The Anglo concertina, and its direct antecedents, the two-row German and Anglo-German concertinas,
have long been popular in Irish traditional music circles. It has been said of County Clare in the
early part of the 20th century that ‘almost every house … had a concertina, usually kept in the chimney corner
This heyday of popularity, however, was followed by a steep decline that left relatively few players in Ireland
by the 1960s, most of them located in County Clare. The past three decades have seen a great resurgence in its use,
and much has been written about those surviving players and their
Most of what we know about the
instrument in Ireland comes from these living sources, and yet there are gaps. Oral history only reaches back as
far as living memory, so such accounts only extend with any real detail to perhaps eighty or more years. Beyond
the memories of these sources, there are a few all-too-brief accounts, written posthumously, about the famous
Clare player Mrs. Elizabeth Crotty (who herself learned to play in the late 1890s), and even-more-brief
recollections from living sources that their ‘grandmother played one.’ The 19th century experienced
the instrument’s formative period in Ireland, but there is very little published information about Irish concertina
playing then, or about the concertina’s arrival and establishment in the country.
In addition, most of the twentieth century sources interviewed in published accounts have been from
County Clare, leaving largely unrecorded the extent to which concertinas were played elsewhere in
Ireland, and raising a question as to why surviving players of the mid-20th century were so highly
concentrated in that County. Several existing histories of Clare playing include a hypothesis that
seamen on ships that plied the Shannon estuary, or the chandleries that supplied them, may have been
responsible for the arrival of concertinas in Clare, with the implication that the 20th century
concentration of concertinas in Clare might have resulted, at least partly, from this seaborne
But, as will be shown below, the instrument once had a much wider distribution in Ireland. For example,
William Mullaly, a prominent Anglo player of the 1920s who was the first Irish concertina player to
make commercial recordings, hailed from near Mullingar, County Westmeath in the eastern part of the
Irish midlands. Neighbors around him played concertina as well, and taught him to play. How extensive
was that playing population in greater Ireland? When did they start playing it in significant numbers?
What types of people played it, and where? What sort of music did they play, and why did the vast majority
of them give it up? And perhaps most importantly, why did only Clare concertina playing survive as a more
or less unbroken tradition?
If these questions are difficult or impossible to answer from existing oral history accounts, there
is even less in the way of documentation of Irish concertina playing in key studies of Irish
traditional music that were written in the 19th century. The famous collector Francis O’Neill
gives only a single mention to a concertina player in all his writing on Irish music, even though
his collecting days and visits to Ireland overlapped with the playing days of prominent and respected
early concertina players like Mullaly and Mrs. Crotty.
The digital age is making available vast amounts of information from Irish, British and American
newspapers, periodicals and books of the 19th and early 20th century that was previously all but
inaccessible. Mentions of this instrument in period literature are very sparse indeed, but by using
modern digital search engines, needles may now be found in many 19th and early 20th century haystacks.
The resulting images are fleeting: a prisoner had used one while perpetrating a crime; emigrants played
them in steerage; a publican was fined for playing one too loudly late at night; a concertina contest
was held; a patriot played one to rouse the spirits of his colleagues while under siege. Although merely
anecdotes when considered singly, when gathered together, and assigned to place, time, and social context,
a somewhat consistent picture begins to emerge.
This article focuses on (a) the concertina’s first century in Ireland , including the
period of arrival of both the English system concertina and the much more popular German, Anglo-German,
and finally ‘Anglo’ instruments, (b) the long heyday of the Anglo’s popularity, from about
1870 to about 1930, and (c) the first part of the period of its decline in use. That period of decline
overlaps with the memory of living players, and some of the oldest of them remember the final years of
its heyday as well. Events during much of the later part of its period of decline and the instrument’s
dramatic resurgence in recent decades are left out of this study, as they are well covered elsewhere.
Not all of the questions raised above are fully answered, but as in all journeys, one must begin with the
A Brief Review of Irish Cultural Geography at the Time of the Concertina’s Arrival
The concertina in its first century in Ireland was a bystander to three particularly important events
in the country’s history: the Great Famine, the rapid shift to the English language in most areas
following that famine, and the emergence of the independent Irish Republic. Of these, the first two
are of particular importance in understanding the context of the concertina’s arrival and establishment.
