The Tricolor Trio: Bringing Irish Seisún Music to New York City

Lenny reaches behind the bar. He’s got sandy blonde hair tied back in a ponytail; he looks more like a surfer than someone slinging Guinness at an Irish pub on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

“They should be here in a few minutes,” he says. “They’re usually late getting set up anyhow.”

Right to left: Ryan, Reufli, and Gogarty

The scene is Doc Watson’s Irish Pub on the Upper East Side, and it’s around 9 p.m. on a Sunday evening. As is traditional in Ireland, Sunday night is seisún night. Translated from the Irish language “session”, it’s a way that Irish people unwind from the weekend with music, stories, and camaraderie.

The band in question tonight is a three-piece ensemble called Over the Head. They’ve been playing together every Sunday evening at Doc Watson’s for the better part of three years. Each member of the group is an Irish ex-pat, bringing the words and music that form a large part of the history of Ireland. Allen Gogarty, the lead singer and guitarist of the group, was the last member to find his way to the band.

“I grew up playing the stuff, but one night a friend of mine needed a guitarist to fill in. I did it as a favor,” he says, taking small sips of his black Guinness stout in between answers.

Gogarty’s pint, with the national instrument of Ireland, the harp. Ireland is the only nation in the world with a musical instrument as the national symbol.

Things fell into place quite quickly for the group. Banjo player Donie Ryan and tin whistler Peter Reufli took on Gogarty in 2012. According to Gogarty, the man behind the magic is Reufli.

“It’s Peter’s gig,” he says. “He just asked me if I fancied playing Sunday nights after a while.”

Reufli’s story at Doc Watson’s spans two decades.

“I came here way back in the day,” he says. “The staff wasn’t too keen on the band that was here at the time. They asked me to join, and honestly, I’m all that’s left from those days.”

Reufli’s choice of instrument is a critical component of the band. The tin whistle, the haunting tones of which is familiar in award winning films such as “Braveheart” and “The Wind that Shakes the Barley”.

“I just always sort of liked the sound of the whistle,” he says. “When I was young, I used to play it until I got dizzy and blue in the face. It took me years to get that timing down!” For someone who claims to play by ear, Reufli’s music elicits scenes of Gaelic fairy tales passed down from older to younger generations.

The group has been at Doc Watson’s every Sunday since 2012

Donie Ryan rounds out the group. He and Refuli have known one another for the better part of 15 years, meeting in Irish music circles that are in New York City. “It’s a small country, you find common connections pretty easily,” Ryan says of his experiences meeting fellow Irish in New York City. When asked about his influences in his musical taste, Ryan cites his family and his hometown of Tipperary, Ireland, as his main sources of inspiration.

“I learned from the local musicians back home. My uncle gave me a banjo when I was 10 and I suppose that was that.”

Gogarty, Ryan, and Reufli are all ex-pats of a nation that is bleeding citizens just as much as it is bleeding money. Irish unemployment is still quite high, and there’s a romanticized notion about Ireland that Irish-Americans can’t seem to shake. But the trio all seem to agree that they’re here for a reason.

The collapse of the Irish economy and the Euro have led to mass emigration from the Emerald Isle.

“We’ve got the same struggles as anyone else,” says Gogarty. “You just don’t hear about them here. There’s this thing that Americans, even Irish-bred ones have about us that just isn’t true.”

A look at the emigration rate from Ireland over a five-year span

Everyone has a story of how they got here, and Reufli’s is compelling.

“My brother was here in 1985, working at a car wash in Queens. I wasn’t sure where to find carpentry jobs, since that’s my trade. One day an Irish-owned carpentry business came to the car wash and asked if I needed a job. I was employed the following day,” he says.

There is a great deal of disparity between what the reality of Irish life is and the expectation of it from Irish-Americans. But for one night a week, that gap is bridged through a celebration of culture through song.

After finishing his set for the night, Gogarty reflects on the show.

“I love this moment every Sunday. It’s like I’m transported to a different place. I can see home,” he says.

“This is my escape.”