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

Newfound Wealth, River Pilots, and Women's Concertinas

Women born into rural communities in post-famine Clare grew up in a spartan, materialistic world. As non-inhering dependents in a patriarchal culture, women shared a common fate with servant boys, farm laborers, and disinherited males on the family farm. As the 'disinherited sex', they were deprived of the independent income, however meager, they enjoyed from domestic industry prior to the famine.[14] With marriage becoming an economic union more often than an amorous one, wives became increasingly subservient to their domestic masters, their husbands. Similarly, unmarried sisters were governed by the whims of their fathers and brothers. For women lacking the luxury of a dowry or a farm to boost their economic status, their only escape was to emigrate, or else to find work as servant girls or shop attendants in a nearby town.

As the landless laborer and the clachán disappeared from the Clare countryside, the average size of farms got bigger. In the resulting economic transformation, it became increasingly difficult to marry above or below one's 'station'. As strong farmers refused to marry their daughters to laborers, the social choice for prospectors in the marriage market narrowed considerably.[15] The age of marriage also changed. Sons waiting to inherit the family farm tended to be more patient than daughters waiting for a husband. Hence, husbands tended to be older than their wives. The widening age gap between spouses created a high proportion of widows at the other end of the life cycle. Wives and widows, many of them victims of loveless matches engineered by their fathers or local match makers, often projected their hunger for affection onto their eldest sons, and dreaded the rivalry of a daughter-in-law, who would ultimately compete with her for her son's loyalty.

By the 1890s, however, the climate of frugality, which had marked the previous decades, began to wane, and the quality of women's lives improved. Successive Land Acts and the deft attempts of Tory governments to 'kill Home Rule with kindness' led to an overall improvement in social and economic life in the Irish countryside. Inspired by similar developments in Denmark, Sir Horace Plunket's cooperative movement helped to improve Irish agriculture, especially dairy farming. Plunket founded the first of his dairies, or 'creameries' as they are called in rural Ireland, in 1889 to upgrade the quality of Irish butter and cheese.[16] Within a decade, creameries became common landmarks in most rural parishes. Following the brief failure of the potato crop in 1890, the future Prime Minister Arthur Balfour introduced a number of light railway schemes. In 1891, the Congested Districts Board was established to amalgamate farms and improve living conditions in impoverished western areas. Similarly, political devolution took an unprecedented step forward in 1898, when the Local Government Act created urban and county councils all over Ireland.

Clare was among the beneficiaries of these economic changes. The West Clare Railway had been incorporated in 1883. Within a decade, its South Clare line, linking Kilrush, Kilkee, and Miltown Malbay, was completed. As well as improving travel within the county, the railway introduced a whole range of consumer goods and services, which were once beyond the reach of its patrons. The combined effects of increased communication, the co-op movement, and the Congested Districts Board helped to generate new independent income for women in rural Clare. By the end of the century, many were taking advantage of the buoyant economic climate to sell eggs and butter in local country shops or nearby village markets. Others boarded the 'West Clare' to transport animals and garden produce to market towns along the railway line. This new domestic income allowed women to buy a range of goods, including cheap concertinas, which became ubiquitous in rural communities by the early 1900s. Their intriguing espousal of this hexagonal squeezebox would have far-reaching musical and social consequences.

Influenced by the Chinese shêng, and perhaps the Laotian khaen (ancient free-reed instruments brought to Europe by French Jesuit missionaries in the eighteenth century), the concertina had come to fruition during the Romantic period. The English concertina was patented by Sir Charles Wheatstone in 1829. Popular in music salons and parlors from Victorian England to Tsarist Russia, Wheatstone's expensive chromatic instrument remained a 'high art' curiosity for most of the nineteenth century, though by the 1880s, it had found its way down into the ranks of working class musicians in industrial England, as well as into traditional music communities in rural Lancashire, the Cotswolds, and Central Midlands. It would be another half century, however, before a single-action Anglo version of Wheatstone's concertina would become popular in the west of Ireland.[17]

Although the Dublin concertina manufacturer Joseph Scates advertised his instruments in the popular Freeman's Journal as early as 1852, there is no evidence to suggest that his concertinas enjoyed widespread popularity among music communities in contemporary Clare.[18] Moreover, though the names of such aristocratic Clare families as the Vandeleurs, Tolers, and Abingers appear in the sales ledgers of the London Wheatstone company during the 1840s and 1850s,[19] oral history contends that the first concertinas to arrive en masse into Clare were German-made imports. Fragile, cheap, and short-lived, these 'consumer' instruments were probably adapted from Carl Uhlig's diatonic konzertina made in Chemnitz, Germany, in the 1830s, and popularized by Manen's twenty-key concertinas that reached the English marketplace in 1847. These cheap instruments enjoyed widespread popularity among sailors on long sea voyages and were stocked by maritime chandlers as part of their stock-in-trade merchandise. German concertinas arrived in Clare through a variety of sources, some direct and conspicuous, others oblique and vicarious. Its initial courier was most likely river traffic plying the Shannon between Loop Head and Limerick city, the last port of call for tall ships before crossing the North Atlantic.