During the peak years of the Great Famine (1845-1849), it is estimated that over a million Irish
starved and another million or more emigrated; the overall population of Ireland declined by over 20%
in those five years alone.4
Peasants living in western areas, where much of the land is of poor agricultural quality, were
decidedly poorer as a group that their eastern countrymen before the Famine, and were much harder
hit by it; in Clare, the population losses exceeded a horrific 25%. In the midlands and east, effects
were also strongly felt, although the famine did not cause population decline in relatively more
prosperous Dublin, the seat of British rule; in fact, the population of the city grew during those
years as some refugees of outlying affected areas fled to the capital for relief. For this reason,
it is not surprising that the earliest references to the concertina’s use in Ireland, both for the
English system and the German concertina, come from Dublin.
In the years leading up to the famine, the country was predominantly Irish-speaking in all areas except
the capital and its environs as well as the areas of Scottish-English plantation in Ulster, although
the language was weakening its hold in many areas. Following the great human tragedy of the famine years,
a desperately impoverished peasantry continued to emigrate, a process that went on for many decades.
In the United States alone, roughly 1,500,000 Irish immigrants arrived from 1845 to 1854,
an additional 1,000,000 from 1855-1870, and another 1,500,000 from 1870
Among those who stayed, the great shift toward the use of the English language picked up pace,
with attendant changes in folk traditions and the rhythm of everyday life. This dramatic shift in
language and culture pressed westward from significantly Anglicized Dublin in a great wave; by 1871
(about the time that the Anglo-German concertina became widely popular) a very approximate dividing
line reached about midway across the
shows the distributions in 1871 of predominantly English-speaking areas (in white) and predominantly
Irish-speaking areas (in dark red); the pink zones are transitional. A half century later, the
wave had surged still farther westward to the Atlantic coast, leaving only small remnant areas of
predominantly Irish speakers amongst the westernmost rocky landscapes of Kerry, Connaught and Donegal,
as well as a few small pockets elsewhere; those areas more or less constitute the current Gaeltacht.
This huge cultural shift affected much more than just language, and decimated much of traditional culture.
Contemporary Irish writers in the late 19th century were consumed with a sense of loss by the decline in
traditional poetry, music and dance. The great Chicago collector Francis O’Neill realized that his
émigré musical sources from the streets of Chicago were the flotsam and jetsam of that wave’s
destruction of a culture’s heritage:
Where a generation ago a wealth of folk music was the common possession of the peasantry, now
scarcely a fraction of it is remembered. 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?7
As the Anglo-German concertina took root in the 1860s and 1870s—and that description will be
attempted below—the country was comprised of at least two cultural groups, with a very fuzzy and
locally convoluted boundary between them. People in English-speaking eastern areas were more prone to listen
to new music from the English music halls and, increasingly, to the emerging pop culture from America
(in the late 19th century, this included the minstrels craze, followed in the early 20th by ragtime,
jazz, and ‘Tin-Pan Alley’). This relatively more ‘Anglicized’ (or perhaps, ‘globalized’) cultural
group has continued to grow right down to modern times, as a spin of any Irish radio dial will
demonstrate. Western areas, where people either were still Irish-speaking or had still vivid and living memories
of the old ways, became the strongholds of what we now term ‘traditional’ Irish music, simply by
not being changed (or not being changed as thoroughly) by the cultural wave of Anglicization. The
chief reasons that that change was slowed in the west included continued poverty as well as overall
remoteness from the main lanes of commerce that emanated from Dublin. Nonetheless, even there
change would, eventually, not be denied. Layered on top of this in all areas in the 1870s were the
still-ensconced English and Anglo-Irish landed gentry, who largely looked east to Dublin and London
for their cultural signals. This situation was in rapid flux throughout the period of adoption and
heyday of the concertina in Ireland.
Arrival and Use of the English Concertina
In a sense, the English concertina is a bit of a sideshow to the discussion at hand. Aligned at
its beginning with the elite in a country then known for crushing poverty, the English concertina
never developed a large following in Ireland, and it was the humble German concertina that
eventually won over most of the populace. Nonetheless, the English concertina not only arrived
first, but it was through the auspices of an English concertina maker in Dublin that the
earliest German concertinas seem to have been imported to Ireland.
The English concertina came to Ireland within a very few years of its invention by Sir Charles
Wheatstone in 1829. In its first twenty years it was handmade by Wheatstone’s firm in England
in very small numbers, and tended to be played by the wealthy gentry who could afford them.
