From spontaneous sessions in lamp-lit pubs, to megalithic concert halls filled with tens of thousands of people, Ireland has something for every music lover to enjoy. If you’ve ever wondered where the best places to experience Ireland’s rich musical culture might be, take a glance at our list of top 12 picks. We realize there are hundreds (thousands?) of venues to explore throughout Ireland, so if there is a favorite of yours that we missed, please let us know in the comments!
Located on Wexford Street in the heart of Dublin, Whelan’s is one of Ireland’s most treasured pubs and live music venues. The establishment first opened its doors in 1772 and has changed hands (and names) many times throughout history, but it has remained a cornerstone in the development of Dublin as an international capital of modern music, although it regularly features traditional Irish musicians as well.
Whelan’s convivial atmosphere is world famous, drawing tourists and music icons alike from around the globe. Performances are held nightly and include many Irish artists as well as international performers. Jeff Buckley, Arctic Monkeys, Ed Sheeran, Owl City, Bloc Party, and dozens of other well-known bands have graced Whelan’s stage in recent decades, further solidifying it as an important musical institution for Ireland and the world. If you’re in Dublin and Whelan’s isn’t on your bucket list, you’re doing Dublin all wrong!
Dublin, Co. Dublin
Those more interested in experiencing Dublin’s traditional Irish music scene should head to The Cobblestone in Smithfield, one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods. For five generations the Mulligan family has owned and operated The Cobblestone and lead traditional Irish music seisiúns inside the establishment seven days a week. The current owner, Tom Mulligan, would like you to know The Cobblestone is not really a concert venue (but that doesn’t stop crowds from gathering and occasionally breaking into dance). Instead, The Cobblestone is meant to be a place that is dedicated to keeping the heritage of traditional Irish music alive. It is a hub for Irish musicians and singers looking to hand on their songs, tunes, and skills to others who share their passion. The pub hosts Na Piobairí Uilleann (The Uilleann Pipers) on the first Tuesday of every month, and Tom’s daughter Síomha and Jacqui Martin, teach Irish music every Wednesday. Of course, you are just as welcome at The Cobblestone if you’re only interested in throwing back a few pints.
Galway, Co. Galway
Pub crawlers and music lovers exploring Galway will inevitably encounter Tig Cóilí, located in the heart of the city off Shop Street. The walls of this family-owned pub are covered with pictures of artists who have played there throughout the decades. Known for impromptu music sessions (14 per week, year round), Tig Cóilí is all about spreading that craic, perpetuated by Irish artists including Ronan O’Flaherty, Don Stiff, Mairtin O’Connor, Frankie Gavin, and Sharon Shannon. The pub doesn’t feature any sound amplification equipment, relying solely on the talent and beauty of the musicians and their instruments who find themselves there throughout the day and into the evening. Tig Cóilí has become enormously popular among tourists over the past decade, as it promises one of Ireland’s most authentic and welcoming pub experiences throughout the country.
Limerick, Co. Limerick
Since opening its doors in 1994, Dolan’s, located at 3 Dock Road, Limerick, has grown from a traditional Irish pub to an all-encompassing music hall with three live music venues (The Warehouse, Upstairs at Dolan’s, and The Hasbah Social Club). Dolan’s caters to music groups of all genres and backgrounds, and hosts a wide variety of shows seven nights a week. Whether you’re into rock, electronic, indie, country, or traditional Irish music, Dolan’s has something for everybody. In 2014 and 2015, Dolan’s was named “Live Music Venue of the Year” by the Irish Music Rights Organization, awarded for the quality of its shows and welcoming atmosphere. Local budding artists are welcome to perform in it’s Upstairs At Dolan’s space, and The Warehouse has gained international recognition as a leading venue for artists from across the globe. Groups such as Snow Patrol, Mumford and Sons, The Darkness, and Hozier have all called Dolan’s home at one point.
Dublin, Co. Dublin
This massive amphitheater located at the North Wall Quay in the Dublin Docklands is one of the top ten busiest music arenas in the world, and has a seating capacity of 23,000 people. Mariah Carey, Dido, John Mayer, U2, Guns N’ Roses, Elton John and other world famous groups perform here. The 3Arena also hosts shows by the WWE, Marvel Universe Live, and other world class stage productions.
The history of 3Arena begins in 1878, when a railway station was built on the site and became known as “The Point Store. After decades of neglect and disuse, it was purchased in the 1980s by entertainment company Live Nation (then called Apollo Leisure) and was converted into a concert venue and renamed The Point in 1988. U2 recorded the second track of their album Rattle and Hum, “Van Diemen’s Land” here just before renovation was completed, and Melissa Etheridge and Huey Lewis and the News became the first groups to play after its reopening. The space was renamed O2 in 2008, and was once again renamed 3Arena in 2014.
CONNOLLY’S OF LEAP
Leap, Co. Cork
Nearly 5,000 music posters cover the walls of this 450 year old building, located in the village of Leap in County Cork. The current owner, Sam McNicholl, is a third generation owner of the establishment. This grandparents, Sarah and Mick, started The Central Bar in the same space in 1958 and nurtured it into one of the county’s most beloved pubs, and made sure live music was a part of what made the place special. The venue closed in 2010 due and re-opened in 2015. Since then, Connolly’s of Leap has been fully outfitted with a new stage, dance floor, bar, and sound equipment, and has featured hundreds of local Irish bands who view performing at Connolly’s as something of a rite of passage. The venue is now fully entrenched in the Irish music scene, and visitors looking for an authentic independent Irish music experience should consider making the journey to experience this unique and historical venue.
