Overview of Concertina Music in Ireland
It is indeed somewhat serendipitous that, as I write this report on concertina playing in Ireland, a young concertina player has been selected by TG4 (the National Irish language Public Service Broadcaster) as the ‘Young Musician of the Year’.1 The concertina has been an integral part of Irish traditional music for many years now, although its popularity has waxed and waned over the last century and a half.2 Today, it enjoys unprecedented popularity, with the instrument embedded in solo as well as all ensemble practices within the tradition.
The concertina of choice throughout Ireland is the Anglo system, tuned in C/G.3 There are, of course, some exponents of the English system here, but the Anglo is accepted as being better suited to the rhythmic and inherently pulsive nature of Irish traditional dance music. Indeed, virtually all of the principal concertina exponents of Irish traditional music in Ireland – performers and teachers alike – are Anglo players. As a consequence of this, traditional music on the Anglo has become very sophisticated with many exponents, young and not-so-young, attaining a very high level of technical competency, while other concertina systems remain underdeveloped here.
As a concertina player for almost forty years and a teacher for over thirty years, I have witnessed first hand the meteoric rise in popularity of the instrument over that time. Attending traditional music classes in rural west County Limerick in the late 1970s, I was one of just a very small handful of young concertina players learning the craft in the county at that time. I was fortunate to have had a teacher who excelled on concertina (Con Herbert). An excellent communicator and pedagogue as well, Herbert nurtured my love of the concertina, bringing me to hear iconic musicians such as Noel Hill (the only professional concertina player on the Irish traditional music scene at the time), as well as exposing me to Hill’s recordings and those of other important players such as Chris Droney.
‘Boys of the Town/Jim Droney’s’ (jigs), Chris Droney, from Keepers of Tradition: Concertina Players of County Clare. Cois na hAbhna Archives, CNH007CD (2009), courtesy of Frank Whelan and Joe O’Connor (producers).
I remember sitting for hours on end, listening to ‘Irish Traditional Concertina Styles’, a long playing record on the Topic/Free Reed label which featured many of the household names in Irish concertina music, including Paddy Murphy (Clare), Solus Lillis (Clare), Gerald Hough (Clare), Tom Carey (Clare), Micheál Mac Aogáin (Dublin), Mrs Ellen O’Dwyer (Dublin) and Sean O’Dwyer (Dublin).
‘Five Mile Chase’ (reel), Paddy Murphy, from Keepers of Tradition: Concertina Players of County Clare. Cois na hAbhna Archives, CNH007CD (2009), courtesy of Frank Whelan and Joe O’Connor (producers).
Listening to such great exponents as a young player encouraged me to explore and decipher different styles and approaches to concertina playing, and left an indelible mark on my own style.
‘The Humours of Ballyconnell’, the Irish Concertina Ensemble, from Zero (2015), courtesy of Tim Collins.
The discography of recorded concertina music, of course, has dramatically increased since my youth.
Concertina playing had been a vibrant tradition in my native west Limerick for generations. I recall my father speaking about several of his older relations that had played the instrument, and I remember many locals informing me that their respective grandmothers had played concertina. However, with the exception of my teacher (then in his mid-twenties) there were no senior exponents in the locality in my youth. Consequently, I was somewhat of a novelty in local music circles; such was the rarity of the instrument at that time. What I didn’t realize then is that the small hexagonal box was on the cusp of an explosion in popularity right across the island and beyond its natal stronghold of County Clare, where the concertina tradition remained unbroken throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first century.
The factors influencing the concertina’s proliferation in popularity in Ireland over the last three decades are complex, but I shall endeavor to discuss some here.
A key factor attributed to the growth in concertina playing over the last three decades is transmission. As I have outlined above, the availability of recorded material is an important element in this regard. However, in my opinion, the single biggest factor responsible for the explosion of interest in the concertina has been access to tuition. By the late 1980s, during my college years, I was teaching concertina classes in the neighbouring parish of Tuar Na Fola. These were run by the local branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann (CCÉ hereafter).4 My class numbers grew steadily year on year, with young children travelling significant distances to receive tuition. This trend was replicated across Ireland, as a new generation of concertina teachers like myself (adding to the existing pool of experienced teachers) passed on their knowledge and skill to a new generation, mainly in weekly classes organized by CCÉ. Today, several young musicians who attended my classes during their childhood pass on the tradition to a new cohort of young players. It is also worth noting here that, as a musician, I have conducted concertina workshops around the globe, including the UK, North America, the European continent and Japan. A striking feature in Ireland is the age profile of workshop attendees. While adults do attend workshops, the vast majority of students are young exponents, ranging in age from eight/nine years to late teens/early twenties. This to me is the key indicator of why concertina playing is thriving in Ireland. Children are introduced to the instrument and tuition at a very young age and many reach a high level of competency within four to five years. While some students do inevitably cease playing the instrument, the sheer number of those that continue tuition into their late teens ensures that a small percentage will become concertina tutors as well, thus continuing the cycle of transmission.