One of the concertina’s first public proponents was Italian-born Giulio Regondi (1822-1872),
a classical guitarist and child prodigy who began performing on the English concertina in 1834.
As reported by Lawrence,8
Regondi was a frequent visitor to Ireland over the period 1834 to 1861, and of a concert in Wexford
on January 28 1835 it was reported that
This wonderful boy gave a musical entertainment on Wednesday evening to a fashionable audience
who appeared to be quite enraptured with his unparalleled performance; he may truly be called a
phenomenon in the musical world; the guitar in his hands becomes a different instrument from what
even excellent judges can imagine and when we state that he is not apparently ten years old
we do so merely to add interest to his performance …. Master Regondi also performs on a
newly invented instrument called a concertina, which besides being of great power produces the
sweetest and most varied tones. It is one of the most beautiful inventions our musical world can boast
A later concert in Belfast, May 5 1835, resulted in this glowing review:
In his hands the instrument called the Concertina emitted a succession of sweet and silvery sounds,
now and then resembling the tones of the Dulciana stop of a well tuned organ; and again the
trembling modulations of the Eolian harp. They seemed to float in the air, as if they were the
echo of some Seraph’s voice; and when the little Regondi, thus employed, stood before us;
with his locks waving on his shoulders and glittering like sunbeams, sparklingly reflected
from a surface of gold, our imagination converted him into a juvenile Apollo, charming his
audience, at once, with the graces of his person and the harmony of his
A concert in Londonderry met with a prophetic comment on the concertina:
We need not notice in detail all the performances; but his Last Rose of Summer must not be wholly
passed over. He played it with much taste on a new instrument called the concertina, which appears
to us to be an improvement, and a very decided one, on the accordion. It is a pleasing instrument
though of no great variety and is likely to come into very general
During later visits, Regondi taught pupils in Dublin, and he and Joseph Scates prepared and published a
tutor for the English concertina
(Figure 2). 12
Another early visiting performer on this instrument was George Case of London, who performed at the
Theatre Royal in Dublin on September 25, 1841.13
Case, a trained classical violinist, later wrote tutors for the English concertina, and manufactured them.
The first person to make and sell concertinas in Ireland was Joseph Scates. He was an employee of the
Wheatstone firm in London who left to set up an independent and rival firm, also in London, when the
original Wheatstone patent expired in 1844. Scates sold this business to George Case in 1850, and moved
to Dublin, where he opened a shop at 28 Westmoreland Green. He sold musical instruments and published music,
including the Regondi tutor mentioned above. At the Irish Industrial Exhibition of 1853, he exhibited
three English system instruments of his own manufacture, as well as several made by
(Click to view a larger version of this picture.)
Figure 3. Advertisement and pricelist for Joseph Scates’ Dublin shop
from the Musical Directory, Register and Almanac, London, 1862.
Contributed by Stuart Eydmann to the Concertina Library, www.concertina.com.
Figure 3 includes a price list of his English system instruments,
from 1862. He was a skilled performer on the English concertina, and the following was said of an 1859
concert in Dublin’s Antient Room:
Mr. Joseph Scates gave his first grand vocal and instrumental concert yesterday evening,
before a very numerous and fashionable audience. The programme selected was most judicious,
and the artistes performing were warmly received …. Mr. Scates is a perfect master
of the concertina, which beautiful instrument he handled with such refined taste and feeling
as to enlist the full favour of his
Scates operated at a variety of addresses in Dublin before closing shop in December 1865;
he taught lessons for a time at Cramer and Co’s Dublin establishment (they bought his former business),
and at his private residence on 35 Upper Baggot
He later retired to Brighton England, where he died in
Scates had a competitor in sales of English concertinas in Dublin during this period.
John B. Bray sold Wheatstone-made English concertinas imported from London, along with
other free reed instruments (of which more below), at a shop on 26 Westmoreland Street
by 1861 and perhaps earlier; these were offered ‘at prices that will defy competition’.