Superceded to some degree by the West Clare Railway after 1892, the Shannon had been one of the busiest waterways in insular Europe throughout the nineteenth century.[20] Apart from foreign cargo, the river had a thriving local trade. Steam boats carried stout, butter, and coal between Limerick and Kilrush, while turf boats brought turf up the river from as far west as Kilbaha. With its bustling ports, brisk shipping trade, and onerous navigational challenges, the river offered employment to shipwrights, dockers, coopers, lighthouse keepers, and fishermen who lived along its banks. The lives and activities of these riverine communities have been recorded extensively in the traditional songs and folklore of West Clare. Maritime superstitions, ghost ships, sea monsters, and mermaid legends are all part of the rich repository of Clare sea lore.

As well as servicing vessels arriving from foreign ports, islanders and river men along the Shannon had extensive ocean-going experience themselves. Ships owned by Limerick merchants enlisted crews from communities on both sides of the river in Clare, Limerick, and Kerry. Merchant seamen from Scattery Island, on the mouth of the estuary, had a long history of maritime travel. In 1903, for example, the three-master sailing ship the Salterbeck, owned by Captain James Murray of Kilrush, was transporting kelp and flagstones from Cappagh across the Atlantic to St. John's, Newfoundland. Its crew 'to a man' was from Scattery. According to folklore collected on Scattery Island by Seán Mac Craith in 1954, the Salterbeck made the round trip across the Atlantic in the spring of 1903 in a record-breaking 'eight weeks and five days'.[21] Up until the 1950s, social life on Scattery showed all the signs of maritime wealth. Book collections, eight-day clocks, and wireless sets were standard fittings in many island homes. In the 1920s, the islanders were among the first people in Clare to own Victrola-type gramophones and 78 rpm recordings of Irish traditional music. These were brought back to Scattery from America by merchant seamen from the island. It is likely that German concertinas reached West Clare through these same maritime channels.

By 1900, the concertina had replaced the uilleann pipes as a household instrument in rural Clare. Women earning surplus income from egg and butter sales, as well as other domestic industries, were among its chief patrons. In the vernacular of West Clare, the instrument was referred to as a bean cháirdín (female accordion), such was its popularity among female players. By 1910, concertinas were being stocked by hardware stores and bicycle shops in Ennis, Kilrush, Kildysart, and Ennistymon. They were usually bought on market days after poultry or dairy produce had been exchanged for money. Women, whose cottage earnings were consistent from year to year, could afford to upgrade to a new concertina, for the princely sum of half-a-crown, every few years.

The concertina was given pride of place in the country house kitchens of West Clare. Like tea, tobacco, and other domestic commodities, which were stored in a dry place, a special clúid, or alcove, was constructed for the concertina in the inner wall of the hearth, close to the open fire. Although many houses had resident concertina players who knew enough tunes to play for a polka set, some non-musical households also purchased concertinas, which they kept on hand in the alcove for a local concertina player to 'come on cuaird to the house' (literally 'come on a visit to the house').[22] Unlike the daughters of strong farmers who learned to read piano scores and classical arias in bourgeois convent schools, young women who bought concertinas 'out of their egg money' learned their music informally in a kitchen setting. In this largely egalitarian environment, there was no obligation to learn an extensive repertoire, or to rise to certain predetermined standards of musical excellence. Many country house debutantes used a numbering system to learn tunes, while others relied on a more direct process of aural transmission. The primary objective for most young concertina players was to perfect local jig, reel, and polka rhythms, and to learn enough dance tunes to play for the Plain Set dance. In this self-contained rural milieu, proactive sharing of music and dance was considered far more important than the private appreciation of 'high-art' music from a distant urban periphery, which was then becoming the norm in many bourgeois families in the west of Ireland.

For most of the next century, concertina music would dovetail with the indigenous set dancing dialects of rural Clare and find its main patrons in rural communities in the west and east of the county. When Anglo-German concertinas made by Jeffries, Wheatstone, and Lachenal flooded the antique markets in Petticoat Lane after World War II, Clare musicians working in London became a key source for delivering concertinas to their neighbors back home. Henceforth, emigrant parcels, music shops, and hardware stores became the chief suppliers of new instruments, which were really 'cast off' instruments from the upper echelons of British society.


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Clare: the Heartland of the Irish Concertina

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