With interest in the concertina and concertina styles growing steadily from the 1980s, the access to regular concertina classes was supplemented by the rise in popularity of specialist workshops, particularly from the 1990s onwards. Such was the insatiable demand among young musicians (and their parents) for additional tuition that many Irish music festivals featured workshops as part of their events programme. Typically, this involved hiring some well-known exponents to conduct instrument-specific master classes. The workshops were also an important means of generating festival revenue. This practice is still very prevalent to this day, with two of the most popular workshops in the music calendar being Scoil Éigse (five days of intensive tutoring in the week preceding the All-Ireland Fleadh)5 and Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy (six days of tutoring during the Willie Clancy festival in Miltown Malbay, County Clare).6
An indication of the elevated position of the instrument in Irish traditional music has been the appearance of dedicated concertina festivals over the last two decades or so. These festivals typically bring together some of the most respected concertina teachers and performers and provide a forum for expert tuition from these pedagogues as well as an opportunity to hear them in performance contexts.
Éigse Mrs Crotty
Hosted in the town of Kilrush, County Clare, Éigse Mrs Crotty set the benchmark for concertina festivals from 1996 to 2008, with a superbly organized weekend dedicated to the memory of local concertina player, Elisabeth Crotty (1885-1960).
‘The Copperplate’ (reel), Mrs Crotty, from Keepers of Tradition: Concertina Players of County Clare. Cois na hAbhna Archives, CNH007CD (2009), courtesy of Frank Whelan and Joe O’Connor (producers).
An important local and national figure in the history of traditional music, she rose to prominence in the 1950s, as a consequence of her involvement in CCÉ and as a result of numerous broadcasts on national radio (RTÉ) from her and her husband’s public house in Kilrush.7 Unfortunately, the Irish economic crash in 2008 resulted in the demise of Éigse Mrs Crotty.
The Concertina Cruinniú
In 2013, under the auspices of Oidreacht an Chláir, a community-based company formed to promote the study of the culture of County Clare, directors Dr Áine Hensey and Dr Tim Collins organized The Concertina Cruinniú, a concertina festival in Miltown Malbay on the west coast of Clare. Organised along the lines of Éigse Mrs Crotty (a festival that both were involved in), the festival continues to run with Noel Hill as director.8
Consairtín: The National Concertina Convention
In April 2014, Consairtín: The National Concertina Convention was established in Ennis, County Clare, again by Áine Hensey and Tim Collins. This festival set about creating a new concertina festival template, introducing many new dimensions that had not previously been explored. In addition to general concertina workshops, the festival hosts ‘specialist’ workshops where advanced students work with specific leading concertina players to examine topics such as style, technique, innovation and repertoire in minute detail. The festival also showcases many young players from all over the country via recitals and concerts. Broadening patrons’ knowledge of the instrument, the festival has also gone beyond the boundaries of the Anglo system by including musicians of other systems and from different traditions, including Simon Thoumire (Scotland), Roger Digby, Mark Davis and Dave Townsend (the latter three from England). The festival also exhibits instruments of many leading concertina makers with Juergen Suttner, Colin & Rosalie Dipper, Ralf Schlimm and José Claro attending the 2017 festival.9
For well over a century, competition has played an important (and sometimes controversial) role in traditional music promotion, education and development.10 In particular, the Fleadh Cheoil, CCÉ’s flagship event has, since 1951, provided the most important competitive platform for Irish traditional musicians across the globe. Organised at county, provincial and All-Ireland levels for all instruments, the fleadh has attracted the majority of young players at some stage in their early development, with success (or perhaps lack of) providing an important stimulus for improving one’s standard. The concertina started out in the Fleadh in 1951 as an instrument in the ‘miscellaneous’ competition category. It was not until 1955 that a dedicated category was established for the instrument.11 Today, the standard of musicianship in competition is incredibly high, and the winning of an All-Ireland is highly valued among young concertina players.
