Irish traditional music is alive and well and thriving in pubs across the island. The problem is finding it.

It takes a musical detective to track down the right pub on the right night for a memorable evening of foot-tapping reels and haunting airs.Nothing is scheduled, the festivities often do not start until late and you may have to go on a pub crawl first to find the wandering minstrels.

But it is worth the hunt. For the big attraction of this thriving art form is its informality and spontaneity.

Once you track down a lively session, you will hear a band of highly skilled musicians utterly wrapped up in the melodies and playing mainly for their own enjoyment.

The peat fire roars and the stage is set. Out comes the tin whistle. The fiddler rosins his bow. The bodhran (goatskin) drums are readied and the uileann pipes (like bagpipes) prepared.

"They are certainly professional in their abilities, but only two of them playing here are full-time professionals. They play for the love of it, says Jimmy McGuire, whose Galway Pub in western Ireland is a magnet for traditional musicians.

"Two are doctors, three are teachers and one is a university professor of biochemistry. The strength of traditional musicians is that they tend to be playing for themselves. They sound so much fresher and less stilted than established groups.

"I may pay a couple of them but the others just get their pint of Guinness and would happily play all night for the fun and enjoyment of it. Galway is a mecca. You will always pick up a good session somewhere."

Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann - the Irish Musicians Fraternity - was set up in 1951 to promote Irish traditional music. It has flourished from Baghdad to Pyongyang, from Sydney to New York.

"There are very few forms of native music around the world where people just take out their instruments on a street corner and start to play," said association chief Labhras O Murchu.

"We run 40 festivals across the country. People meet to play in community halls, pubs, even at the village crossroads, he said.

"We took a group to Baghdad last year for St. Patrick's Day. Another went to Japan, another to North Korea. We even have branches in Luxembourg and Sardinia.

"Our All-Ireland Festival in Sligo this year attracted 130,000 people. We even had a Mohawk Indian in from Ottawa who played the harp and sang songs in the Irish language as well as a New York Jew reputed to be one of the best uileann pipers."

He balks at the "begosh and begorrah" tourist image of an Ireland awash with leprechauns and jovial drunks wishing you "Top of the Morning" and dancing a jig.

"There is nothing wrong with `When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,' but this is a much more developed art form that has grown up over the centuries," he says.

It can also help to build bridges on a divided and tragic island where Irish Republican Army guerrillas are battling to oust Britain from Northern Ireland.

"In the north we have 60 branches with both communities involved. It is not just nationalists and Catholics. It is a very unifying concept. It goes back beyond our divisions."

He readily admits it is a headache trying to find the right venue.

"Part of the fun is tracking it down. But that is not fair to the tourist, so we have put on 60 venues throughout the summer and assure people this is not just 'stage Irish."'

Each instrument has its faithful following.

"They go from a tin whistle that costs a punt ($1.70) to harps that go for 1,000 punts ($1,700) and pipes for 2,000 ($3,400)."

Instrument-makers cannot keep up with the demand and Irish music classes attract up to one million people a year, the association says.

Why then is it thriving? Labhras O Murchu puts it all down to that elusive quality of impromptu spontaneity: "Nine to 90-year-olds play for the sheer fun of it."