THE BRAZEN HEAD
Dublin, Co. Dublin
Ever wonder where Ireland’s oldest pub is? We’ll tell you! It’s at 20 Bridge St, Dublin, and is referred to as The Brazen Head. Officially established in 1198, this medival-looking fortress’s first Irish pub didn’t settle in until the 1750s. Prior to that, it was just a hostelry, but it’s claim to fame still draws thousands of tourists a year who want to experience one of Ireland’s oldest drinking establishments, and relive a few moments from its history. This iconic temple of traditional Irish music hosted the planning session for The Rising of 1798, and sheltered the revolutionary outlaw Michael Collins in 1916. During the Civil War of 1922, Free State troops fought against loyalists in the building’s shadow. Towering literary figures such as Brendan Behan and James Joyce frequented The Brazen Head often, and the pub is mentioned in Ulysses as a regular spot for the characters Stephen Dedalus and Bloom.
Dublin, Co. Dublin
Since 1855, this little corner of Dublin has been a home to Irish musicians and artists, and today hosts international sensations from around the globe. The Olympia Theatre began life as a saloon and music hall known as Connell’s Monster Saloon, but was renamed Dan Lorey’s Star of Erin Music Hall in 1879, and finally received its present day moniker in 1923. Lowrey had operated a number of successful music venues around the UK in the mid 1800s, but noticed Dublin lacked a theatre of similar calibre. His efforts helped lay the foundation for Dublin’s future prominence as the musical hub of Ireland for the next two-hundred years. Although this humble little theater only sits 1200 people, it has remained a pillar to Ireland’s budding musical history and has become an important stop to many international performers who are touring Ireland. From Adele to Charlie Chaplin, David Bowie, and R.E.M, the Olympia has served as a launch pad for Irish and European artists, and has given Dubliners a chance to experience a wide variety of world-class artists from beyond their shores.
THE CRANE BAR
Galway, Co. Galway
This well-known traditional Irish pub hosts nightly céilíthes on both stories, and welcomes anyone looking for new friends, pints, dancing, or some combination of the three. The Crane Bar is located on the west end of Galway on Sea Road and has been serving up drinks since the 1800s. It’s a popular spot for locals and tourists, and it often fills up fast with room for only about 70 people. This lamp-lit, intimate setting is truly an authentic Irish pub experience. The music starts at 9:30 every night, and although The Crane Bar is known mostly as a traditional pub, it has started hosting a variety of blues, country, and roots artists as well. Amateur artists are usually found on the bottom floor, dropping in for a spontaneous session around one of the many tables and booths. Upstairs features an open floor plan with seating around the walls, making room for those looking to add a little more movement to their revelry.
THE GRAND OPERA HOUSE
Belfast, Co. Antrim
The Grand Opera House, located at 2-4 Great Victoria St. in Belfast, is a stage theatre designed by one of Europe’s most famous theatre architects, Frank Matcham. Built in 1895, the Grand Opera House is one of the best surviving examples of oriental style architecture that was popular throughout the United Kingdom in the 18th and 19th centuries. In its early days, the opera house was the best place to catch a burlesque act, musical comedy, or classical opera performances. It also became famous for regular performances of works by Shakespeare. In 1933, Gracie Fields performed for a sold-out audience, and U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower attended a gala there to commemorate the end of World War II. During the 1970s as The Troubles gained momentum, business slowed dramatically and there plans to demolish the building to make room for an office block. These plans were thwarted however when the Arts Council of Northern Ireland purchased the building in 1974. It was damaged several times during the political conflict however, and sustained damage from bomb blasts in 1991 and 1993. Today, the Grand Opera House is one of North Ireland’s most prolific venues for musical theatre.
Slane, Co. Meath
If you’re looking for a musical event as epic as any traditional session but are more of the pop/rock persuasion, look no further than Slane Concert. Slane, as it’s colloquially known, is held almost annually at Slane Castle in County Meath. Since 1981, Slane Concert has drawn millions of people to the idyllic outdoor amphitheater located just outside the castle to hear the likes of Bob Dylan, David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen and dozens of other superstar groups. Metallica is set to perform at this year’s event, which will take place June 8. Slane Castle is the ancestral home of Henry Mountcharles, (or Henry Vivien Pierpont Conyngham, 8th Marquess Conyngham if we’re being official), a rock enthusiast/aristocrat who enjoys somewhat of a celebrity status in Ireland due to his weekly column in the Irish Daily Mirror, his love of rock music, and his hereditary peerages. The castle has been the family seat of power since it was built in the late 18th century.
FLEADH CHEOIL NA hÉIREANN
To be clear, Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann isn’t really a venue. It is actually Ireland’s largest traditional music competition and festival held annually since 1951. The event takes place in different cities each year (Drogheda will host it August 11-18 this year), and is run by the Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann who are responsible for preserving and promoting traditional Irish music. Although formed as a formal competition welcoming musicians from around the world, the event has evolved to include numerous concerts, céilíthe, seisiúns, and parades. We have included Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann in our list because of its significance in preserving traditional Irish music (and thusly, a major part of Irish culture). The tradition of Irish music has been threatened numerous times throughout its history, due to a variety of reasons, including competing musical tastes, emigration, and low morale for the fledgling Irish national identity. Recording technology in the mid-20th century helped revive interest in traditional Irish music, and the Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann was started to help spur that interest farther along. Today, nearly a half-million people are drawn to Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann to experience Irish music.