sing next, Kearney launched one of his group’s own compositions, “Rebel Song”.

Based on a ballad penned by Dominic Behan called “The Patriots Game”, which was set to the melody of folksong “The Merry Month of May”, Kearney’s version showed how such tunes evolve over time.

The first verse hid a nod to Bob Dylan’s “With God On Our Side”, itself a reworking of the Clancy Brothers’ interpretation of the Behan song.

And delicately Kearney sang his own version a cappella, while the circle looked on in silent respect and, behind him, through the window, the boats in the harbour rocked about in the wind.

A gap in the circles

Kearney formed the Skerries Folk Club in March 2022 with his wife Sarah Dennedy and fiddle player Sarah May Rogers, he said on the Saturday before the August session.

“It was coming to the tail-end of Covid, and a lot of the folk sessions locally had quietened down,” he said.

Some singing sessions had migrated online to Zoom, he says. “One in the town of Ballyboughal, which is on the other side of the Naul, hadn’t started again.”

“So there was a bit of a gap,” he says.

Kearney and Dennedy were only recent arrivals, having moved to the coastal town in 2021, Dennedy says. “And going to town, to folk sessions in the likes of the Cobblestone, was always something we enjoyed to do.”

But, in the early aftermath of the national lockdowns, they began to suss out whether there was any interest in and around Skerries, she says.

“And ultimately, we just set up the kind of group that we wanted, informal, where you could come to sing or simply listen,” she says.

Connecting with stories

Once Kearney had finished singing “Rebel Song” in Joe May’s last Sunday, there was a pause.

An older man mentioned he had heard another variation on the song in Shepherd’s Bush in London the previous year.

The selection of songs varied. A silvery blonde woman in a black and white shirt gave a rendition of “My Bonny Light Horseman”, wiping away a tear as she reached its end, and as others softly joined in.

Over two hours, each song nudged another, inspiring a tune on a similar theme. Two of the men belted out different anti-war ballads composed during the First World War.

There aren’t themes chosen in advance, Kearney says. “But sometimes one idea triggers another.”

Kearney himself likes to use the sessions to test out songs from his group’s albums, which they may not yet have performed live or in a while.

“It’s like a pair of old boots,” he says. “You might need to break them in or get them comfy again because you hadn’t tried them on in ages.”

People like to come in with local songs, he says. “But you might also get a man from Cork singing a rebel song from down there, or we had some Ukranians in for one of our very first sessions, and they came along with their host family, and stood up to sing one of their own folk songs. That was really poignant.”

The range is broad, Dennedy says. “It’s always quite diverse, but you’d have someone who will bring in songs about events like the Sack of Balbriggan, and things like that.”

Dennedy says the folk circle has almost become her best way of learning about the local history. “Because we don’t really have a sense of the history of Skerries, it is a really powerful way to engage with the locality.”

Songs of the seas

At the August session, Kearney says the nine people who came along to sing were a large chunk of the core members. “It can vary really, sometimes we’ll have 25. We had 60 for our first anniversary.”

It has also been a space for people to perform who may never have sung before, he says. “Last month, one of the most consistent people to come, she came and sang her first song.”

Eithne O’Connell, one of the organisers of the Skerries Eco Festival, which runs between 1 and 3 September, said she had been attending singing sessions in Irish and English for years.

But she had never contributed a song herself, until the Skerries club convened in July, she says. “I’m 66 years old, and it was the first time I sang in public.”

O’Connell has roped Kearney, Dennedy and the group members into the line-up of the Eco Festival, with a singing circle based around “Songs of the Seas and Sirens”.

The festival’s theme is water, Kearney says. “So we just want to host a session where people can reconnect with the water in a different way, singing songs with a maritime or mythological theme, or songs about the selkies, songs that have connected people for millennia with the sea.”

Michael Lanigan is a freelance journalist who covers arts and culture for Dublin Inquirer. His work also appears in Vice, Totally Dublin, and the Business Post. You can reach him at

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