He advertised himself as a ‘Professor of the Instrument’ and a ‘pupil of Sig Giulio
After some years of operating his musical instrument business, Bray gave it up in 1870,
and began to teach on the ‘Regondi System’, at his office on 42 Great Brunswick
He sold one of his prized concertinas in 1877, after which he seems to have disappeared
from the public record.20
Largely because of its expense and its manufacture in relatively small numbers during this
period, the English concertina was initially an instrument of the moneyed elites, with all
that that categorization brought in 19th century Ireland. Allan Atlas has indicated that
members of the aristocratic Clare families of Vandeleur, Toler, and Abinger all purchased
Wheatstone concertinas in the 1840s and 1850s. The Vandeleurs were infamous for mass evictions
and house leveling in the Kilrush area, during an effort to eradicate rundale-system
By the 1860s, the elite in England, Scotland and elsewhere began to drop the English system
instrument, perhaps because concertinas had by then been tainted by association with the cheap
and decidedly working class German concertina, of which more below. The English system as
well as various types of Duet systems then became staples of the middle class music halls and variety
By 1889, as written in a review that followed a highbrow concert for London and North-Western Railway
officers, ‘this instrument unfortunately is now seldom heard on Dublin concert
As evidence of its now-reduced status, an 1872 Dublin variety show in the ‘Rotundo Gardens’ listed
‘Herr Christoff on the low rope’, ‘Professor Boyd and his Wonderful Troupe of Trained Dogs’,
‘double-voiced’ vocalist Charles Woodman, and ‘Campbell and Benzona’s Christy Minstrels,’
who performed ballads and comic songs taken from popular American minstrel shows. As part of the
minstrel act, there was an English concertina solo by A. Campbell, followed by a ‘Walk-round Festival Dance’
and a ‘Grand Display of Fireworks’.24
Other appearances of the instrument include a mention in the account of the 1872 Dublin Exhibition,
where a ‘Special Day’ of concerts included an organ recital, military band concerts, and a
‘Grand Vocal and Instrumental Concert’ that featured M.E. Walker on
The Abercorn Ladies’ College, Harcourt Street, Dublin, catered to women who aspired to improve their
social and artistic skills, offering tutoring in ‘Organ, Piano, Harp, Guitar, and English Concertina’,
in addition to singing and drawing classes, as well as training in English and other European
At the turn of the century, the English concertina as well as its cousin, the Duet, were commonly
played in the music halls, such as the Tivoli Theatre in Dublin, where the ‘King of the Concertina’ and
inventor of the Duet instrument that bears his name, Professor J. H. Maccann, performed in
as did blind concertina soloist M.
At that same venue in 1908, duet player Alexander Prince was ‘loudly
and in 1921 ‘Jack Clevenor, described as the “wizard of the concertina” extracted some rare music from
concertinas of various sizes, and was greatly
A 1909 Tivoli variety act included ‘the feats capably accomplished by “Ernesto”, juggler and equilibrist,
[including that of] climbing up and down a ladder, balancing a lighted lamp on his forehead and at the same time
playing on two concertinas’.31
With a strong legacy of alignment with classical and music hall genres, as well as its
double-action mechanics, the English system never made any appreciable inroads into Irish
traditional music, although small numbers of current players in Ireland use it.
German and Anglo-German Concertinas: Arrival and Establishment in Ireland (1840s-1860s)
The German concertina is the direct ancestor of the present day ‘Anglo’, which has become the concertina
of choice in Ireland’s current traditional music circles. It was invented by Carl Uhlig of Chemnitz,
Saxony in 1834, who appears to have been unaware of Wheatstone’s invention of the English system concertina
in London five years earlier. A simple four-sided instrument of one or two rows of single-action keys,
it had fewer reeds than the English instrument, and was consequently less expensive to manufacture.
Moreover, German makers quickly ramped up production in what became factories for accordion and concertina
manufacture, in contrast to English makers who tended to treat their handmade instrument construction as
an individual or family craft. German concertinas were soon being built for export in large numbers,
and sold for low prices that were affordable by larger segments of society.
They were available for sale in England as early as the
and were exported to the United States in large numbers by the 1850s. Although they were somewhat fragile,
they were inexpensive enough that they could be used by poor street musicians, and easy to learn
for a population that was largely illiterate and untrained in formal music notation. A young boy who
busked regularly on the London steamboats in 1856 recalled the popularity of these German instruments
three years earlier, in 1853:
I was about getting on for twelve when father first bought me a concertina. That instrument was very
fashionable then, and everybody had it nearly. I had an accordion before; but … I didn’t take a fancy
to it somehow, although I could play a few tunes on it …. I liked the concertina, because it’s like a
full band. It’s like having the fiddle and the harp together …. The concertina I use now cost me 16s.
