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

The Grim Requiem of the Music Maker

While Crown clerks compiled sterile statistics on the famine catastrophe, and journalists tugged at the heartstrings of the literate public, the folk poet, the singer, and the music maker indexed the cultural cleansing of the Great Famine from the humanistic perspective of the famine victims themselves. Reflecting in lucid detail upon the inner world of the Irish-speaking clachán, famine songs, piping airs, and musical-place lore chronicled the demise of community life, work rituals, calendar customs, and folk beliefs. These anonymous tunes also mirrored the ultimate demise of their own keepers, who had given them a voice in the living traditions of pre-famine Ireland.

In Clare, where tradition-bearers and listeners, repertoires and musical territories were ravaged irrevocably by starvation and diaspora, folkloric evidence cites musicians ending their days in the workhouse, instrument makers going to ruin, and pipers following their audiences into exile in the New World. Contemporary antiquarians like George Petrie and Eugene O'Curry, who collected music and songs from clachán-based informants in West Clare prior to the famine, reflect sadly on the 'silence' which had been inflicted on the 'land of song'.[6] Their pessimism was an epitaph for the old world of the swaree and the dancing master, the townland and the fairy path, which had now ceded its place to a more conservative and materialistic milieu.[7]

While they cannot be regarded in the same light as orthodox eyewitnesses, traditional musicians did observe the famine droch-shaol (bad life) at close quarters. Their grim requiem contains cogent observations of its impact in rural communities.[8] The small fragments of Clare songs which survived in Irish, like that recorded from Síle Ní Néill in Coolmeen, focused on the interwoven themes of mortality, destitution, and exile from the 'insider' perspective of the victims and their immediate kin. The following verse, recorded from Seán Mac Mathúna, who was born in Luach near Doolin in 1876, is a poignant case in point:

Is dána an rud domhsa a bheith ag súil le comhra
Is maith an rud domhsa má d'fhuighinn braillín
Is a Rí na Glóire tabhair fuscailt domhsa
Go dté mé im´chónaí san gcill úd thíos.[9]
It is a bad thing for me to expect a coffin
It will be a good thing for me to get a sheet
And God of Glory, grant me solace
Until I go to dwell in that graveyard below.
(My translation)

Despite the cultural cleansing of the Great Famine, almost a half-century would pass before the indigenous piping dialects of Clare would finally expire. In the years after 1850, a few itinerant pipers managed to eke out a livelihood in the small towns and villages in the west of the county. For example, Paddy O'Neill and John Quinlan worked as pipers on riverboats plying the Shannon between Limerick and Kilrush. Quinlan, who was commonly known as 'Jack the Piper', also played for holiday makers in Lahinch and Lisdoonvarna.[10] In the Sliabh Aughty uplands of East Clare, the last remnants of local piping died with Mick Gill and Michael Burke before the end of the century. One of the last pipers of note to visit the area was Loughrea man Pat Twohill, who, along with his brother John, had worked as a professional piper in England during the 1860s. Twohill's younger brother James was father of the celebrated American piper Patsy Touhey, who emigrated from Loughrea, Co. Galway, with his parents in 1869.

Fleeing the depression of the post-famine era, several Clare pipers followed their audiences into exile in the New World. Corofin-born Patrick Galvin left Clare for New Zealand in the late 1850s. Dubbed 'The New Zealand Piper' by the collector Francis O'Neill, it would be forty years before Galvin would return again to his native place. His contemporary, Johnny Patterson, was the most flamboyant of Clare's emigrant pipers. In his celebrated ditty 'The Stone Outside John Murphy's Door', Patterson immortalized his impoverished childhood in the hovels of Old Mill Street in Ennis. Having survived the worst effects of the famine, Patterson joined the British Army, where he received piccolo and drum lessons in the army band. At the end of five years of service, he bought his way out of the army and joined Swallow's Circus. For the next forty years, Patterson toured Ireland, England, and the United States with a variety of circus companies. Dubbed the 'Rambler from Clare', Patterson featured piping in many of his shows, especially in the United States, where he was billed as a 'Famous Irish clown and piper'. His songs include such Irish-American standards as Good Bye Johnny Dear, The Hat My Father Wore, The Garden Where the Praties Grow, and The Roving Irish Boy, and thrived on emigrant sentimentality.[11]

Pipers were not the only music makers to take their leave from Clare. Fiddlers and flute players were also conspicuous among Clare émigrés in North America. Fiddler Paddy Poole from Tulla spent many years in the United States in the late nineteenth century. He began teaching fiddle in East Clare after he returned home in the 1920s. Poole spent some time in Chicago, where he played with the vaudevillian piper Patsy Touhey. Flute player Patrick O'Mahony from West Clare also found his way to Chicago in the early 1880s. There he joined the police force and contributed numerous Clare dance tunes to the published collections of Francis O'Neill.[12]

It was into this milieu of cultural upheaval and musical change that the Anglo-German concertina arrived in Clare during the middle decades of the nineteenth century. It would eventually replace the uilleann pipes (whose exponents were ravaged by famine and exile) as a popular vernacular instrument. While its presence was especially felt in fishing, piloting, and trading communities along the lower Shannon estuary -- one of the busiest riverine networks in Ireland during the nineteenth century -- its espousal by women music makers would become its most enduring sociological feature at a time when women in Irish society were, for the most part, subservient players in a ubiquitous patriarchal milieu.[13]


Clare: the Heartland of the Irish Concertina

Newfound Wealth