The sound is firmly acoustic, the band is whoever turns up. Traditional Irish sessions are pulling a new crowd. Anna Blundy joins the throng
"WHERE'S the band?" asked the man in corduroy trousers and brown leather jacket. He stumbled through the crowd at the Steeles, a pub in north London, on Sunday night, past thescrawled sign which reads "I don't mind being ignorant - if I knew my own mind I'd only be confused." He followed the sound of flutes wafting from the darkest corner. It was Irish music night and the group was in full swing.

Under a wooden cart and an undignified stag's head, nine musicians sat in a circle of flickering gloom playing songs which all had the word "maiden" in the title. Some of the players had never met before but they seemed to know the tune as soon as the shaven-headed, broken-nosed fiddler raised his bow.

Tom Cochrane, an English art director who plays the mandolin, set up this regular Sunday session with the pub's manager, Kirk McGrath, to satisfy the growing demand for Irish folk music which, it seems, has reached fever pitch in north London. At the All Ireland Championships of Irish Music in County Kerry this year, at least two awards were won by groups from north London.

"There's definitely a revival," says Cochrane, a music school drop-out who started playing years ago after a holiday to the Emerald Isle. "There are sessions starting up everywhere, you just have to know where to find them." Recently he dropped into the Oyster Inn in Butley, Suffolk, to discover that they had been running a traditional folk night for over 90 years.

Some pubs like the Irish Centre in Liverpool have had Irish music evenings sincethey opened, yet even at these the clientele is getting younger and hipper, and other pubs and clubs around the country are catching on. In Durham, the former Castle Hotel in Claypath has become Durty Nelly's, the second of the city's Irish-style pubs, complete with an all-Irish staff, live Irish music and food like Guinness pie and Peat Cutter's Lunch. The London listings magazine Time Out is packed full of traditional Irish music nights at pubs such as the Queens Arms in Islington, Filthy MacNastys and The Whiskey Cafe in Kings Cross, the Black Horse in Archway and the White Hart in Hammersmith. And now Irish music has received the final accolade of up-to-the-minute modishness - its own page on the Internet.

Quite apart from the major Irish names like Van Morrison, the Waterboys and Sharon Shannon (a diminutive woman from County Clare hailed as Morrison's successor, who has played for Bill Clinton and Lech Walesa), Irish music now has a CD launched in its name to attract the hungry American market: Celtic Heartbeat.

Fans believe that the Irish insistence on keeping music live, even in night-clubs, is a relief to both British and American youth, bored with the synthesised booms of clubs.

"If you know how to find the pubs that aren't buggered up by being part of a big chain, you can find Irish music," says Cochrane, changing a string between songs.

The Steeles, he believes, is decidedly unbuggered. Sometimes, he says, there are as many as 15 musicians playing at one time, and the flute, banjo, fiddle, mandolin, bodhran (a drum like a big tambourine) and guitar players come from all over the country to participate. This evening Michael Moriarty, who has been playing for 35 years and has been a member of big- time folk bands like the Fureys and the Keenans, is on the flute. He believes that this is the best session in London - and he talks like a man who knows his sessions. "You can't play this stuff commercially," he says swigging his whiskey in the candlelight. "It comes straight from the heart."

Tom Cochrane thinks he knows 2,002 traditional Irish folk songs by heart (it was 2,001 until four o'clock that afternoon) out of a possible 200,000 and not being "a piously traditional purist", he also plays Scottish and American tunes when the urge takes him. The "hard core" of fans sit in the opposite corner from the players in the umbrage of an imposing bookshelf and mantelpiece packed with raging candles in wax encrusted bottles. They demonstrate their own purism by making sure the volume of their foot stamping relates directly to how traditional is the song being played. They roll cigarettes, drink Guinness and, if appropriate, occasionally whoop.

The rest of the crowd seems less sure of the etiquette but is equally keen. Two Rastafarians suddenly break into an Irish jig by the bar and the black NHS glasses, polo-necked jumpers and brogues crowd stand quietly at the sides of the room smiling wryly. "It's not as good as last week," complains one. "There were more violins then." This week a barman is headbutted in the face by a rowdy customer as the band plays "Banish Misfortune" without the benefit of a full, yearning, string section.