Review 5


Mary MacNamara

ISBN 978-1-3999-2836-6

For the last forty years I have spent a considerable amount of time in Ireland, particularly in County Clare, where I have a house. I am a musically illiterate concertina player, almost entirely self taught. I am writing this on the boat, again returning to Ireland!

In 1994 I was present at one of the early Eigse Mrs Crotty Weekends in Kilrush, County Clare. I was able to attend the launch of Mary MacNamara’s first CD, “Traditional Music From East Clare”. I had, of course, heard of Mary McNamara, but this was the first time I appreciated Mary MacNamara’s superb understated musical skills and her connection with older generations of East Clare musicians. She is thus well placed to recognise and record for posterity their style and tunes.

Much to my regret I was not able to attend the 2023 launch of “Sundays At Lena’s” at Concairtin in Ennis, but I acquired a copy of the book, shortly afterwards, and thus this review.

The book is well produced, consisting of 127 pages, with a hardback. A CD, with recordings from which the tunes were transcribed, is included. Notations are well laid out. Fiddle tunes are first given, as played with double stops and then given again as plain, single melody lines.

Mary MacNamara initially became acquainted with local musicians through her father, who had a mobile shop that travelled throughout East Clare. He used a reel-to-reel tape machine to record customers who were traditional musicians. Subsequently, Mary MacNamara met and played with these musicians and others at local music sessions and particularly at “Sundays At Lena’s” Bar in Feakle.

The narrative in the book contains all the information you need to know about the featured musicians: Joe Bane, Bill O’Malley, John Naughton, Martin Rochford, Mikey O’Donoghue and Paddy Grogan, three of whom were concertina players. What is obvious from the speed they all play at is that having generally ceased playing for house dances many years previously, they slowed down their music when playing in sessions. John Naughton left East Clare in 1968 and moved to Dublin. His experience of the Dublin traditional music scene was initially the same as Mary’s, with Dublin traditional musicians being unfamiliar with tunes in the key of C. Mary explained this during a superb concert which I attended recently at Glor, Ennis, with Brendan Begley. To hear her playing with Brendan Begley, in a style far removed from the musicians featured in this book, identifies her as one of the finest musicians of her generation.

The CD that comes with the book allows you to hear how the tunes were played. Mary provides a detailed account of her contact with the featured musicians and their style and method of playing

The “style” of the three concertina players originates from the use of the German-made 20 key concertina, which was widely and cheaply available in Ireland from the middle of the nineteenth century, before English-made concertinas began to arrive in County Clare after the Second World War. One of the featured musicians, Paddy Grogan appears to have commissioned, in the 1960’s, a specially made top-quality 20 key concertina with metal ends, a model that was not available off the peg, according to the Wheatstone & Co catalogues of that era. Many of the tunes were played in C and other keys and thus the tunes are similarly transcribed. The concertina provided music for set dancing, more often than not practised in private houses. Although in County Clare and Ireland in general concertina playing is extremely popular, especially amongst young people, the old double-octave style of playing has completely disappeared. Most teachers of the concertina in Ireland and indeed throughout the world give lessons based on the highly complex method of cross row fingering, using different buttons to introduce techniques of decoration utilised by pipers and fiddle players. So wherever the concertina player comes from they play in a similar fashion, regional and local styles of playing being now very rare. As a well-known singer and concertina player, who was born in North Clare, but now lives outside the County, said to me recently “ You have to have more tentacles than an octopus to play in the “new style”.

Mary McNamara is to be applauded for teaching her pupils young and old to play the concertina fully respecting the East Clare “style” and the influence of the old German double-octave method. Not for Mary are the technical fingering acrobatics taught by many teachers to achieve various rolls, crans and other decorations thought to be desirable.

I was taught the double-octave method of playing by the traditional concertina player Caleb Walker the first and for many years the only concertina player for the Manley Morris Dancers. Both he and I only ever played along the rows in the key of C (ie playing the melody using the buttons of the C & G rows on the right hand and using octave notes on the left hand). When I started to come to Ireland I had to learn what my little finger on my left hand was for ie: to play the F sharp, but I still play in the way I did when I started. Through the good offices of my friend, the fine Dublin concertina player Shay Fogarty, I was privileged to listen to and play with many of the older concertina players in County Clare such as Tom Carey, Bernard O’Sullivan, Tommy McMahon, Mary Ellen Curtin and the late lamented Dymphna O’Sullivan. One of the last exponents of the North Clare style of playing is my good friend Tom Driscoll of Drinagh, Ennistymon who carries many of the now rare tunes taught him by the Killourhy brothers of Caheraduff.

The only previous research into concertina playing in East Clare was carried out by Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin in his PhD thesis conducted at Queens University, Belfast and published in 1990. Sadly this appears to be no longer available; my copy is much “thumbed” and a great source of tunes played by the old style players in County Clare. Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin interviewed and transcribed tunes from John Naughton, Mrs Dooley ( Knockjames ), John Gorman and Paddy Shaughnessy (Kifentinan) and indeed a very young Mary MacNamara.

If you want to hear further examples of old style concertina playing listen online to the players featured in the sound archive held by County Clare Libraries or purchase the CD “Keepers of Tradition” issued by Cois Na Hahna.

I thoroughly recommend this book to anyone interested in the music of County Clare and Ireland in general. The transcriptions of the tunes will open a whole new world to the players who have been “taught” rather than having “taught” themselves. Do not ignore the capacity to teach yourself and create your own individual “style”! As the old adage says “There are many ways of skinning a cat”!

Mark Davies


County Clare