History of the Concertina in Ireland

The History of the Concertina in Ireland

 

 

The year 1900,The concertina was by this time an item of

appreciable public interest and appeal in Dublin,

and had already begun to be accepted for playing

dance music.

By the last two decades of the nineteenth

century, the concertina was at saturation point

throughout England. In the London journal

Musical News, in 1897, someone wrote in

bemoaning the state of music in England:

 

We know how appreciation of music differs in

different countries. The Anglo-Saxon, like most of

his neighbours on this globe, is fond of it; but the

Celt has from time immemorial had the gift of

producing it with heartfelt fervour. In the poorest

Irish cabins, whenever a musical instrument can

be obtained, you will find one; and beautiful as

are the native melodies of Scotland and Wales,

those of Ireland are still more so. Why, then, if

there be such a gift in the Irish people, should it

not be cultivated as much as in England, or

rather as much as possible?

 

Of this sentiment, another writer sniffed:

 

It is interesting to read his statement as to the old

and accepted musical instruments to be found in

the poorest Irish cabins. That is not my

experience, which is rather that cheap German

concertinas are the chief instruments

occasionally seen. I cannot but regret that the

national harp and bagpipes seem to have

disappeared in favour of these importations from

the Fatherland. 5 *

 

That preponderance of concertinas

continued into the early twentieth century.

According to Clare historians Muiris O Rochain

and Harry Hughes, interviewed in 1977:

 

Here at one time, in the first three decades of this

century, there was a concentration of fiddle and

concertina playing. It was, as someone put it, a

“nest of concertinas. ” Everyone seemed to play

a concertina, it came as natural as mowing a

meadow or drinking a medium of stout. The folk

memory around here sparkles with anecdotes

about fiddlers and concertina players. 5 ‘ 5

 

 

Clare resident Bridget Dinan (b. ca. 1895),

interviewed by Gearoid O hAllmhurain in 1986,

spoke of the German concertinas of her youth

(she began to play at the age of seven):

 

Concertinas were very cheap at the time. A

concertina like that (holding up her own

instrument) would cost six [shillings] and six

pence and then you ’d get a smaller concertina

for younger people at half-a-crown. They were

got in Ennis. T would last a fair length of time.

 

T would last maybe a couple of years. Then

you d buy a new one. They were German

concertinas and they were played nearly always

on the outside row 60

 

 

GREAT BAND CONTEST

 

AMD

 

CONCERTINA CONTEST,

 

BOUND ROOM, ROTUNDO,

SATURDAY EVENING, JUNE 9.

 

PRIZES for BRASS BANDS.

 

1st Prize— A Comet, £15 15 j. 2nd Prize— A Clarionet,

SI it, by Besson and Co., Euston-road, London.

 

The contest, will be confined to tho

BRICKLAYERS’, JAM ES’-STREET, end INCBICORE

BRASS BANDS.

 

PRIZE for SOLO CONCERTINA PLAYING.

 

A Gorman Concertina.

 

Competition confined to Five paid-up Competitors.

Entrance, 3a, each. Ten minutes’ play— Sot of Waltzee

and variations. Professionals excluded.

 

Names and Entrance recoiled up to June 7th, at 63

Grifton-strcet.

 

Judge for Brass Bands:—

 

The Bandmaster ot the Royal Irish Constabulary.

 

Judge of Concertina Flaying:—

 

Mr. Thomas M ‘Carthy.

 

Doors open at Seven, Performance at 7.30. Balcony,

Is. 6d.; Body of Room, Is.

 

Instruments to be seen at 63 Grsfton-street, wheroo

owing to the great demand for Tickets, they will b,

iajned on This Day, To-morrow, and Saturday, at a re-

duced rato, to avoid any crushing at tho doors. 10735

 

 

Figure 14. Newspaper advertisement for the “Great Band and

Concertina Contest” of 1877, from the Freeman ‘s Journal,

Dublin. By the 1870s, use of the concertina was widespread

throughout Ireland.

 

 

201

 

 

 

The Anglo-German Concertina

 

 

German and Anglo-German Concertinas

in the Cities

 

Other hotbeds of concertina playing existed

outside of Clare, especially in the largest Irish

cities of Dublin, Cork, and Belfast. We have

already seen that there was enough of a critical

mass of concertina players in Dublin to have a

“Concertina Contest” in 1877 (Figure 14). In

fact, the city was alive with concertina playing,

as the following “sightings” demonstrate.

 

Street music: buskers and beggars

 

In Victorian London the streets were

thronged with the poor — some were foreign, but

many more were local English people displaced

by a sagging rural economy (Chapter 2). Dublin

too had its share of home-grown street poor; the

Famine had caused many rural Irish to try their

luck in Dublin and other Irish cities, and others of

course to emigrate. Continuing rural poverty in

later decades only exacerbated the situation in the

streets. For those who did not land a job in

commerce, the military, or domestic service,

options were few. Many eked out a living by

busking and begging; the dividing line between

the two was quite blurred. Others played in the

streets for enjoyment. Playing music in the streets

was a better alternative than playing music in the

small, crowded flats in which many urban people

of that era lived. In 1 893 Cork, a corres-

pondent of the local Southern Star railed against

growing numbers of street musicians there:

 

In writing this paper about street singers and

musicians, I do not intend to class them with

other itinerants . . . but at the same time I regret

that so far as I am personally concerned I cannot

express either satisfaction or pleasure at the

‘‘Sweet Sounds” I have heard. . . . [Street

musicians] are very numerous — in fact too much

so; and there is a variety in the instrument they

play (!) that is by far too great. … A melodeon

finds much favour with many street musicians. I

like the melodeon, but I certainly would issue a

degree of separation, if I had the power, between

the melodeon and the street performer on it. As

for the concertina, that poor instrument has

 

 

suffered fearfully at the hands — literally — of the

street player. When a man thinks he can play no

other instrument he purchases a concertina, in

the fond belief that he can manage that. And he

does, but very badly, but still he will persist in

showing up before others. 61

 

A similar complaint in the 1876 Irish Times

concerns “street” music played in the third-class

compartments of the railway line to the then-

fashionable seaside resorts of Kingstown and

Bray near Dublin. This piece also includes a brief

description of music at the annual Kingstown

Regatta, a favorite outing of Dubliners of that era

(Figure 15). The Irish Times, like other city

newspapers at that time, favored the genteel and

fashionable music of its upper- and middle-class

customers, and gave short shrift to what we now

call traditional Irish music. The mix of

instruments in the following article leaves little

doubt as to which type of music was being

played:

 

Sunday bands are a regular nuisance, but naught

compared to the dulcet strains that one is forced

to listen to on a journey to Kingstown or Bray on

a Sunday. Why is it that passengers are forced to

listen to such instruments as two-stringed fiddles,

cracked concertinas, broken-winded bagpipes,

and last, not least, coffee pots transformed into

flageolets. Really the railway company should

have more compassion and consideration for

their third-class passengers. . . .

 

Dublin must have been a very quiet city

yesterday, for there was a general meeting in

Kingstown of all the squeaking pipes, hoarse

fiddlers, derelict banjoes, and consumptive

concertinas that daily soothe the savage

temperament of the citizen. On the Carlisle Pier

they created a noise — to put it mildly — more

striking than effective, and it never lagged in

power or continuance. The two yacht clubs were,

of course, the centre of attention, and on their

balconies were grouped hundreds of the

handsomest and most fashionable ladies of

Dublin and its environs. 62

 

 

202

 

 

The Concertina in Ireland

 

 

 

Figure 15. The Kingstown Regatta, 1863. Photograph courtesy of the National

Library of Ireland.

 

 

That general theme resonated with others;

another Kingstown railway passenger com-

plained of “a class of itinerant beggars, in the

shape of concertina players and bone rappers” on

an 1878 trip. 63

 

Some of these street musicians made a

nuisance of themselves, as in an 1873 report of

“street rowdyism” in Dublin:

 

John McDonnell, Newcome-court, labourer, was

charged with having been one of a disorderly

mob who assaulted a man named John Downey,

Great Britain-street. The prosecutor deposed to

the fact that he was passing along Great Britain-

street when the prisoner, who was in company

with a number of persons who were playing a

concertina, tripped him. On asking what he did it

for, he was set upon by the prisoner, and the

others closed around him and assaulted him. His

Worship observed that he was ashamed of his

namesake, whom he sent to prison for one month,

and ordered to be kept at hard labour. 64

 

Although pub sessions are today often

thought to be largely a twentieth-century

invention, the association of concertinas with

pubs was made early. An 1877 Dublin newspaper

story entitled “Music and Refreshments” recalls

that:

 

 

Maty Brown was summoned by

Inspector Darcy for keeping

drink for sale on her unlicensed

premises, at 51 Grattan-court.

Inspector Darcy stated that

about 1:30 pm on Sunday, the

15 ,h of last month, he entered

Mrs. Brown ’s house; he saw her

throw something into a tub of

water, and he saw a man, whom

he believed to be her son, put a

bottle of porter under his arm ;

there were seven bottles of

porter behind a trunk, and two

men were in the shop under the

influence of drink. The defendant

said she had the porter in the

house for her son. Her son was the

proprietor of a concertina, and he

was acquainted with a few boys who came to

hear him play. Fined 10s. 65

 

Street playing continued well into the early

twentieth century. In 1 904 Dublin,

 

Our “census ” of Dublin was continued on

Saturday night. We set out to approximate the

number of street musicians, and, if possible, to

see how much they earned. . . . Between seven

o ’clock and eight three Italian organs, seven

singers, three concertina players were

encountered. As far as could be seen the

collections amounted to coppers from about 50

individuals. 66

 

A Dublin resident of 1911 lodged the

following complaint in the Irish Times :

 

Sir — I do not know the existing laws upon the

subject— perhaps you or some of your readers

will enlighten me — but how is it that in a

prosperous suburb like the Pembroke, uproarious

singing and concertina playing may be indulged

in at any hour of the night or early morning on

the roads? Last night there must have been an

open-air concert in the banks of the Dodder. Is it

absolutely necessary that the “lane ” leading

from Ballsbridge … to Donnybrook should be

 

 

203

 

 

The Anglo-German Concertina

 

 

open all night? It is in this lane that the

“musicians” chiefly congregate. 67

 

Complaints about Dublin street begging

included this in 1925:

 

Yesterday there were many cross-Channel and

provincial visitors in the city, and this is what

they saw. On the North side of the Pillar an

unwashed fiddler worked the crowds waiting for

the north-bound trains. On the South side, where

the crowds were larger, a gentleman with a

dulcimer had a large audience. A short distance

away, two men with a barrel organ and another

with a concertina collected coppers along the

sidewalks. Under the Ballast Office a woman

with a child in her arms solicited help from all

that passed. 617

 

Concertina playing was not limited to the

southern counties, but was found in the north as

well. Many concertina “sightings” of that area

relate to political and social upheavals of the time

(see below), but others show the same sort of

broad popular support for the instrument as was

found in the south. In a report on a Belfast

automobile event of 1928, the Ulster Tourist

Trophy Race, it was noted that:

 

Belfast … is a city of mechanical men. She

draws her sustenance from power-driven

industries, and she has taken up the preparations

for the great race . . . with wonderful zest. People

have thronged to the vast course to witness even

the early morning trial runs. Young men have

watched all night, enlivening the long hours with

the music of the concertina. When the race is run

tomorrow, hundreds of thousands of

manufacturers and merchants, artisans, factory

workers and shipbuilding hands from all parts of

the industrial North-East will crowd the track. 69

 

Charities, temperance, and the Salvation

Army

 

The concertina was put to work very early

on in the temperance movement, as in this Dublin

event of 1 860:

 

 

Great Temperance Demonstration, in the

Rotundo Gardens, on Friday Afternoon, at 3

o ’clock, will be held the Juvenile Fete, under the

auspices of the Metropolitan Total Abstinence

Society, in which occasion addresses will be

given by the Rev. J. B. Smyth, of Belfast, Mr. B.

Benson, a coloured gentleman from the United

States, and Mr. Jonathan Revell, the popular

Band of Hope Missionary, who will also sing

several melodies with the concertina. By the kind

permission of Colonel Mylius the Band of the

Royal Hibernian School will attend, 70

 

The concertina — undoubtedly an inex-

pensive German-made one — was also to be found

even among Dublin’s poorest citizens, the

children of the workhouses. An 1872 account of

“an annual feast given to the children of the

South Dublin Union Workhouse” reported that:

 

There can be no more touching or more

agreeable sight than that of several hundred little

boys and girls — waifs and strays of humanity —

made happy by kindness, and giving way to

unrestrained enjoyment, their every look

expressive of delight and gratitude at this treat

provided for their special pleasure.

 

Charity workers provided the Christmas

dinner and the decorations, and the “master of the

workhouse” organized the children into a

program of entertainment, which included the

concertina:

 

After tea a Christmas hymn composed by an

inmate of the workhouse was sung by the

children, and a selection of excellently-played

tunes was then given by the well-trained band

attached to the workhouse …. The “Leinster

Lillies, ” a clever troupe of amateur Christy

Minstrels, . . . won much approval by their quaint

gestures and admirable . . . vocal and

instrumental selections. A Fantasia of airs played

on the concertina well deserved the applause

which it received, and indeed every item in the

programme was . . . tastefully and cleverly

 

71

 

given.

 

 

204

 

 

The Concertina in Ireland

 

 

 

 

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Jut ifjJj tjIIB

 

 

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Figure 16. A Street Scene in Drogheda, 1880, by John Cassidy RBS. Oil on canvas, 76 x 56 cm, © Drogheda

Municipal Art Collection, Highlanes Gallery, Laurence Street, Drogheda Co. Louth. This is the earliest known

depiction of concertina playing in Ireland, and shows a boy in the street playing a concertina. Such street

performances were a common occurrence at the time, and attracted the artist’s attention.

 

 

205

 

 

The Anglo-German Concertina

 

 

By 1882 the Salvation Army, founded in

England by William Booth, had arrived in Dublin

for its work with temperance and poverty, just as

it had by this time in the United States, Australia,

and New Zealand. William Booth’s wife presided

at a large meeting in Dublin in June of that year,

where:

 

One of the detachment present, a son of Mrs.

Booth, wore the uniform of the staff, and played a

concertina, accompaniment to another

“ soldier , ” who wore a most unmartial-looking

top-coat over his regimental tunic, upon a cornet.

These gentlemen started the hymns, each verse of

which, before being sung, was read out by a

clergyman who presided at the meeting, and in

which nearly the whole of the congregation

joined, reading from books sold at one penny

each and entitled, “The Salvation Soldier’s Song

Book. ” Young Mr. Booth, who, in addition to

playing the concertina, sings the hymns, has

lungs of leather, but does not produce much

music . 1

 

That meeting was broken up by a group of

rowdies; it was common elsewhere for “skeleton

armies” organized by publicans — whose

livelihoods were threatened by temperance — to

harry Army activities.

 

Several of the Booth children played fine

Jeffries Anglo-German concertinas (see

photographs. Chapters 2 and 9). As in

other countries, early Salvationists employed

aggressive tactics in their street-evangelism and

occasionally found themselves in court, as did

Walter O’Neill and Sidney Porter in 1900, who

were accused of obstructing a public footway and

carriageway at Middle Abbey Street:

 

Defendants were holding a meeting in the street

and formed a circle round on the thoroughfare.

They had a musical instrument, and were singing

hymns . . . The Inspector now added that he saw

four or five cyclists ride up. When they came near

the crowd they had to get off their machines to

get past. The people were boohing and shouting,

and closing in on defendants. Porter, who had a

concertina in his hand, flourished it in a way that

annoyed the crowd. . . . Captain Porter played a

 

 

concertina; two respectable girls had to leave

the pathway to get past; other persons were

obstructed. . . Witness heard Porter say they had

done that as a test case . 2

 

These accounts of urban sightings show that

the cities of Ireland had German and Anglo-

German concertinas in abundance throughout the

late nineteenth and early twentieth century; it was

by no means an activity confined to the

countryside.

 

 

206

 

 

The Concertina in Ireland

 

 

The Concertina in Traditional Rural

Culture

 

Background: Irish dance in the late nineteenth

and early twentieth centuries

 

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth

centuries, the German concertina was, along with

the fiddle, a workhorse for music in house and

crossroads dancing all over the impoverished

Irish countryside — not just in Clare but

 

throughout the country, as in this Mayo

crossroads dance of 1904:

 

Midsummer Eve in Mayo, 1904

 

The scene is the King’s highway in the ancient

kingdom of Connaught; time, the dusky twilight

of midsummer midnight. It is the 23rd of June,

the eve of St. John, and the peasants of the

“distressful country” are assembling in every

village and hamlet to light huge fires and dance

around them, as has been their custom from time

immemorial . . . The road just here runs through

a vast expanse of bog, stretching away on either

side to a far-away boundary of blue mountains,

hardly to be distinguished now in the faint

moonless light of this June midnight. . . .

 

The high-piled bonfire occupies half the road,

and fragments are being blown and whirled

about by the summer gale in a fashion that seems

alarming. Standing about are some thirty or forty

men and boys . . . perhaps half that number of

girls are crouching under the shelter of the

boundary wall farthest from the fire. Their heads

are bare, but they have shawls over their

shoulders, and all, both men and women, are in

everyday working clothes and hobnailed boots.

The women in several instances have not even

removed their aprons, as if any rearrangement of

costume were considered unnecessary. . .

 

Someone concealed from view is playing lively

jig tunes on a concertina, and presently there is a

movement in the little crowd; men select partners

from among the ladies cowering under the wall,

who doff their shawls, and the dance commences.

It is formed of some ten or twelve couples; they

mark well, with rough-shod feet, the rhythm of

 

 

the tune on the hard road, and accurately

observe intricate steps as they move in and out

between other couples and turn their partners

around, much in the fashion of a quadrille — all

gone through with extreme gravity and decorum,

till the dance is accomplished, and the fair sex

retire once more into the shelter and obscurity of

the wall. There ensues another interval, during

which the men stand about as before.

 

The fire is occasionally replenished, and every

few minutes the company break into a sort of

subdued shouting, apparently for no particular

cause; the concertina tunes are continuous, and

are the liveliest feature of the gathering. The

Celt, like his British neighbour, takes his

pleasure sadly, except when his melancholy is

dissipated by the spurious gaiety born of strong

drink. 3

 

As we saw in Chapter 2 and will see in

Chapters 5, 7, and 8, the German and Anglo-

German concertinas for a time were the

instruments of choice for the new ballroom

dances that exploded out of continental Europe in

the nineteenth century, so much so that the

repertoire of these tunes in each country seems

shaped by the peculiarities of the simple, diatonic

keyboard of the concertina and one -row button

accordion. Those ballroom dances — quadrilles,

polkas, mazurkas, waltzes and the like — were not

danced just by affluent citydwellers, but by

working-class people living in the most remote

parts of the earth at the time: farmers, shepherds,

graziers, tradesmen, and common laborers.

 

Impoverished rural western Ireland was at

this time a last bastion of Gaelic culture, and one

might think that these foreign dances would not

be particularly popular there, or that the area

might be too remote for such fashionable trends

to penetrate deeply. And yet those country folk in

a crossroads of rural Mayo were dancing the

French quadrille, brought to England and Ireland

in the early nineteenth century by returning

Napoleonic soldiers, and they were playing it on

a relatively new and “modem” instrument

imported from Germany. For those not familiar

with traditional Irish dancing, the Irish name for

the quadrille is “set dancing,” or often simply

 

 

207

 

 

The Anglo-German Concertina

 

 

 

Figure 17. The Police Off Duty, from an illustrated essay entitled “Disturbed Ireland— A Visit to the West” in The Graphic

(London, Feb. 19, 1887). The drawing depicts an afternoon party, perhaps at a police barracks, in the west of Ireland in

  1. The police and their lady friends are engaged in ballroom dancing—perhaps a polka, from the swing of the dress of the

woman at left. Such ballroom dances were all the rage in all parts of Ireland at the time, and the military and police forces

were a key element in their dispersal— providing fuel to the ire of Gaelic nationalists, who decried such foreign

entertainment. As was the case in most Irish house dances of this time, there is a single concertina player providing the

music. With thanks to Nicholas Carolan at the Irish Traditional Music Archive.

 

 

“the sets.” Given this bit of explanation, the

scene at a country crossroad in Mayo was not

altogether different from that of Boer dances held

in farmers’ houses or during wagon treks in the

remote African veldt at this time, when German

concertinas were played for polkas, waltzes, and

quadrilles (Chapter 5). Similarly, during

Australian and New Zealand house dances held

in the remote “bush,” these same dances were

performed to the music of German and Anglo-

German concertinas (Chapters 7 and 8). Dance

culture in the late nineteenth century was nearly

as global as is today’s popular culture, it seems.

 

For those not familiar with Irish dance forms

and their evolution, the following is a very brief

description. Chapter 2 addressed three categories

of dancing that were prevalent in England during

the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; we

will use those categories and add a fourth,

twentieth-century Irish ceili dancing.

 

 

From oldest to youngest:

 

Step dances, danced to jigs, reels, and hornpipes.

From Vallely’s Companion to Irish Traditional

Music, the step dance is “a precise technical,

rhythmic performance genre danced by either

male or female, with kinesthetic activity

occurring predominantly in leg movements [that]

may be performed solo or in a group.” 4 This is

the dance style known to those audiences who

have seen Riverdance, for example. Practiced in

Ireland for centuries, this dance fonn is the

wellspring for much of Irish traditional dance

music.

 

Country dance. This was an English dance form

popular in the sixteenth century that was

exported both to France and to Ireland. It was

typically danced by groups of people organized

in long opposing lines (longways dancing) or in

circles. In France, variations became known as

 

 

208

 

 

The Concertina in Ireland

 

 

contredanse and in America, as the contradance.

In Ireland, the old rinnce fada (long dance) was

danced for King James on his arrival at Kinsale

in 1689, 5 and that dance was assumed by

nineteenth-century Irish scholar Eugene O’Curry

to be a fairly modern Irish term for country

dance. 6 The form was still somewhat in vogue at

the time of the concertina’s introduction, at least

in eastern Ireland. A dance book belonging to

Dundalk, County Louth native Kate Hughes

(1853-1938), which she started in 1867, lists 54

country (“contre”) dances and a handful of circle

dances. These dances were taught by a local

dance master named Arch Thomson. 7 It is

thought that country dances had faded out by the

end of the nineteenth century throughout most of

Ireland.

 

Ballroom dances. This term refers to a large

group of dances that were imported from the

ballrooms of continental Europe throughout the

nineteenth century. First to arrive was the

quadrille, derived from the French cotillon. It

came to London ballrooms and soon after to

Ireland with Wellington’s returning troops in

  1. The quadrille is a partnered dance

involving four couples (see p. 133) who executed

a series of two to nine figures that combined to

form a set. Individual figures are danced to tunes

with rhythms which change from figure to figure;

these are usually reels, jigs, polkas, slides, or

hornpipes. It is said that dancing masters helped

to spread the new dance, and worked to integrate

Irish rhythms into the figures. 8 In Ireland these

new dances became known as set dances’, the

Lancers, Caledonian, Highland, and Clare sets

are popular to this day.

 

A large part of the sets’ popularity with the

young of all social classes was the fact that the

quadrille is a partnered dance (Figure 17). During

a set, a young man could swing his sweetheart a

fair bit of the time, which was a dramatic

innovation relative to the country dance and to

earlier Irish step dance forms. The introduction of

the quadrille was followed by a new, even-more-

scandalous ballroom dance, the waltz, imported

in the early nineteenth century. Its close clutch-

hold was considered shocking, especially because

the entire dance is performed in that position; its

 

 

early participants in London were characterized

by the press as “loose.” Predictably, it swept like

wildfire into the English and Irish countryside,

and around the world. The waltz was the first of

an amazing variety of such couples dances to

enter British and Irish society from the continent,

including the mazurka (ca. 1820s), galop (ca.

1840s), polka (1844), schottische (1850) and

varsoviana (1853). Each involved couples in

relatively close holds as they perfomed dances of

varying speeds.

 

Of these couples dances, the waltz and the

polka were the most important and lasting in

Ireland, although the mazurka, varsoviana, and

schottische (often called the Highland, the fling,

or the “satoosh”) were danced as well. The polka

arrived in England in 1844, and in Ireland the

very same year, as this 1 844 account of a visitor

to the Kerry seacoast noted in her journal:

 

At the spring-tides here, a very fine cave can be

entered from the land at low water, and one night

we witnessed a novel soiree dansante in it .. .

 

The outer cave was the selected ball-room, and it

was lighted up with torches made of tarred tog-

wood stuck into the smooth sand, which threw

forth a splendid light, making the shining sides of

the caves, which were encrusted with myriads of

tiny shell-fish, sparkle with a beautiful effect. The

music certainly was not the most select; there

was a piper and fiddler and some amateurs who

tried alternately the cornet-a-piston and

clarionet . . . the music, indifferent as it was, and

the merry voices and laughter of the gay dancers,

and the murmuring of the billows, echoed by

multiplied reverberations, made to my ears a

most pleasing harmony. The polka had just been

introduced into Kerry, and infinite were the pains

taken by a laughing girl to teach the air to the

fiddler. “Sure I’d learn it soon enough if I’d the

notes, ” and quite satisfied with himself he played

an improvised polka which sounded extremely

like an old air the “Rakes of Mallow. ” 9

 

Quadrilles and polkas were prominently on

display at a dance in Swineford (now Swinford),

County Mayo, western Ireland in 1865, when an

English visitor stopped by the local public house:

 

 

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The Anglo-German Concertina

 

On arriving, my hat was taken at a kind of bar,

as if going to a regular party. The company were

assembled in the tap-room, which had a sanded

floor, and were dancing to the music of bagpipes.

The dances were the Irish jig, the reel, polka and

quadrille. Refreshments were liberally supplied,

consisting of sherry, tea, whisky-punch, soda-

water, bread and butter, and biscuits. There was

 

also singing, both sentimental and comic. A stout

young man, who handed me some refreshment,

apologised for perspiring so much; he had been

dancing since five o ’clock. I asked him how long

they would keep it up. He replied, “Oh! until five

o ’clock in the morning. ” … I joined in two

quadrilles. They were danced much in the

English fashion, with this important difference;

that in the fifth figure each gentleman had an

opportunity of meeting and whirling round and

round each lady, so that, according to this

practice, a handsome man who happens to secure

the prettiest girl in the room for his partner, must

at least for a time surrender her up in the last

figure to the tender mercies of his fellow-

dancers . 10

 

The dance book of Dundalk resident Kate

Hughes, mentioned above, contains instructions

for eight sets of quadrilles and eight set dances

“of quadrille type,” including Caledonians,

Lancers, mazurka quadrilles, and waltz cotillons.

In addition to the 54 country dances mentioned

earlier, the dance book only contains instructions

for only two reels. 1 1

 

It is not difficult to understand how these

“foreign” dances were getting to the heart of

Ireland. Beyond the activities at police and army

barracks (Figure 17), the dances were being

brought by visitors. The observer at the 1844

Kerry polka dance mentioned above was a well-

to-do Irishwoman living in London; she appears

to have been a relative of statesman Daniel

O’Connell, and was on a trip to visit him. She

and her party probably brought the new polka fad

with them on their visit, as did others. The youth

of Kerry were only too happy to learn the latest

popular European dance fashions, just as they

would be today. Kate Hughes learned them from

her local dancing master.

 

 

The German concertina was perfect for such

house dances, as it was portable, easy to play,

and loud enough to be heard at a festive occasion.

Such an occasion is shown in Figure 18. This

photograph, taken in 1911, shows a group of

villagers in the small village of Athea, County

Limerick, celebrating the potato harvest. The

people in the photograph are still held in the

memory of Mrs. Nora Hurley (b. ca 1919) of that

town. The harvesters lived in a row of thatched

cottages known as “The Lane.” Several of them

are in the process of making boxty (grated

potatoes, mixed with flour and then fried) in this

carefully staged photo. The concertina player,

May Nan Stevens, played for the dancing that

would accompany any such festive gathering. As

was the case in the drawing of the police dance of

1887 (Figure 17), the concertina was played solo.

 

As was mentioned in Chapter 2, it is

difficult to overstate the impact of these partners

dances (the quadrilles) and especially the couples

dances (waltzes and polkas) from continental

Europe. They were a global phenomenon

affecting people of all ages and all social stations.

In an era of global commerce, these dances and

the first of their tunes reached far-flung outposts

like South Africa, New Zealand, and western

Kerry just as soon as they reached London, often

with printed texts and music. British military

bands introduced both dances and tunes to the

cities in their colonies by playing for them in

public squares or for the elegant balls given by

the aristocracy (see examples in Chapter 5). The

passion with which these dances were followed

by the young was easily equal to that of the

dances of modern times. Rural dances in

Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa often

lasted throughout the night, breaking up only

with the dawn. Nineteenth-century ballroom

dances made huge inroads in conservative, Irish-

Gaelic society, as set dances, waltzes, and polkas

(many of local derivation) quickly became part of

what we now term the “traditional” music

repertoire. In all of these countries, the last

decades of the late nineteenth century formed the

peak of the genre.

 

 

210

 

 

The Concertina in Ireland

 

 

 

Figure 18. A group of farmers and villagers from Athea, Co. Limerick, celebrating the potato harvest, 191 1. Several

are engaged in making boxty for the party, and a concertinist (May Nan Stevens) is present to play music for a dance

that would accompany the celebration. With thanks to the National Folklore Collection, University College Dublin,

and to Sean O’Dwyer and Nora Hurley.

 

 

211

 

 

Copyrighted r

 

 

 

The Anglo-German Concertina

 

 

Ceil! dance. At the beginning of the twentieth

century, the Irish nationalist organization The

Gaelic League (more on it below) was appalled

by the number of “foreign” dances that had

infiltrated into Ireland, and it worked to ban

outright surviving country dances as well as the

ballroom set dances and couples dances. By that

time, of course, set dances (quadrilles) and

waltzes had permeated deeply into the

countryside. At a 1902 first Gaelic League

meeting in Currabeg, County Cork, a priest

named Father Fleming “explained the aims and

objects of the Gaelic League, and impressed upon

them their national duty of reviving Ireland’s

ancient language”:

 

The meeting concluded with an impromptu

ceilidh. Brian Dempsey had the good luck to

bring the fiddle with him: and at Father

Fleming’s request he played a selection of local

dance tunes. The audience listened in

appreciative and respectful silence. But the

moment he struck up “The Irish Washerwoman, ”

several voices called for Johnny Gorman, the

sole surviving step-dancer of Currabeg. Johnny

kindly favoured them with the few steps he

remembered, and promised to practice the rest by

the next evening. The young people stared in

wonder and admiration at Johnny ’s agility and

graceful movements. They had never attempted

anything better than the stupid manoeuvres

called “sets ” and “quadrilles. ” Father Fleming

contributed to the entertainment by singing the

Gaelic League rallying song, “Go Mairidh dr

nGaeilg Sian. ” In response to repeated

entreaties, Mrs. Cuddehy rendered her old

favourite ditty, “Carrigdhoun. ” All joined in the

final chorus, “ God Save Ireland. ” Then the

meeting dispersed in the best of good humour . 12

 

A new group of figure dances taken from

County Kerry was eventually adopted by the

League, and the ballroom “set” dances fell into

disfavor as being un-Irish. These new figure

dances — with now-familiar names like The Walls

of Limerick, The Siege of Ennis, and The Waves

of Toiy — became the accepted new norm, and

ceili dancing became a dance phenomenon of the

early to middle twentieth century. Many of these

 

 

were essentially longways country dances in jig

time, and in a sense they revitalized the extinct

country dance in Ireland. 1 ’

 

Hundreds of ceili bands were formed in the

years after the Irish Civil War in 1922 up until

the 1960s, and often these bands were quite large.

At this time the practice of rural house dances

was adversely affected and all but ended by the

government decree of the Dance Halls Act of

1935, which required a license for the premises

of all social dancing. The effect of this legislation

was to move dancing from private places (houses

and crossroads) to public places. Large ceili

bands were needed to provide the volume

required for the larger public and parish halls

(Figure 19), and the old house dances, served by

a solo concertina or a fiddle player, became a

thing of the past. 14 Some concertina players

adapted and prospered; many more did not.

 

Meanwhile, the young in much of the west

of Ireland continued to dance the sets, polkas,

and waltzes, foreign or not — and over time, set

dances filtered back into many ceili dances. With

the support of set-dance competitions by the

Gaelic Athletic Association and the Comhaltas

Ceoltoiri Eireann (CCE) beginning in the 1970s,

as well as through the efforts of many set-dance

teachers, the once-foreign but now thoroughly

Irish sets have become perhaps the most popular

form of Irish dancing today. 15 They are especially

popular at the Willie Clancy Summer School in

Miltown Malbay, County Clare, and that

organization has also done much to revive them.

And lastly, polkas — which did not find their way

into O’Neill’s 1903 Music of Ireland — did find

their way into Brendan Breatlinach’s Ceol Rince

na hEireann, part 2, of 1976.

 

 

212

 

 

The Concertina in Ireland

 

 

 

Figure 19. The Green Isle Ceili Band, ca. 1950s. Donnie Connors is seated at right, holding a German concertina. O’Connor

was the first president of the Tulla Comhaltas, which was organized in 1957. Ceili dances with large ceili bands replaced the

earlier house dances with solo musicians. Photo courtesy of Tulla Comhaltas.