Access to Instruments
As a fourteen-year-old concertina player eager to progress, the acquisition of a good instrument was seen as a key factor in my development as a player. While there was a degree of choice in terms of the then-available vintage instruments (all English-made), it was widely accepted that Lachenals were a very good and obvious choice when moving from beginner to intermediate levels of playing. Advanced players normally choose between Crabb, Jeffries and Wheatstone models. For many people, the cost of top instruments was inhibitive in the 1980s. I still vividly recall the excitement of receiving a 38-key Jeffries concertina from my father in 1980 (an instrument that I still have in my collection today). At the time, the Jeffries cost £400 sterling and I am sure that there were many sacrifices made by my parents to facilitate the purchase of such a valuable instrument. My concertina, like so many in Ireland, was sourced through a concertina dealer in England, a practice that still continues to this day.
However, today’s concertina market has a much greater diversity of instrument and at prices to suit all budgets. While the aforementioned English models of Lachenal, Crabb, Jeffries and Wheatstone are still highly valued by Irish traditional players, the arrival of newly made, top-quality instruments by concertina makers such as Colin & Rosalie Dipper,12 Juergen Suttner,13 Wim Wakker,14 Wally Carroll,15 Ralf Schlimm,16 José Claro17 and others has transformed the scene. The waiting lists (three to four years in some cases) of many of the top makers speak to the demand for these instruments.
Diversity of Playing Styles
With the proliferation of interest in the instrument over the last three decades, a cornucopia of styles and approaches has emerged. The globalization of music has brought many influences to bear, not just on Irish concertina styles, but on Irish music in general. The intensive tuition available to young musicians means that many concertina players attain a very high level of technical competency at a young age, equipping with the skills to be experimental and innovative.
Many of today’s top exponents are content to work within a traditional frame of reference, drawing on the influence of older players and reworking these influences with their own creativity. A partial list of such players includes Micheál Ó Raghallaigh, Michelle Mulcahy, Noel Hill, Mary McNamara, the late Dympna O’Sullivan, Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin, Edel Fox, Jacqueline McCarthy, Yvonne and Lourda Griffin, Claire Keville, Hugh Healy, Francis Droney, Jack Talty, Ernestine Healy, Caitlín Nic Gabhann, Francis Cunningham, Liam O’Brien, Katie O’Sullivan, Mairead Corridan, Michelle O’Sullivan, Cormac Begley, Lorraine O’Brien, Bernie Geraghty and Tony O’Connell.
Some of the classic recordings of Irish traditional music on the Anglo concertina have emerged from this cohort over the last two decades. The following is a list (in no particular order of merit) of recordings drawn from this group:
- Micheál Ó Raghallaigh:
The Nervous Man (2002)
Inside Out (2006)
- Mary McNamara:
Mary McNamara: Traditional Music from east Clare (1994)
The Blackberry Blossom (2002)
- Noel Hill
The Irish Concertina 1 (1988)
The Irish Concertina 2 (2005)
Noel Hill and Tony McMahon: I gCnoc Na Grai (1985)
- Edel Fox
Chords and Beryls (2010)
Edel Fox and Neil Byrne: The Sunny Banks (2012)
- Caitlín Nic Gabhann
Caitlín and Ciarán (2015)
- Claire Keville
The Daisy Field (2009)
Claire Keville/John Weir/Eithne Ní Dhonaile: An Trí is a Rian (2004)
- Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin
Traditional Music from Clare and Beyond (1996)
Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin and Patrick Ourceau: Tracin’(2002)
- Dympna O’Sullivan
Bean chairdín (2007)
- Jack Talty
In Flow (2016)
Jack Talty/Cormac Begley: Na Fir Bolg (2012)
- Jacqueline McCarthy
The Hidden Note (1999)
Jacqueline McCarthy/Tommy Keane: the Wind Among the Reeds (2001)
- Hugh Healy
Hugh Healy/Colm Healy: Macalla na hÓige (2004)
Hugh Healy/Blackie O’Connell: We were Drinking and Kissing the Ladies (2010)
- Tony O’Connell
Tony O’Connell and Andy Morrow with Arty McGlynn (2005)
Tony Connell/Eamonn Riordan: Rooska Hill (2015)
There is also a growing cohort of brilliant concertina exponents who, while firmly part of the tradition, enjoy extending the boundaries of this tradition in some of their music work. Notable names here include Niall Vallely and Padraig Rynne. Padraig Rynne, a multiple All-Ireland title-holder from the concertina heartland of West Clare, is a name that has come to the fore of ground-breaking projects in Irish and World music over the last decade.18 In particular, his fusion of Irish traditional music with jazz, pop and funk with his band, NOTIFY, deserves particular mention. In 2015, NOTIFY signed with world famous American Jazz label ‘Ropeadope’. InConcept, their second full-length album, was released in April 2016. It premiered at the number one spot in the iTunes Jazz charts and at number nine in the mainstream iTunes charts.19
