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More than green beer

BY EMMA MCCLATCHEY | MARCH 13, 2014 5:00 AM

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St. Patrick's Day for an average Iowa City resident may include guzzling green beer at Micky's Irish Pub, 11 S. Dubuque St., wearing a "Kiss Me, I'm Iowish" T-shirt from Raygun, or a green felt leprechaun hat from Ragstock, and receiving chronic brain freeze at the hands of a McDonald's Shamrock Shake.

But there is a slightly more authentic way to celebrate the Irish "feast holiday" for those sticking around Iowa City during spring break. Members of local Irish band the Beggarmen said Irish folk music has an audience in Iowa City — especially on March 17.

"I actually have a lot of problems with how St. Patrick's Day is portrayed. It's really become an American holiday," said Tara McGovern, a vocalist and fiddler for the Beggarmen. "For us, St. Patrick's Day is about celebrating an incredibly rich culture and an incredibly beautiful place that's close to my heart."

The 13-year-old Beggarmen will play at 2 Dogs Pub, 1705 S. First Ave., at 8 p.m. Friday and open for high-profile Irish band Dervish at the Englert, 221 E. Washington St., on Saturday. The group will also join other local Irish musicians at Uptown Bill's, 730 S. Dubuque St., on March 17 for the event "Ireland to Iowa; A Living Tradition." The latter will begin with a potluck at 6 p.m., and kick off performances of traditional and original Irish tunes at 7 p.m.

"I think it's very communal music," said Beggarmen guitarist, tin whistler, pianist, and vocalist Keith Reins. "I like to think of ourselves as an eclectic traditional Irish band. We pay respect to tradition, but add to it."

Today, Irish music takes many forms: Dropkick Murphy's "I'm Shipping Up to Boston" blaring over the student section at an Iowa football game, Jack and Rose spinning to the foot-stomping Irish band in Titanic, the ubiquitous ballad "Danny Boy" and thigh-slapper "The Little Beggarman" (the eponym for the Beggarmen), and in American genres such as bluegrass and country, influenced by Irish folk tunes.

"Irish music is very emotive," McGovern said. "It inspires a lot of different feelings and stories, so even if people are unfamiliar with the kind of music they discover something they never knew before … It's a music that has a lot going on; even in really sad songs there will be an uplifting element to it."

This pipes- and strings-heavy music has thrived for hundreds of years in the hills and shores of Ireland, but today, Irish music has spread beyond the Emerald Island.

"It's dance music, primarily," said founding member Brad Pouleson. "There are ballads that tell the story of Ireland, but the dance music has a beat people really respond to that gets your feet moving. It's instantly recognizable."

Pouleson, who plays both traditional Irish instruments (uilleann pipes) and newer additions to the folk canon (mandolin), said the players feel free to add their own spice to Irish sound. Joseph Dutcher — bodhrán and flute — said some modern Celtic bands are even taking Irish music into the punk-rock territory.

"Every folk music is [adaptive]," Pouleson said. "Irish music grows out of that tradition. There are always people who want to carve out a certain time period, but that's a losing battle. It's definitely a living, breathing genre."

The Beggarmen members agree that Iowa City's Irish music scene is most alive at Uptown Bill's, which hosts a monthly Irish music session on Saturday afternoons. Uptown Bill's director Tom Gilsenan said the program is reminiscent of community jam sessions often held at pubs in Ireland.

For the "Ireland to Iowa" event on March 17, Gilsenan encourages visitors to bring their favorite Irish foods to the potluck, including potatoes, pork, cabbage, or other comfort foods. And as an avid fan of Irish music, Gilsenan sided with the Beggarmen: St. Patrick's Day is about more than a pint of Guinness.

"It's perfectly fine for people to go to a pub or a bar … but it's bigger than that," he said. "It's a day when we can all be Irish."


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