Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Concertina Playing in Ireland, 1834–1930

Article by Dan Worrall, concertina.com

The Anglo concertina, and its direct antecedents, the two-row German and Anglo-German concertinas, have long been popular in Irish traditional music circles. It has been said of County Clare in the early part of the 20th century that ‘almost every house … had a concertina, usually kept in the chimney corner nook.’1 This heyday of popularity, however, was followed by a steep decline that left relatively few players in Ireland by the 1960s, most of them located in County Clare. The past three decades have seen a great resurgence in its use, and much has been written about those surviving players and their histories.2 Most of what we know about the instrument in Ireland comes from these living sources, and yet there are gaps. Oral history only reaches back as far as living memory, so such accounts only extend with any real detail to perhaps eighty or more years. Beyond the memories of these sources, there are a few all-too-brief accounts, written posthumously, about the famous Clare player Mrs. Elizabeth Crotty (who herself learned to play in the late 1890s), and even-more-brief recollections from living sources that their ‘grandmother played one.’ The 19th century experienced the instrument’s formative period in Ireland, but there is very little published information about Irish concertina playing then, or about the concertina’s arrival and establishment in the country.

In addition, most of the twentieth century sources interviewed in published accounts have been from County Clare, leaving largely unrecorded the extent to which concertinas were played elsewhere in Ireland, and raising a question as to why surviving players of the mid-20th century were so highly concentrated in that County. Several existing histories of Clare playing include a hypothesis that seamen on ships that plied the Shannon estuary, or the chandleries that supplied them, may have been responsible for the arrival of concertinas in Clare, with the implication that the 20th century concentration of concertinas in Clare might have resulted, at least partly, from this seaborne link.3 But, as will be shown below, the instrument once had a much wider distribution in Ireland. For example, William Mullaly, a prominent Anglo player of the 1920s who was the first Irish concertina player to make commercial recordings, hailed from near Mullingar, County Westmeath in the eastern part of the Irish midlands. Neighbors around him played concertina as well, and taught him to play. How extensive was that playing population in greater Ireland? When did they start playing it in significant numbers? What types of people played it, and where? What sort of music did they play, and why did the vast majority of them give it up? And perhaps most importantly, why did only Clare concertina playing survive as a more or less unbroken tradition?

If these questions are difficult or impossible to answer from existing oral history accounts, there is even less in the way of documentation of Irish concertina playing in key studies of Irish traditional music that were written in the 19th century. The famous collector Francis O’Neill gives only a single mention to a concertina player in all his writing on Irish music, even though his collecting days and visits to Ireland overlapped with the playing days of prominent and respected early concertina players like Mullaly and Mrs. Crotty.

The digital age is making available vast amounts of information from Irish, British and American newspapers, periodicals and books of the 19th and early 20th century that was previously all but inaccessible. Mentions of this instrument in period literature are very sparse indeed, but by using modern digital search engines, needles may now be found in many 19th and early 20th century haystacks. The resulting images are fleeting: a prisoner had used one while perpetrating a crime; emigrants played them in steerage; a publican was fined for playing one too loudly late at night; a concertina contest was held; a patriot played one to rouse the spirits of his colleagues while under siege. Although merely anecdotes when considered singly, when gathered together, and assigned to place, time, and social context, a somewhat consistent picture begins to emerge.

This article focuses on (a) the concertina’s first century in Ireland , including the period of arrival of both the English system concertina and the much more popular German, Anglo-German, and finally ‘Anglo’ instruments, (b) the long heyday of the Anglo’s popularity, from about 1870 to about 1930, and (c) the first part of the period of its decline in use. That period of decline overlaps with the memory of living players, and some of the oldest of them remember the final years of its heyday as well. Events during much of the later part of its period of decline and the instrument’s dramatic resurgence in recent decades are left out of this study, as they are well covered elsewhere. Not all of the questions raised above are fully answered, but as in all journeys, one must begin with the first steps.

Read Article

No comments: