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Clare: the Heartland of the Irish Concertina by Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin

Clare Concertina Dialects and Players

In the period 1890-1970, concertina playing in Clare took place primarily in mountain communities (above the 200-foot contour) to the north and east of the county, and in the blanket boglands of West Clare.

Topographical examination of these concertina territories reveals four musical 'dialects' which were formed by clachán-type community clusters during the post-famine era, and which dovetailed with the indigenous set dancing dialects of rural Clare.[23] The concertina dialect of south West Clare was highly rhythmical, melodically simple, and characterized by single-row fingering techniques on Anglo-German instruments. The Plain Set danced to polkas predominated in the region prior to the diffusion of the ubiquitous Caledonian Set in the 1920s and 1930s. Because of the influx of traveling teachers like fiddler George Whelan who crossed the Shannon from Kerry, the music of the area was linked umbilically with the polka and slide repertoires of Kerry and West Limerick. Hence, older concertina players like Charlie Simmons, Solus Lillis, Elizabeth Crotty, Matty Hanrahan, Frank Griffin, and Marty Purtill played a variety of archaic polkas and single reels. The Caledonian Set, however, facilitated more complex double reels, which were favored by players like Tom Carey, Sonny Murray, Tommy McCarthy, Bernard O'Sullivan, and Tommy McMahon.

The concertina dialect of mid West Clare was shaped explicitly by the rhythmic complexities of Caledonian set dancing, as well as the by American 78 rpm recordings of Co. Westmeath exile William J. Mullaly, which were prefaced by the dispersal of gramophones in the area during the 1920s. Dominated by the brean tír uplands of Mount Callan, this area extends from the Fergus Valley in the east, to Quilty on the Atlantic seaboard. Home to celebrated concertina masters such as Noel Hill, Edel Fox, Miriam Collins, Michael Sexton, and Gerard Haugh, as well as the late Tony Crehan and Gerdie Commane (see Example 1 in the Appendix for his version of 'The Kilnamona Barndance'), the region still houses the steps and dance figures of Pat Barron, the last of the traveling dancing masters to teach in West Clare in the 1930s. Complex cross-row fingering, intensive melodic ornamentation, and a formidable repertoire of dance tunes mark the indigenous concertina style of this region.

The most outstanding concertina master in mid West Clare in recent times was Paddy Murphy from Fiach Roe, a rural community on the brow of Mount Callan (see Figure 1). Influenced by the American concertina recordings of William J. Mullaly in the late 1920s,[24] Paddy pioneered a unique system of cross-row fingering which facilitated the use of alternative scales for tunes in unfamiliar keys.[25] The first Irish-born concertina player to broadcast on Irish radio, Paddy Murphy was also a competitive pioneer of the instrument. His victory at the All-Ireland Fleadh Cheoil (National Music Competition) in Cavan in 1954 marked the first-ever appearance of the concertina in an Irish national music competition. This forum has since attracted thousands of concertina players from all over Ireland, Britain, and North America. Much of Murphy's vast repertoire (see Example 2 in the Appendix for his version of 'The Moving Cloud') was learned aurally from the fiddling of the local postman, Hughdie Doohan, who had a rare ability to read music from O'Neill's Music of Ireland, which was published in Chicago in 1903 and enjoyed biblical status among Irish music communities by the 1920s and 1930s. Doohan, who was a key member of the local Fiach Roe Céilí Band, made well sure that his cohorts (whose skills of musical acquisition were primarily aural) would not want for access to the largest data bank of traditional Irish dance melodies in the world at the time.

Clare concertina master Paddy Murphy, 1990
Fig.1. Clare concertina master Paddy Murphy, 1990
(© Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin, 1990)

North Clare consists of three concertina communities situated along the perimeter of the Burren karst, all of which shared a common musical dialect. Two of these, Doolin and Bellharbour, were coastal, while the third was located in Kilfenora and Kilnaboy in the south Burren. With the curious exception of Pakie Russell (whose innovative style also explored cross-row fingering), most of the older players in North Clare favored melodically simple music and single-row fingering techniques, accentuating the inside or G row of the Anglo-German concertina. The overriding characteristic of this dialect was its emphasis on rhythm and ‘lift’ for set dancers. This ‘lift’ was endemic in the music of Peadaí Pheaitín Ó Flannagáin, James Droney, Brody Kierse, Biddy McGrath, and Michilín Connollan. It is still conspicuous today in the concertina playing of Chris, Ann, and Francis Droney (see Figure 2), Máirtín Fahy and Mick Carrucan, all of whom are extolled by North Clare set dancers.

Three generations of the Droney family from Bellharbour, northwest Clare, 1969
Fig. 2. Three generations of the Droney family from Bellharbour, northwest Clare, 1969:
Ann, James, and Chris. Chris Droney continues to enjoy a formidable reputation both in Ireland and among Irish concertina players in Europe and North America
(© Chris Droney. Courtesy of the Droney family, 1988).

Concertina music in East Clare was concentrated along the Clare-Galway border in Sliabh Aughty, in the drumlin belt of Clooney and Feakle, and above the fertile lowlands of the Shannon, in Cratloe and Kilfentenan. German-made concertinas predominated in the region during the early 1900s, most of which were owned by women who seldom played beyond the confines of their own kitchens. The archaic repertoire and ethereal settings of Sliabh Aughty found a resolute custodian in concertina master John Naughton of Kilclaren. Many of his settings were shared by Connie Hogan from Woodford in East Galway, where dance music was dialectically linked to the repertoires played in neighboring communities in East Clare. The house music of the drumlin belt to the south was typified by the concertina playing of Mikey Donoghue, Bridget Dinan, and Margaret Dooley, the latter two continuing to play well after their one-hundredth birthdays. The concertina music of Cratloe and Kilfentenan survived until recent times in the playing of Paddy Shaughnessy and John O’Gorman. Reminiscent of an older world of cross-road dancing and rural ‘cuairding’, their traditional milieu was purged by the suburban sprawl of cosmopolitan Limerick and, ironically, ignored by the revival of traditional music in nearby towns and villages during the 1970s. The most prominent exponent of East Clare concertina music today is Mary McNamara, who has sustained a vibrant corpus of dance tunes from such masters as John Naughton and Mikey Donoghue. (See Figure 3 for a topographical map of Clare concertina music, 1880-1980.)

Topography of Clare Concertina Music, 1880-1980
Fig. 3. Topography of Clare Concertina Music, 1880-1980 (©Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin)


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