Irish flutist in demand around St. Patrick's Day

Irish flutist Laura Byrne and her compatriots in the Irish music scene consider their passion a yearlong experience, but they also recognize that there's much more of a demand for Irish songs in mid-March.

"We were at Liam Flynn's last (Wednesday) and somebody asked for 'Danny Boy,'" Byrne said. "There's a certain type of music we don't play the rest of the year that we play for St. Patrick's Day."

On Sunday, March 10, Byrne's marathon gig at James Joyce Pub's post-parade party was the beginning of a stretch of nine shows in nine days.

But for Byrne, a Hamilton resident and Lutherville-based Realtor who offers private lessons in Towson, it's not the popular mid-March gigs that drew her to the Irish flute. Instead, she was drawn to the community of performers who join her on stage.

"That was the thing that drew me to it in the first place, that people were doing it for fun," she said. "They weren't getting paid, it's a social setting, so we have sessions around town. There's one at Ryan's Daughter, and one at Liam Flynn's on North Avenue, just places where people can come and play their instruments for fun and enjoy it."

Sean McCommiskey, who plays button accordion in The Old Bay Ceili Band with Byrne, described the Baltimore-Washington, D.C., scene as "a smaller group, but we've really kind of made a big name for ourselves."

McCommiskey said the Baltimore sound differs from other areas in that they play with relaxed tempos and phrasing where others do not, something a classically trained musician like Byrne could easily pick up on.

A classically trained flutist who grew up in Vermont and got into her first choice for music school — the Peabody Conservatory at Johns Hopkins — Byrne got her start in Irish music shortly after graduation.

A Long & Foster Realtor called a Peabody Institute gig referral list which included Byrne, and asked for a flutist to play Irish music at an office Christmas party.

Until that point, Byrne had only played classical music, but the booker was insistent she could play the Irish tunes on her silver flute.

"So I went there, like a dork," she said. "I'm sure [the performance] was horrible."

But the drummer on that gig offered to take her to Irish music sessions in Washington, D.C., and around Baltimore, and shortly thereafter, Byrne swapped her silver flute for an Irish one.

"I threw away the music and learned everything by ear," Byrne said.

Since then, the 50 weeks that she's not performing for the St. Patrick's Day crowd her performances all over the world have gained her acclaim. She's performed on cruise ships, on national tours and recorded a pair of albums — 2005's "Tune for the Road" and 2010's "Lucky Day."

But of all the aspects of her Irish music, one of Byrne's favorite is sharing it with others. She enjoys teaching, and has found that middle- and high-school students who take Irish music lessons become better musicians for it.

"It does kind of help their playing to play by ear on something, then they go back and develop better musicality," she said.

She hopes to bring her work to more in the Towson area next month during the second annual Baltimore Irish Arts Center Trad Festival, which she organizes as a way for musicians from both Ireland and America to join together to celebrate Irish music and culture.

"She's a great player, but she also has a knack for organizing festivals" McCommiskey said. "For a long time, there wasn't a good traditional music festival."

The three-day festival, which begins Friday, April 26, features lessons and workshops for performers of all levels on Saturday, April 27, from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m. at First and St. Stephen's United Church of Christ, located at 6915 York Road in Towson.

For more information on the Baltimore Irish Arts Center Trad Festival, visit For more information on Laura Byrne, visit

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