Niall Vallely is an internationally recognized musician and composer from County Armagh in Northern Ireland. He hails from a talented music family. His parents, Brian and Eithne, founded the Armagh Pipers Club in 1966, his brother Caoimhín is a pianist of exquisite skill, and his brother Cillian is a professional piper and member of traditional super group Lúnasa. A musician of technical brilliance, his debut solo album Beyond Words was released in 1999.20
The Irish Concertina Ensemble
Another interesting concertina development in recent times in Ireland is the formation of ICE-The Irish Concertina Ensemble. Unlike other parts of the world (the UK for example), there is no history of concertina bands in Ireland. However, in 2014, Tim Collins assembled five internationally renowned and leading exponents of the Anglo concertina in an effort to create a new sonic template for Irish traditional music on the Anglo concertina. Utilising baritone, picolo and treble concertinas, the quintet of Caitlín Nic Gabhann, Padraig Rynne, Edel Fox, Micheál Ó Raghallaigh and Tim Collins pioneers an exciting and innovative performance trajectory for the concertina where its melodic, percussive, rhythmic and harmonic boundaries can be explored and redefined. The quintet’s long-anticipated debut recording Zero was released in 2015 and it comprises a highly interesting and experimentally-arranged repertoire of music that not only draws on established melodies within the canon of Irish traditional music, but also on material from other traditions as well as newly composed material written specifically for the ensemble by Tim Collins and Padraig Rynne.21
- TG4 Gradam Ceoil is a prestigious music awards ceremony that was established in 1998 to recognize all those who have played a prominent part in supporting, nurturing and strengthening Irish traditional music. The 2017 recipient of ‘Young Musician of the Year’, is Liam O’Brien, a fine concertina player from Miltown Malbay, County Clare; see http://www.tg4.ie/en/programmes/gradam-ceoil/about-gradam-ceoil/.
- For an excellent, detailed historical/social study of the concertina in Ireland, see Dan Worral, The Anglo-German Concertina: A Social History, 1 (Fulshear, TX: Concertina Press, 2009), 187-269.
- Concertinas in keys such as A flat/E flat, B flat/F and C#/G# are popular for solo and duet playing.
- Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann is the largest organization involved in the promotion of Irish Traditional music. Founded in 1951, it has a global network of branches that provide a whole myriad of traditional music services including music tuition, competition hosting, sessions, concerts, etc. For further details, see https://comhaltas.ie.
- Further on Scoil Éigse, visit https://comhaltas.ie/events/detail/scoil_eigse_2017/.
- On Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy, visit http://www.scoilsamhraidhwillieclancy.com.
- In 1999, a series of her field recordings were released by the national broadcaster RTÉ, thus making her unique repertoire and style widely available to the public. Today, her versions of ‘The Wind that Shakes the Barley’ and ‘The Reel with the Beryl’, performed on her rosewood Lachenal, are standard repertoire for all students of the instrument. See the recording by Elizabeth Crotty, Concertina Music from West Clare, RTÉ, CD225 (1999).
- See http://oac.ie.
- See http://consairtin.ie.
- For a detailed look at the role of competition in Irish traditional music, see Fintan Vallely, ed., The Companion to Irish Traditional Music, 2nd ed. (Cork: Cork University Press, 2011), 150-153.
- Further on the history of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann and the Fleadh Cheoil, see Méabh Ní Fhuartháin ‘Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann: Shaping Tradition, 1951-1970’, unpublished PhD Thesis, National University of Ireland, Galway (2011).
- Though Colin and Rosalie do not maintain a website, their son John, who is also involved in their instrument-making business, does: http://www.johndipper.co.uk/concertinas/index.htm.
- José Claro does not maintain a website.
- Further on NOTIFY, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nBOjrLs9gNg.
- On Niall Vallely, visit http://niallvallely.com/.
- For a view of the ensemble in concert, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JU-Zk6NjfNs.