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.

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Niall Vallely

Terry Bingham

If Clare is noted for one instrument in particular, it has to be the concertina, and Pakie Russell is just one of a host of great players of the instrument to emerge from the county. These days the tradition is being carried on by, among others, Terry Bingham, who, though not a native (he comes from Comber, Co. Down) is domiciled in Clare for over a decade, and certainly has the Clare sound par excellence. Well-known and highly regarded well in advance of this release, Terry has put together here an unpretentious selection of dance tunes, equally divided between reels and jigs, and with one pair each of hornpipes and barndances, all performed with great lift and swing. At first listening it might appear that there is relatively little textural variety - all are accompanied, and are performed in the moderato time so beloved of Clare musicians. Listening beyond the superficialities, one realizes that these latter facts are merely an indication of the man's musical selflessness, of the subordination of other considerations to the necessity of making the tunes themselves shine.

And shine they do. The accompaniment, by Kevin Griffin on guitar and/or Eoin O'Neill on bouzouki on most tracks, is emphatically of the intelligent, or unobtrusive, school; like a Charlie Lennon accompaniment, it subtly reinforces the swing whilst never detracting from the excellence of the soloist's performance or constricting his temporal freedom. The excellent Mary Custy also joins in on fiddle on a couple of numbers, and there are valuable contributions from other guests, notably Donegal accordion-player Dermot Byrne, who is featured on two sets of reels. The concertina-accordion collaborations come as a particularly pleasant surprise: offhand I can't recall such a thing being brought off successfully on record, but Byrne somehow manages to tame the stridency of his instrument so that the two blend harmoniously together.

Further accordion input comes in the form of The Kilmaley jig, learnt from the excellent Conor Keane, and performed here with great verve by Terry. Like all the tunes on this disc, it is one with a distinctive melody and personality: he clearly has an ear for an interesting tune, and gathers them from a wide variety of sources, always of the best. Some are well-known and oft-heard in Clare; others come from musicians, like Dermot Byrne, from a variety of other counties including Mayo, Sligo, Cork and Kerry.

And Kevin has done his homework, too: several of these tunes are learned from recordings of musicians of earlier generations, especially ones who spent much of their career in America. Notable among these is melodeon-player P.J. Conlon, who recorded with James Morrison, and from whose repertoire come such fascinating and little-heard tunes as the reel The Eel in the Sink. But perhaps the Clareishness of it all is best summed-up by Down the Back Lane, a highly distinctive jig recorded by the late Willie Clancy, a marvellous tune which should be better known and whose every note exudes all that is special about that remarkable county. This record as a whole is an excellent showcase for some of the finest traditional dance music in existence, and proves that Terry Bingham is well worthy of taking his place among the Clare concertina greats such as Mrs. Crotty, Paddy Murphy, Chris Droney, Noel Hill and, yes, Pakie Russell himself.

Christy MacHale

Irish Concertina Player Rory McMahon

From Cooraclare, Co. Clare, concertina player Rory McMahon with a set of reels: "The Drunken Landlady" and two McKenna's reels. Rory learned a lot of his music from his uncle, the great concertina player Noel Hill.

The Concertina in Irish Music

Mrs. Crotty came down from the town of Kilrush She plucked a high note from the bird in the bush She sang all the day without ever a blush Good girl yourself Mrs. Crotty.

The above few lines are taken from Robbie McMahon’s famous song about the Fleadh in Ennis in 1956. It recalls one of our best loved and revered characters, the concertina player Elizabeth Crotty.

At the turn of the century like Elizabeth herself, the concertina was only in its infancy. Pioneered by Englishman Charles Wheatstone in the mid to late 1800’s, it was essentially an instrument for the drawing rooms of middle class Victorian England. However, its popularity among the working class spread and soon it was commonly played in Industrial bands and other organisations such as The Salvation Army.

Wheatstone’s English System concertina (same note on the push and pull) did not suit the rhythmic nature of Irish music. Consequently, the concertina did not become established here until the slightly later arrival of the Anglo-German system (different note on the push/pull).

And so it was these bulky but affordable German models with their big buttons, decorative bellows and husky tone that Elizabeth Crotty as a young woman would have been familiar with. Some years later, the superior and more expensive English Anglos of Lachenal, Crabb, Jeffries and Wheatstone made their way into this country. Mrs. Crotty herself played a 30 key rosewood-ended Lachenal which is now in the possession of her good friend Michael Tubridy.

The concertina became very popular here especially among female musicians, and was much sought after especially for house dances. In fact, many households bought a concertina and kept it in a safe place for this reason alone. The ability of the instrument to be heard above dancers (competing against a set on a flag floor cannot have been easy!) together with the rhythmic nature of the Anglo version and its price were strong points in its favour.

Many styles of concertina playing developed, especially around Dancing. Techniques such as Double-noting (playing two octaves together), and chording added volume and depth to the music. (Chris Droney and Elizabeth herself being fine exponents of these techniques). Our history of piping also influenced concertina players and ornaments such as crans, cuts and droning were adapted for the instrument.

Being a very musical nation, high standards of musicianship were quickly achieved on the concertina, as the old 78 recordings (circa 1920’s) of early exponents such as William Mulally will bear testament to… Listening to such great exponents must surely have contributed to the rise in popularity of the concertina down through the decades.

And so the Anglo concertina has become firmly established within the many facets of Irish music. From solo playing to duets, groups and céilí bands. The clarity of the single reed giving it a very distinctive tone. Judging by the numbers of musicians playing the concertina, its future is secure. We even have festival of concertina music, Eigse Mrs. Crotty, which continues to expand every year. Another sign of the rising popularity of the instrument is the waiting list among the elite modern concertina makers (4 to 5 years in some cases). I’m quite sure that Wheatstone and his comtemporaries never expected to have such an impact on our music scene.

Noel Hill

"Ireland is full of great musicians but only a few set standards." -PJ Curtis, Notes From the Heart

Noel Hill is one of those standard-setting voices in Irish music today. Few musicians in any field or in any generation achieve a position where both audiences and experts agree on their preeminence and mastery of an instrument; Noel Hill's virtuosity has firmly established him as the defining Irish concertina player of our time.

Noel Hill comes from County Clare on the west coast of Ireland, where the concertina tradition is so strong the instruments was nicknamed "the Clareman's Trumpet" and legend has it there was once a concertina in every other household. It was into one of these households that Noel Hill was born, and as a young child Noel was forbidden to touch his older brother's concertina. But he couldn't keep his hands off the instrument and was always stealing away with it. One day when his brother was laboring through a hornpipe Noel gave himself away by taking the concertina and playing the tune with ease. That got everyone's attention, and he's had it ever since.

Noel Hill has taken the humble concertina from the house dances of County Clare on the west coast of Ireland to stages throughout the world. The concertina, like Irish music itself, is currently enjoying a tremendous increase in popularity, and Noel Hill is at the forefront of this movement, not only as an awe-inspiring performer but as teacher and a well respected authority on Ireland's music.

In his hands the concertina is a new instrument, yet resounds with the integrity of generations, for Noel Hill makes the music new not through experimentation in other genres, but through consummate exploration and illumination from within traditional Irish music.