Review 6

Chris Droney of Bell Harbour and the Tradition of the Concertina in North Clare, by Dan M. Worrall and James J. Branch, Rollston Press, 247 pp. (2023).

In September 2020, the global Irish Traditional Music community mourned the passing of the iconic concertina player, dancer, tune composer, and cultural ambassador, Chris Droney. Aficionados of Irish concertina music will be keenly aware of the enduring impact that Chris Droney’s idiosyncratic and highly personal musical contributions have made on successive generations of musicians and dancers in county Clare and much further afield. Droney’s approach to concertina music and his interpretation of traditional dance music was significantly and undeniably shaped by the concertina legacy of his grandfather Michael and father Jim, as well as by the many musicians and dancers with whom he shared music. I know that Chris took great pride in the fact that this remarkable concertina lineage continues to thrive through the excellent music of his children and grandchildren, the latter representing the fifth generation of the Droney family to play concertina in North Clare.

In this broad-ranging exploration of Chris Droney’s life in music, authors Dan M. Worrall and James J. Branch provide a comprehensive and multi-dimensional biographical account of the key moments, experiences, and the vibrant musical, social and cultural milieu that informed Chris Droney’s music. Droney directly witnessed many of the significant transitional periods and trends that occurred in the historical trajectory of Irish traditional music, and these experiences are engagingly portrayed throughout this account of his life. In addition, we are presented with a detailed tutorial section that offers practical insights into learning the technical elements of Droney style. A separate chapter offers readers transcriptions of all the 133 known tunes recorded commercially and privately by Chris. Consequently, the publication is ambitiously broad in scope, and the multiple lenses employed to reflect Chris Droney’s pioneering significance as a musician reveal the impressively diverse skillsets and perspectives of its authors.

Those fortunate to know or have met Chris will appreciate the immediacy and impact of the book’s front cover, a striking portrait by photographer James Fennell that appears in Vanishing Ireland (2006) by Fennell and historian Turtle Bunbury. Throughout the publication under review here, we encounter a high number of archival and personal photographs that add an enriching visual accompaniment to the biographical narratives running through the book. In the Foreword, Chris’ daughter, Ann Droney Kirrane, herself an accomplished concertina player and singer, sets the celebratory tone of the publication with heartfelt and proud recollections of her father’s musical talent and the many accolades that he amassed (with much modesty) throughout his life.

Structurally, the book is organised into a number of discrete micro-studies that each contribute to our overarching understanding of, and appreciation for, the confluence of factors that shaped Droney’s life and music. Chapter one on Family Beginnings charts a family history situated in the development of a nascent concertina tradition in north Clare, and references the once-thriving house dance tradition that ultimately became supplanted by the more formalised and ill-famed public dance hall performance context resulting from the 1935 Dance Hall Act (whereby public gatherings could only take place in licensed premises, eventually displacing what was a very significant informal house dance setting).

One particularly interesting theme that pervades the book’s discussion of the enforced musical migration to the dance hall reveals the positivity with which Droney remembers this transitional period. In contrast to the detrimental musical disruptions observed by musicians such as Junior Crehan in Miltown Malbay and Mullagh in west Clare, Droney appears to have embraced the new musical opportunities that the more formalised concert stage presented. New collaborations and friendships were forged as Chris and others assembled in various musical formations in response to audience demands in venues such as Johnston’s Hall, in nearby Kinvara.

The key biographical information that one would expect from a publication of this type is skilfully presented. Most of us familiar with the music of Chris Droney will be aware of his pioneering recording career, his unrivalled successes at Fleadhanna Cheoil as a ten-time senior All-Ireland concertina champion, his membership of the Kilfenora, Ballinakill, Aughrim Slopes, and Kincora céilí bands, as well as his extensive array of international tours with Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann and others. The inclusion of transcribed excerpts of conversation from Droney himself adds a profoundly personal and intimate quality to the material. On many occasions, we get a sense that he is telling us his own story!

Interspersed with these biographical accounts are the rich social histories and commentaries that we have come to associate with the work of Dan Worrall. The underlying social, cultural, economic, and historical circumstances that contributed to shaping the music of Chris Droney are explored comprehensively with skill and rigour. Some readers might perceive this accompanying backdrop to be superfluous to what is ostensibly presented as a biography but, not for the first time, Worrall is responsible for collating and communicating important contextual material to discourse on the development of concertina music in Ireland. The diversity of approaches employed here might appear disjointed to some, but readers will appreciate the sense of ‘completeness’ achieved by this methodology.

Fans of Chris Droney’s music will be pleased to learn that the publication includes QR code links to numerous easily accessible private and commercially available recordings. These audio tracks successfully supplement key biographical, historical, and contextual information. This welcome addition once again affirms the sense of comprehensiveness achieved by the book more generally. We are getting to know Chris Droney from multiple perspectives!

Chapter four, Style and Technique, and chapter five, Learning to Play in the Traditional Manner, explore the music of Chris Droney from a different vantage point by providing a detailed overview of Chris’ approach to concertina technique. We encounter an engaging analysis of stylistic elements such as octave playing and “traditional style” vis-à-vis “new style” fingering systems. The authors lament the waning popularity of traditional concertina styles (including that of Chris Droney), and this practical demonstration of the primary characteristics of what they term “traditional style” serves as a pragmatic and very constructive response that may well inspire some readers to re-engage with this older style of concertina technique. Again, this multiformity of approaches and perspectives serves the publication very well.

The methods used to describe the intricacies of the aforementioned fingering patterns are refreshingly clear and accurate, with a number of useful diagrams presented for clarification. In some rare instances, errors do add some level of confusion that detracts from what is otherwise excellent analysis (figure 3 on page 55 provides notation of the reel Farewell to Connaught, although the corresponding analysis in the text refers to Paddy Murphy’s ornamentation in The Ace and Deuce of Piping). Without any explanation, endnotes for chapters three and four appear collectively at the end of chapter four. These are inconsistencies that I can overlook as a reader even if I feel obliged to highlight them as reviewer.

One point that reappears many times throughout the book is the well-rehearsed (and perhaps somewhat intuitive) observation that a less cluttered “traditional style” was deemed preferrable for dancing. However, what is described as “new style” concertina music, an approach that emerged from the influence of Paddy Murphy and Noel Hill, is at times, perhaps unintentionally positioned by the authors as being irreconcilably uprooted from the dance-based origins of Clare concertina music. This speculation appears to be at variance with the popularity of recordings such as I gCnoc na Graí by Noel Hill and Tony MacMahon, among past and present dancers of note.

Likewise, speculations made by the authors that octave playing remains a remnant of an older, lesser-performed “traditional style” seem a little out of touch with the realities of contemporary practice. The rationale for conversations that attempt to categorise styles according to “traditional” or “new” are understandable, albeit problematic if oversimplified. Among the list of “traditional style” players listed on page 80 are Elizabeth Crotty, John Kelly, Packie Russell, and my neighbour, the late Gerald Haugh. This compartmentalisation of each player as an exponent of “traditional style”, diametrically opposed to the newer emerging styles of concertina performance, somewhat belies their highly individualised and innovative contributions to concertina technique and repertoire. These categorisations are sometimes prescriptive, canon-forming processes that require further unpacking, as does the omission of the influence of the pioneering William J.Mullaly on Paddy Murphy. Mullaly, from Westmeath, was the first concertina player to commercially record in the United States in 1926, but he is only referenced once in passing, as a potential tune source on page 133. His recordings were a significant influence on Paddy Murphy’s approach to concertina technique, and consequently, he had a lasting impact on Clare concertina music in broader terms.

The transcriptions of 133 of Chris Droney’s favourite tunes found in chapter six add yet another dimension to this celebration of his musical life. Each tune is contextualised with some relevant information on its source and the year that Chris recorded it. In some instances, through transcriptions of interviews, we are offered Chris’ rich and insightful commentary on where he learned the tune. The classic tunes that we associate with Chris are present, as are many self-penned tunes, along with others composed by flute player Vincent Broderick from Bullaun near Loughrea in county Galway (who is erroneously described as a Dublin flute player, possibly because he moved to Dublin in the early 1950s).

Given the book’s impressive scope and the insights of its authors, I would have expected some discussion of Chris’ perspectives on composition. Some of us may have been fortunate to previously broach such topics with him, but I feel that audiences who perform and enjoy Chris’ original tunes would have appreciated an opportunity to learn more about what motivated him to incorporate self-penned tunes within his broader repertoire. To speculate, perhaps this was not a topic that Chris wanted to pursue. This would align with his admirable intuitive and no-nonsense approach; it is likely he just did it, without feeling the need to discuss it at great length. Brief anecdotes from Chris included to add some context to his notated compositions are enlightening.

The book’s epilogue takes the form of a wonderful musical tribute to Chris, composed by his daughter, Ann Droney Kirrane. A Waltz for Chris, penned by Ann to mark the one-year anniversary of Chris’ passing, serves as a fitting finale to this comprehensive reflection on Chris’ life and music. The tune is provided, as is a QR link to an excellent arrangement of it featuring Ann Droney Kirrane, Francis Droney, Cathal Droney, and Ciara Droney on concertinas; Éanna Droney on accordion; Áine McGrath and Gráinne Droney on fiddles; and Garry O’Briain on piano.

Chris Droney of Bell Harbour and the Tradition of the Concertina in North Clare offers a holistic and multi-faceted exploration of one of the most individualistic, influential, and celebrated Irish traditional musicians of any generation. Players and enthusiasts alike have been offered compelling insights into the many contributory musical, cultural, and social factors that ultimately shaped the exceptional music and life of Chris Droney, whose legacy will continue to flourish in the excellent hands of his children and grandchildren, and through this comprehensive and thoughtful publication by Dan M. Worrall and James J. Branch.

Jack Talty

Jack Talty is an award-winning concertina player, composer, educator, and academic from Lissycasey in county Clare. As a performer, he has toured extensively throughout Europe, the United States, Australia, and Asia, and he has contributed to over 100 albums to date as a musician, producer, composer, arranger, and engineer. In 2011, Jack established the critically-acclaimed traditional music label, Raelach Records. Jack is Lecturer in Irish Traditional Music at the Department of Music at University College Cork, where he is the Programme Director of the Department’s new MA in Irish Traditional Music.