 

 

“Sightings” of the concertina in Irish dancing

 

In Drogheda, Co. Louth, in the winter of

1 870, a frost of “unusual rigour” set in, freezing

the ponds and lakes of the surrounding district. A

local gentleman threw open the gates of his

“pleasure grounds, in the demesne of Beaulieu,

for the exercise and amusement of the

inhabitants.” Hundreds of townspeople turned out

with ice skates:

 

The surrounding banks were covered with

spectators, who took a lively interest in the

animated scene. Several ladies enjoyed

themselves on the glassy surface in chairs

propelled by gentlemen in skates , and children

were wheeled to and fro in perambulators. A

section of the assemblage, ensconced in a

summer-house, improvised a lively dance during

the day, to the music of concertinas . 16

 

 

In 1886 a riot during an attempted house

eviction in Woodford, County Galway, resulted,

happily, in negotiations for cessation of the

disturbance. During the negotiations, the tenant’s

family sensed victory:

 

Constable Denis deposed that while the

negotiations for a settlement were proceeding

between the sheriff and the tenant, the people

inside the house were dancing. There was a

 

concertina playing. 1 1

 

Near the village of Muckross, County Kerry,

in 1930, a crossroads dance that was quite similar

to the one described in 1904 Mayo, above, nearly

occurred:

 

I went there one Sunday night, which is the great

dance night, in the hope of seeing a few jigs. I

found about twelve hulking youths sitting on the

stone wall near the platform, but not one girl.

 

 

213

 

 

Copyrk

 

 

The Anglo-German Concertina

 

 

The segregation of the sexes is a remarkable

feature of the Irish countryside. The girls go

about together and the boys loiter in glum groups

at street corners or the end of lanes; and both

seem a bit sad about it. One of the boys had a

fiddle and another had a concertina. When I

spoke to them they became as shy as colts. The

girls, they said, were a bit late for the dance, and

if they did not turn up soon they would have to

give up the idea of dancing. . . .

 

They noticed, with a brightening of eye and a

smoothing of tousled hair, a number of girls

coming toward them down the lane. Here were

the partners! But the girls walked right past, and

the boys just nodded and smiled at them in a

sheepish way. No one suggested that they should

join the dance. Then a priest cycled past and they

all took off their caps. I wondered whether the

priest ’s presence had stopped the dance; but that

was not likely, because I have been told that most

priests approve of cross-road dancing. The boys

cast a miserable glance in the direction of the

departing girls, the fiddler put away his

instrument, the other musician closed his

concertina, and sadly the group melted away. 18

 

A 1931 collection of the Dances of Donegal

includes all ballroom set dances (quadrilles) and

couples dances such as the polka. They were

collected, as the author indicates, from country

dancers and musicians in that northwestern

county; the musicians for these dances were

reported to have typically played fiddle and

concertina. 19

 

The above descriptions from Counties

Mayo, Meath, Kerry, and Donegal show that the

concertina was being widely played for dances

throughout Ireland. In the late twentieth century,

after the concertina had disappeared in most parts

of the country, a number of aging players in

Clare left oral histories that contain many

references to early-twentieth-century house

dances with the instrument. One of those

anecdotes came from centenarian Margaret

Dooley (b. 1885) of Knockjames, East Clare.

She was interviewed by Gearoid O hAllmhurain

in 1986:

 

 

The young lads long ago, they had no place to

  1. They had nothing only goin’ in there and

collectin’ in a neighbour’s house for a dance.

The concertina, ’twas in every house and the

boys were able to play it as well as the girls.

T’ould concertina shure! ’Twas easy to learn on

  1. In the neighbours’ houses on the flag floor,

they’d be dancin’ wild with the nail boots and

you’d hear them crackin’ a fling before you’d

come into the kitchen at all. ‘Twas a nice way of

putting down the time, but shure! ’tis all different

now. Everywhere you ’d go that time there was a

concertina player. There was one nearly in every

house. 20

 

Rural people started to see the new but

quaint little box as something well suited to the

tunes of olden times, which this poem from the

1893 Cork Southern Star makes abundantly

clear:

 

 

214

 

 

The Concertina in Ireland

 

 

O’B ’S CONCERTINA

 

With light caressing touch he lays

Upon the gleaming keys his fingers.

 

And there a moment ere he plays

With dreamy look he lingers;

 

Then plays the “coulin” sweet and low

With gladness as with sorrow ringing

And sweet sad mem’ries come and go-

A brief sweet spell upon us flinging.

 

And Paddy Mac draws up his chair;

 

With wond’ring eyes he listens to it

And says, when played the plaintive air,

“Molair! ’Tis he knows how to do it!”

 

And when a merry strain he plays

 

Old Paddy then you should have seen — ah!

 

“God be wid the good ould days —

 

Me sowl!! ’Tis grand — that concertina!

 

“An’ whist — no! Is it — tis! Hurroo” —

 

What’s up with Paddy now I wonder?

 

Across the house his caubeen 21 flew,

 

Flung his coat the table under;

 

Forgotten now his years three score,

 

He only thinks of when an airy,

 

Jovial bouchal , 22 off he bore

The crown for dancing in Iveleary.

 

“Ay! That’s the tune— ’tis Bonnie Kate!

 

“Poor Morty Oge! The pride did lave him

“Right quick that day when he was bate , 23

“An’ here’s a taste of what I gave him.”

 

He danced — oh! Gracefully and light!

Surprised, delighted, we drew near him —

 

Ye gods! But ’twas a gladsome sight;

 

We cheered while voice was left to cheer him.

 

I’ve read how Arion’s music saved

His life when ’mongst the monsters finny,

And heard how kings the favour craved

A tune from peerless Paganini;

 

How maids in far Castile can thrill

With gay guitar or mandolins — ah!

 

These could not with rapture fill

Like you — oh! Magic concertina.

 

  1. O’S . 24

 

 

It seems quite remarkable that the humble

concertina, which had been around in significant

numbers for only four decades by this time, had

been both accepted and honored with a poem for

its ability to conjure up the “good auld days” in

the eyes of “Old Paddy.” Clearly the instrument

had carved a niche with players of traditional

music and was well on its way to becoming an

iconic part of Ireland’s musical heritage. In 1908

Ireland participated in the Franco-British

Exhibition in west London. A laundry soap

magnate provided funds to create the fictional

and iconic village of Ballymaclinton (Figure 20)

where there was “plenty of amusement to be had

on the village green, where the colleens dance to

the strains of a concertina played by one of their

number, or else to the fiddle and the pipes.” 25

When commercial interests take up an instrument

to help create an iconic bit of “auld Ireland,”

surely that instrument was riding the crest of a

popularity wave. That popularity, however, was

not without challenge from some Irish

nationalists.

 

The concertina and the Gaelic League

 

The disappearance of the Irish language,

with its attendant damage to the fabric of Gaelic

culture, was of paramount concern to many Irish

nationalists at the end of the nineteenth century.

The Gaelic League was founded in 1893 by

Douglas Hyde and Eoin MacNeill. Its goal, as

related by historian Donal McCartney, was:

 

[T]o keep Irish alive where it was still spoken,

and later, to restore Irish as the spoken language

of the country. By giving up our native language

and customs, said Hyde, we had thrown away the

best claim which we had upon the world’s

recognition of us as a separate nation. Therefore

the task facing the present generation of Irishmen

was the re-creation of a separate cultural Irish

nation, and this could only be done by what Hyde

called de-Anglicization — refusing to imitate the

English in their language, literature, music,

games, dress and ideas 2 6

 

 

215

 

 

 

The Anglo-German Concertina

 

 

Colleea9 Dancing;, Bailymaclinton

(M’Clinton’a Town, erected by the makers of M’Clinton’a Soap)

 

 

Figure 20. Dancers in the fictional town of Bailymaclinton at the Franco-British Exhibition of 1908, where ‘colleens’ danced

on the village green to traditional Irish concertina music, for fairgoers. From the author’s collection.

 

 

As we have seen above, in the League’s

concern for the health of traditional Gaelic

culture they attacked the highly popular imported

ballroom dances that had permeated both towns

and countryside — no matter that these dances

were just as “foreign” and imported in England

as they were in Ireland. Moreover, from the

League’s perspective the imported German

concertina was strongly associated with not only

those ballroom dances but with English language

popular songs, and hence was to be rooted out. In

more Anglicized eastern areas like Dublin or,

increasingly, in “modem” social venues farther

west, popular English music-hall tunes (as well

as the latest songs from the American minstrel

circuit) might be heard on the concertina. For

example, in the Bijou Theatre of Dublin in 1885,

the local Star Minstrel Troupe perfonned a “good

selection of comic and sentimental songs” that

included the usual, stereotypical minstrel jokes

about blacks from the southern U.S. entitled “The

Black Servant,” songs by Stephen Foster, and

banjo and concertina solos by Mr. Killie, which

 

 

drew “unceasing applause.” 27

 

A nationalist observer had this to say about

the German concertina and the equally new and

imported banjo in 1894:

 

Since the Union, Ireland has shuffled off her

ancient language, with its thousand years of

history and its striking imaginative literature,

with almost indecent haste. She has neglected the

priceless treasure of her ancient national music,

and her western peasantry sing the music hall

songs of London. The Irish harp and the Irish

pipes have given way to the banjo and the

concertina. The people have even in thousands of

cases changed their names, lest any trace of their

Celtic nationality should cling to them. 2s

 

Gaelic League organizer “Mr. McNestor,”

addressing a League meeting in Dublin in 1908,

lamented the disappearance of the Irish language

and Irish ways:

 

They should get back to their native music. They

were at one time the most musical nation when a

 

 

The Concertina in Ireland

 

 

harp hung in every house, but now they had got

down to the concertina and melodeon, and even

to the mouth organ. They had thrown away the

music of their great composers for the abortions

and abominations of the English music halls,

which if they had any sense at all had an immoral

sense that any man would be ashamed of. 29

 

Ignored by a famous collector

 

Many of the Gaelic League’s views were

shared by the premier collector of Irish

traditional music of the day, Captain Francis

O’Neill, who almost completely ignored the

concertina in his extensive writings on Irish

music at a time when the concertina was at or

near its all-time peak in popularity among

musicians in western Ireland. In Irish Minstrels

and Musicians (1913), for example, he writes of

musicians he had met during his years of

collecting activities in the United States, as well

as those musicians he met when he returned in

1906 to his birthplace of Tralibane near Bantry,

County Cork, and those he met on an extended

collecting trip to County Clare. As we know from

indisputable oral history accounts, the concertina

was as common as rain in Clare at that time — he

might have run into a young Elizabeth Markham

(later Mrs. Crotty), or perhaps John Kelly’s

mother, Chris Droney’s father, or Packie

Russell’s mother — but we read not a mention of

concertinas. When O’Neill stayed in Feakle (in

eastern Clare, his wife’s family home), he should

have heard, or at least heard of concertina player

Tadhg Rua McNamara, who was a close friend of

Johnny Allen and Paddy McNamara, from whom

O’Neill collected music. 30 In all of his

voluminous writing on Irish music, O’Neill can

only once bring himself to mention that flute

player Patrick Fleming of Wexford has a sister

who “is a capable performer on the concertina.” 31

That, and no more. In his introduction to the

reprinted edition of the Captain’s 1913 work,

Barry O’Neill addressed its implicit bias:

 

The titled sketches include 191 Uillean pipers, 54

fiddlers, 38 harpers, 19 pipemakers, 12 fluters,

 

10 war pipers, 8 music collectors, one accordion

 

 

player, and one ceili band. No players of

concertina, banjo, or tin whistle are mentioned.

These numbers certainly are not intended to

reflect the relative sizes of each population.

Rather, they show Captain O ’Neill ’s attitude as

to which instruments are properly traditional

 

32

 

ones.

 

Captain O’Neill’s disapproval tells us

much about the times during which the

concertina arrived in western Ireland. He was

bom in 1849 during the Famine to parents who

were both fluent Irish-speakers and accomplished

singers of old Irish songs. O’Neill himself,

however, was raised speaking only English as a

result of the great wave of cultural change taking

place at that time, and he never became fluent in

Irish. O’Neill left Ireland in 1866, not to return

for forty years. When he began his collecting

activities in Chicago, he was driven to capture

the airs to the songs he remembered his parents

singing in his youth. Because the lyrics to the

songs were in rapidly disappearing Irish, he

rightfully surmised that most of these tunes

would disappear along with them. While in

Chicago he met scores of emigre Irish pipers at a

time when, according to his friend Grattan Flood

(The History of Irish Music, 1911) there were

only a very small number of accomplished pipers

left in all of Ireland. 33 Ireland had been emptied

of its professional class of traveling pipers by

emigration, and part of the musical slack left by

the departing pipers was taken up by the

populace themselves on the inexpensive German

concertina, played for imported polkas and set

dances. When O’Neill returned to Ireland in

1906, he would of course have seen this situation

in Clare, along with the near disappearance of the

Irish language by then, and the attendant erosion

of other facets of traditional folk culture. Of

music during that visit, he wrote:

 

A six week’s trip through Munster and Leinster

. . . after an absence of forty years, disclosed

nothing which afforded much evidence of a

musical regeneration. Not a piper or a fiddler

was encountered at the five fairs attended, and

but one ballad singer. The competitors at the

 

 

217

 

 

The Anglo-German Concertina

 

 

Feis at Cork and at Dublin were amateurs,

except one or two fluters. Their very best

performers on any instrument at either Feis are

easily outclassed (by emigres) here in Chicago. 34

 

Like his friends in the Gaelic League, of

which he was a “keen supporter,” 35 he would

have disapproved of many musical changes,

including the popular concertina (which had

partly filled in the gap left by his beloved pipers)

and the banjo, which had slipped into Ireland

with the late -nineteenth-century American

minstrel shows. Of the tin whistle, he related an

incident at a Cork Feis in 1906 where some

“wonderful” young dancers were to perform on

stage:

 

With commendable promptness the dancers and

the expectant onlookers, many of whom had

traveled far to enjoy and encourage the revival of

traditional Irish music, were treated to a “tune

on the pipes ”? No, sad to relate, but on a French

celluloid flageolet. 36

 

It is clear that O’Neill found it hard to relate

to new instruments that were emerging within

Irish music, so much so that he regarded them as

things outside the tradition. To the extent that the

concertina and other new instruments were

played in the absence of pipes and fiddle, they

were seen by O’Neill as part of a dearth of

traditional music, and as further evidence of the

continued collapse following the Great Famine of

the old system of patronage of traveling

musicians by the gentry. He was not alone.

Among works by more recent writers, O

Canainn’s Traditional Music in Ireland (1978)

does not mention the concertina, melodeon, or

banjo. Only the pipes, fiddle, and harp are

treated. 37 O’Neill

 

may have disapproved of the concertina, but his

publications were avidly used by concertina

players in Clare. Gearoid O hAllmhurain

interviewed Paddy Murphy, the late, well-known

player from the Connoly/Kilmaley area, who said

he learned tunes from local postman Hughdie

Doohan, a fiddle player who could read music

 

 

and owned O’Neill’s The Dance Music of

Ireland. Said Paddy:

 

Hughdie used to sit down like any good

schoolmaster with the lamp in front of him on the

table. The book would be taken down and

Hughdie ’s fiddle tuned to perfection. He would

read the music then from O ‘Neill’s book and

according as Hughdie read them we learned

them off. He was a mighty man for strange and

new tunes. It was from Hughdie that we got Kit

O ’Mahony ’s Jig, The Flax in Bloom, The Maid of

Feakle, The Northern Lasses and loads more.

None of them tunes were ever heard of around

here until Hughdie started to read them off of the

book. 33

 

Although the evident disapproval of the

concertina by the most eminent collector of that

era is disappointing, it is perhaps understandable.

The concertina was still considered a very

modem thing at the turn of the last century, and

its use, including for the new ballroom dances for

which it was often played, may have been

difficult for some to accept. How many persons

over a certain age today accept the electric guitar

in Irish music, even though it is slowly creeping

into the reels played by younger, “Celtic rock”

groups? In addition O’Neill no doubt noticed that

the old German-made, two-row concertinas

lacked the technical capability to play some of

the more complex fiddle and pipe tunes,

especially in “fiddle” keys like D and A. The

influx of significant numbers of higher-quality,

three-row Anglo-German instruments seems to

have occurred in the mid-twentieth century (see

below), much after O’Neill’s day. Until those

better-quality instruments arrived, concertinas in

the west of Ireland were seen by many musicians

as a “step down” from the pipes and the fiddle,

regardless of their popularity. 39 It well may be

that O’Neill was reacting to the German

concertina’s technical limitations rather than

simply its newness.

 

Regardless of its evident technical

shortcomings, the German concertina came into

Ireland when traditional music was at a low ebb,

after the departure of professional pipers from the

 

 

218

 

 

The Concertina in Ireland

 

 

countryside had brought to a close a system

where traveling professional experts (often blind)

were supported by the largesse of local patrons.

When that system collapsed, Irish music had to

change in order to survive. In traditional music’s

next era, the concertina did more than fill in part

of the gap left by the emigrating pipers. Being

inexpensive and commonly available, easy to

maintain, and easy to learn, it was picked up and

played by a very large segment of the populace

as a whole — not just by a class of traveling

professionals. The Gennan concertina, along

with the accordion, fiddle, and tin whistle, helped

bridge Irish music to a new world, one that

O’Neill could not imagine when he said:

 

We are told by our optimistic orators and

rhymers that Irish music will speedily resume its

sway when Irishmen govern Ireland. Let us hope

so — but how? When? Where? Who is to teach ? 40

 

The people became their own teachers.

Cheap, easy-to-leam concertinas and one-row

accordions helped that to happen.

 

 

 

Figure 21. Wheatstone two-row wooden-ended concertina, built in

1926, once owned by Michael Mullaly (William Mullaly’s brother).

The Mullalys were from Milltown, near Mullingar in Co. Meath.

With thanks to Bill Mullaly, a descendant of Michael.

 

 

219

 

 

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The Anglo-German Concertina

 

 

A Witness to the Larger Events of the

Time

 

Concertinas, being commonplace and

somewhat ubiquitous during this period, very

much reflected the times in which they were

played. Hence they were sometimes, by

happenstance, on the sidelines during some of the

significant events of the day in Ireland. Although

the following “sightings” are minor anecdotal

references within larger stories, they tell us much

about just how ubiquitous the instrument was in

its heyday and how quickly and thoroughly it was

adopted as “their own” by the various social

groups that played it — not all of whom fit the

current image of traditional players. Ireland in the

late nineteenth and early twentieth century was

alive with protest, and the concertina was seen at

many such gatherings. An early such account was

already mentioned: the arrest of a County Clare

protester with a concertina in 1868, one of the

earliest sightings of the German concertina in

Ireland, where the instrument was already

ensconced within the western peasantry:

 

At Nenagh (County Tipperary) Petty Sessions on

Saturday two performers of street music, who

came from the county of Clare, were severely

dealt with by the magistrates for playing Fenian

tunes on a concertina. It was proved that a

crowd which followed them joined in chorus.

They pleaded ignorance of the character of the

tunes, but the Bench did not accept the excuse,

and sent them to gaol for two months. 41

 

Evictions and land reform

 

A bitter relationship existed between rural

Irish tenants and landlords throughout the late

nineteenth century, the result in part of cultural

memories of the widespread and notorious

evictions during the desperate years of the Great

Famine. The same decline in agricultural prices

that wreaked havoc in rural England (Chapter 2)

caused similar problems in Ireland. Added to

those woes were widespread crop failures in the

fall and winter of 1878-79. Large numbers of

Irish tenants faced not only starvation but

eviction because of their inability to pay rent.

 

 

The ensuing crisis led to the Land War of 1879-

1882, where a newly formed Land League led

mass protests and boycotts against landlords and

evictions. The British Parliament enacted a land

act that resulted in a more fair system of rent as

well as what was in effect a system of dual

ownership of land by peasants

 

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The Irish Concertina Company

The Irish Concertina Company