Washington has become the best place in American to play traditional Irish music. That is the consensus of the horde of Irish musicians from New York, Masachussetts, San Fransico, Dublin and Country Kerry who have descended on the capital for the St. Patrick's Da weekend. Today and tomarrow 12 different Irish music acts will perform at 10 different locations in the Washington area.

Seven of those bars feature Irish music every weekend of the year, and many of the musicians go far beyond nostalgia numbers like "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling," and delve into the Druidic legends of ancient Celtic folk music. "My Wild Irish Rose" is no more authentic Irish folk music than "Fiddler on the Roof" is authentic Jewish folk music -- and in the past five years. Washington audiences have come to expect the real thing.

This audience has grown up without a local Irish-American community anywhere near the size of those in New York, Boston, and Chicago. The local chapter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians estimates that only 4,000 people born in Ireland live in the entire Washington metropolitan area.

Yet Washington has become an obligatory stop and a sure success for any Irish band touring America. Traditional groups like the Chieftains, the Bothy Band and DeDanann have all sold out shows here. The Clancy Brothers, the Wolfe Tones, Tommy Makem and Joe & Antonette McKenna have already had successful shows here this month.

Tommrrow night, Ourselves Alone -- a duo of Dublin natives -- will take the stage at the Dubliner on Capital Hill. Under a framed portriat of James Joyce, Terry O'Riordan will sing the ancient ballad that gave Joyce the title for his last novel. As Frank Emerson booms the echoing rhythm from his bodhran -- the traditional Irish hand drum -- O'Riordan will sing of how poor, dead Finnegan was revived at his wake by a splash of whiskey.

Ourselves Alone have toured through Boston, New York, Chicago and Toronto. But Emerson says that "Washington is easily the best. It has it over Boston and New York. There's more good musicians here, more places to play and more people willing to listen. When we tell people in New England about it, they can't believe it. They say, 'What does Washington know about Irish music?' To tell you the truth, it was a total surprise to us too."

Tommrrow night Celtic Thunder will play a concert and ceili at Georgetown University's Copley Lounge. Ceili means "friendly gathering" in Gaelic and means an Irish folk dance in English. The music will squeeze from Terry Winch's accordion, warble from Linda Hickman's flute, float from Nita Conley's voice, bound from Steve Hickman's fiddle and pound from Jesse Winch's bodhran. The many layers of music will reflect each other like echoes bouncing off grassy hills.

Brothers Terry and Jesse Winch grew up in the Bronx, where they wandered from one Irish bar to another playing the old tunes. Terry, the younger brother has published a book of poetry about those experiences called "Irish Musicians." He believes that "Washington now has more focus than any other Irish scene in the country. Because there's not a big Irish population here, a lot of people have come to the music because they're attracted to the music itself. They have the zeal of converts."

Brian Coughlan, founder of the Irish Breakdown, believes the development of Washington as a bluegrass music center opened the door for Irish music. "So many people around here like bluegrass," he explains, "that we throw in some of those numbers, and it helps them like Irish music because they're so similar."

Others hypothesize that the success of Matt Kane's led to the sudden proliferation of Irish bars, all of whom hired Irish musicians. For years, Matt Kane's -- located downtown near the bus stations -- was the city's foremost Irish bar. Its musicians whetted Washington's appetite for traditional Irish music.

The Dubliner was opened by Danny Coleman in 1974 to provide an Irish bar for the Georgetown/Capital Hill crowd. Ireland's Four Provinces opended far up Connecticut Avenue in 1977. Hugh Kelly, Coleman's former partner, opened Kelly's Irish Times next door to the Dubliner in 1978 with a more folksy atmosphere. Though Ellen's Ben Bow and Ireland 32 have closed recently, the Irish Inn in Silver Spring and Murphy's Pub and Ireland's Own -- both in Alexandria -- are thriving.

The expansion of Irish bars has created lots of work for Irish musicians. Ourselves Alone used to make Washington one stop on their swings. Now they play here six months a year. The Irish Breakdown -- from Ireland via New York -- were hired for four months when Ireland's Four Provinces first opened. Their capable combination of nostalgia, American country and traditional Irish caught on and they never left. They now play there five nights a week, nine months a year.

Knock Na Shee (named after a mountain in County Silgo) is a traditional, mostly instrumental trio from San Francisco who came here because they always heard that this was where the work was. The Hags -- formerly an all-female quintet but now with a male fiddler -- the Boiled Spuds, the Morningstar Ceili Band and Dennis Botzer all grew out of the Sunday-night Irish jam sessions at Ellen's Ben Bow. The Irish Tradition came t the Dubliner from New York in 1975 for a three-week engagement that lasted four years.

The arrival of the Irish Tradition (now temporarily in Los Angeles with an Irish stage play) was a turning point for the local scene. "They raised the standard of Irish music in this town by leaps and bounds," asserts Terry Winch. "No one had ever heard jigs and reels played so well."

As Washington audiences have moved from commercial to traditional -- "crossed the 'Danny Boy' threshhold," as Terry Winch puts it -- they've discovered an endless treasure of music. "The music is like heroin," Winch says, "it's so addictive."

"Irish culture is a lot more than plastic shamrocks and funny hats," says Frank Emerson. "Irish musicians are pretty tired of being passed off as cartoons. We're not all drunks who throw up on each others' shoes. We have a rich culture, and we're proud of it. We figure, if you're in an Irish place, you should play real Irish music."