Every Tuesday night a lively and ever-evolving group of musicians gather at Brisbane’s well known Irish pub Gilhooleys for a spontaneous Irish music singalong.

The easily recognisable guitars and fiddles share the improvisational stage with more traditional Celtic fare such as the Irish drum the bodhrán, a flute, tin whistles, concertina and banjo.

Local organiser of sorts of this ragtag group is Jack O’Leary, who is also part of Brisbane-based Irish band The Munsterbucks.

“For the Irish diaspora, holding onto a little bit of culture is important,” O’Leary says. “So, I suppose we treasure our memories. We try to hold onto ’em. And the people that came here wanted to bring a little part of Ireland.”

This weekly céilí is an unofficial tradition that extends to pubs all around Australia – O’Leary says no matter where he’s visiting he can usually find other likeminded souls for an Irish traditional music session.

“So that will tell you how far it’s travelled and how it’s ignited something in the spirit of people,” he says.

These strong ties between Celtic and Australian musical traditions are not limited to one musical genre. Only a couple of weeks earlier, Australian jazz legend Vince Jones cast his spell over the Brisbane Jazz Club, with the gathered throng entranced by his beguiling original tunes.

Over more than five decades of performing, Jones has carved out a unique place on the world stage with his own brand of Australian jazz. He sings songs of homemade rainbow cake, budgies and the importance of reading the labels on your food. All accompanied by sublime jazz melodies from his long-established band. But the origins of his love for jazz go back much further in time and over many a sea.

“My dad was a jazzer, my mum’s a jazzer, we’re all jazzers in the family,” Jones says. “I was born in Scotland, in Paisley, just outside Glasgow. My dad was a brass band man. He was a conductor at times, but he also had a big band – the Scots are jazz mad. They loved all the great black musicians like Duke Ellington and Count Basie.”

And now after half a century of performing around the world, Jones realises his Scottish roots have morphed into a wonderful Australian-ness that his colleagues are often jealous of.

“The American guys, they would always say to me, ‘you have not just jazz, you’ve got soul music and folk – Celtic folk. There are all sorts of colours in your music’.

“Aaron Goldberg said to me, ‘we can’t do that in America. We have to just stick to one thing and work through that’. He found it refreshing that we have all these influences in our music. And that’s what you can do in Australia. There’s Celtic roots, there’s jazz and my love of soul music all sort of mixed together. It makes the music that we play.”

Not long after my Brisbane sojourn with Jones I spent a gloriously rare fine day in Glasgow wandering around the city’s renowned music venues with Fiona Shepherd, music journo and co-founder and lead guide on Glasgow Music City Tours. And even though Australia is about as far away from Scotland as you can get, she also clearly hears a rich vein of Celtic musical influence in our music.

“We gave you three of your greatest rock stars, more actually,” Shepherd says. “Jimmy Barnes has a Glasgow connection, but I’m also thinking of Bon Scott and Angus Young and Malcolm Young from AC/DC. Angus and Malcolm Young were born in Glasgow and their family immigrated to Australia as 10-pound Poms.

“When they came back to Glasgow in 1976 on the Lock Up Your Daughters tour, that was them returning to the city of their birth for the first time.”

And Glaswegians are coming to Australia to not only pass on their Celtic musical traditions, but also to learn and take those influences home.

Graham Mackenzie’s fiddle sits in-between us, never far from his thoughts, as we chat in his Glasgow sitting room about the recent Australian tour of his award-winning folk-trad band Assynt, which included performances and workshops at the Woodford Folk Festival.

“It was a fantastic trip although it was a bit of a shock putting on a pair of shorts in December,” Mackenzie says. “That is not the norm for somebody from Scotland.”

He was relieved to find their workshops in Australia filled with young people embracing their fiddles and traditional Celtic instruments.

“It’s very popular among the younger generation, and it has been over the past 20 years, even though it used to not be a very cool thing to do,” he says. “Now it’s a very cool thing to be able to just take your instrument to a pub or something like that and join in with young folk.”

The cross-pollination between Australian music and Celtic and Gaelic influences is something Irish performer Ciarán Olohan has noticed too on his travels Down Under from his County Wicklow home, with his World of Musicals in Concert.

His show is so popular that he’s just finished a fourth Australian tour, almost completing a lap of the country in the process.

“Think of a song like The Wild Rover about an Irish immigrant going over to Australia in the Gold Rush and being one of the only Irish people to come back with actual money in his pocket,” Olohan says, then singing a line, “Now I’m returning with gold in great store, I never will play the Wild Rover no more.

“I even think of (Scottish born) Eric Bogle over here who wrote the vast back catalogue of wonderful songs that came over to Ireland. And just as ANZAC Day was coming up, myself and my brother did something a little different and performed The Band Played Waltzing Matilda in the show. We’ve always loved the story, the history, and it’s something that I really do feel links Irish music and Australian music, Irish songs and Australian songs, and it’s magical.

“Looking at legends like Slim Dusty over here with his music, his stories, his songs, you can see a little bit of Irish storytelling coming in there, but in a very Australian way.”

Returning back over the seas, another ancient cultural tradition also shows how close Australian and Irish traditions are beyond the musical sphere. Tim Hanafin has lived in County Kerry all of his 85 years, in a tiny village called Inch, remembered by many as the location where the Oscar-winning movie Ryan’s Daughter was filmed.

Hanafin is known throughout the Dingle Peninsula as the man who recites poetry from a deep well of decades of learning, with a poem appropriate to every event, whether it be a wedding, funeral or spontaneous celebration.

“Of course, we have an affinity with Australia,” Hanafin says. “Because in the old days of British rule, if you committed any crime you were sent to Van Diemen’s Land. Small petty grievances. They were sent out because under English rule, that’s what they did.”

He recites a poem from John O’Brien – the pen name of Australian Roman Catholic Priest Patrick Joseph Hartigan, whose verses captured the distinctive way of life of the Outback pastoral folk he ministered to in southern New South Wales at the beginning of the 20th century.

“I have a book of poems written by John O’Brien,” Hanafin says. “He was known as the Poet Laureate of the Irish in Australia at the beginning of the 20th century. I do recitals of that. It’s lovely stuff.”

The poem he recites to me is Calling to Me:

“Through the hush of my heart in the spell of its dreaming / Comes the song of a bush boy glad-hearted and free / Oh, the gullies are green where the sunlight is streaming, / And the voice of that youngster is calling to me. / It is calling to me with a haunting insistence, / And my feet wander off on a hoof-beaten track, / Till I hear the old magpies away in the distance / With a song of the morning that’s calling me back …”

It may seem strange to some that poetry so distinctively Australian is so beloved in Ireland. But it is another example of the deep cultural exchange between us.

Listen to Nance Haxton’s podcast featuring an interview with Vince Jones: https://shorturl.at/gw8Gl

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