It’s got twenty double keys—one when I pull the bellows out and one when I close it. I wear out an
instrument in three months. The edges of the bellows get worn out: then I have to patch them up,
till they get so weak that it mostly doubles over. It costs me about 1s a week to have them kept in order.
They get out of tune very soon. … The old instruments I sell to the boys, for about as much as I give
for a new one. They are very dear; but I get them so cheap when I buy them, I only give 16s for a 25s
instrument. I’ve got a beautiful instrument at home, and I give a pound for it, and it’s worth two.
Those I buy come from Germany, where they make them, and then they are took to this warehouse, where I buy them
[as recorded by Henry Mayhew, 186133].
The capabilities of these earliest German instruments for playing rapid-fire dance tunes were somewhat limited,
as the young musician indicated:
I don‘t know much operatic music, only one or two airs; but they’re easier to play on the concertina than
lively music, because it’s difficult to move the fingers very quickly. You can’t hardly play a hornpipe.
It makes the arm ache before you can play it all through, and it makes such a row with the valve
working the bellows up and down, that it spoils the
These square-ended German instruments were widely available in nearby Scotland, where
Sir John Everett Millais (1829–1896) painted The Blind Girl in 1856; the blind girl
is said to be begging with her German concertina, underscoring that its use had already extended
to poorer parts of Scottish society at the time (like the boy on the London
Figure 4. Yuletide advertisement for concertinas and other musical instruments at
Joseph Scates’ Dublin shop, from the Irish Times of December 22, 1862.
Evidence for the adoption of these instruments in Ireland is scant for the
decade of the 1850s. Joseph Scates published a tutor for the German concertina in Dublin in the
early 1850s (Instruction Book for the Improved German Concertina) and is said to have sold the
instruments as well, in his Dublin
The earliest known advertisement for ‘German’ concertinas in Scates’ shop is in the Irish Times
of October 28, 1861. An advertisement of December 22, 1862 lists a variety of German models, priced from
5 shillings to over a pound (Figure 4). The variety included ‘Organ’ models
(double-reeded, in octaves) and ‘Celestial’ ones (double-reeded, tremelo), in addition to ‘Plain’ single-reeded ones.
Figure 5. Advertisement for John Bray’s musical instruments,
from the Irish Times of January 14, 1860.
Scates’ competitor John Bray also sold German concertinas by the early 1860s, as shown in an advertisement
from January 14, 1860, where they are listed for sale at 6 shillings (Figure 5).
The contrast in price with his Wheatstone 48 key English concertinas is large; the Wheatstone is priced at 3 and a half guineas,
roughly 12 times as much as the German instrument. In time, prices dropped for the least expensive of these German instruments,
to 3 and a half shillings in 1863
and to 3 shillings by 1868.38
Such prices made them affordable to ever larger portions of the population, and the numbers of vendors
grew with the popularity of the German concertina. By the late 1860s/early 1870s, there were at least
four other sellers besides Scates and Bray of these instruments (David Baldwin, of Henry Street;
Bussell’s on Westmoreland Street; O’Reilly’s at 31 Wellington Quay; Butler’s at 11 Ellis Quay).
Baldwin was a general merchant, not a musical specialist, indicating that German instruments were
becoming popular mass market items by the end of the 1860s, and were not just specialty items.
As usage of the German concertina expanded, not only in Ireland but in England, Scotland and the US,
a number of tutors for this instrument appeared, starting in 1844 and continuing through the 1860s in
London, Glasgow, New York and Boston.39
notes of the Scottish tutors,
The cover illustrations of many of these editions … show the concertina in “up-market” settings and,
although this may have been in reflection of the reality of its use, it is more likely that they sought to
sell the image of upper middle-class respectability. The output of the Glasgow companies can be read …
as an indication of the popularity of the instrument in Scotland at the time …
Glasgow publishing firms of the Cameron brothers (later Cameron and Ferguson) published many of these tutors,
and placed advertisements for them in the endpapers of their non-musical books. Some of these non-musical books
were especially aimed at Irish readers, and those interested in Ireland. For example, the 1869 non-fiction volume,
The History of Ireland: From the Treaty of Limerick to the Present Time contains advertisements for
24 German concertina tutors, including these four written with Irish tastes in mind:
Sixty Irish Songs for the Concertina, with the Words and Music
The Green Flag of Ireland National Songs for the Concertina, with the Words and Music
100 Irish Airs, marked and figured for the 10, 20, and 28 keyed Concertina. With complete instructions and scales
100 Moore’s Irish Melodies, marked and figured for 10, 20, 22, and 28 keyed concertina; containing the most popular of these exquisite National Airs
The cover of the first of these is shown in Figure 6. Each of these books carried the
price of 6d, and shipping was available free by post for 7 stamps. It seems very likely that some of these tutors found homes
in English-speaking parts of Ireland during the 1860s, and that the players of those tunes likely were members of
the emerging English-speaking Irish middle class.
As was mentioned above, although there are abundant advertisements for German concertinas in Irish newspapers
of the 1860s, those archives searched to date are curiously silent on the German concertina in Ireland in the 1850s;
Scates’ German concertina tutor is the only document yet known showing use of the German concertina in that decade.
There are several possible reasons for their apparent slow start in Ireland, including of course the lean nature of
available references. Perhaps most importantly, Ireland in the 1850s was still reeling from the aftershocks
of the Great Famine and the economic depression that followed, and this seems to have profoundly affected the
general population’s appetite for both music and new musical instruments, even in relatively more prosperous
Another impediment to usage of the earliest, square-ended German concertinas of the 1850s in Irish circles may have
been their poor performance when used in fast tempo dance music, as Mayhew’s young English source of 1856 indicated above.
English concertina makers, obviously impressed by the sales potential of the cheap German instruments, began to improve
upon them in order to capture a share of the market; English concertina maker and repairer George Jones (1832-1919)
built his first concertina with the German fingering system in the early 1850s. Principal improvements of the English
builders included applying the more responsive reeds and action of the English system concertinas to the German
fingering system. Joseph Scates placed a sizeable order for these improved instruments with Jones, who began to
produce them by 1862.42
The London-based Lachenal firm began construction as early as
and Dublin merchant John Bray began selling ‘Anglo-German’ instruments that same
By 1868, the Dublin firm O’Reilly’s was selling 20 keyed ‘Anglo-German’ models for 2 pounds sterling, a much higher
price than the German made instruments that he
German makers, not unaware of this English challenge, and perhaps even in advance of it,
adopted the English six-sided shape on most inexpensive two-row
export models and improved their own instruments, although never reaching the quality (or high price) of those
hand built by English craftsmen. C. F. Reichel’s Phisharmonica-Accordion-Fabrik in Chemnitz was
advertising four-sided, six-sided, eight-sided, and even round-ended concertinas by 1855;
the German-made ‘Organ’ and ‘Celestial’ models in Bray’s advertisement of 1862
(Figure 5) were almost certainly the newer six-sided type.
The resulting two-row six-sided instruments from both countries are usually termed ‘Anglo-German’ concertinas
today, although the term ‘German’ concertina was and is frequently used in Ireland and elsewhere for the
German-made Anglo-German instruments. A further improvement was the addition of a third row of keys;
this was the ‘Anglo-chromatic’ instrument (George Jones, 1851) that is the predominant variety played today.
Most of the early images
preserved of North American players show the German-built two-row Anglo-German version, underscoring the global
reach of German mass production and marketing (Figure 7 shows some examples).
The gentleman shown at the left of the cover page of the 1860s ‘Irish songs’
tutor (Figure 6) is holding an Anglo-German model, country of origin not known.
Figure 7. Photographs of North Americans proudly displaying Anglo-German
concertinas. When these instruments were new, a wide portion of the public
was fascinated with them. (Dates approximately 1860s-1870s.)
The earliest accounts yet known of the playing of the instrument in Ireland are from 1868, and show
that the inexpensive German-made concertina was reaching a much broader audience than the English instrument had.
In Dublin in the popular Rotundo Room, which catered to the city’s emerging middle class, a ‘Grand Musical Contest’
was held where
On the above night Professor Miller will give a Silver Cup to the Best Sentimental Singer. A Splendid Concertina
to the Best Concertina Player. A Beautiful Silver Cake to the Best Comic
A later contest at that same venue, described below, made it clear that the instruments played were very likely
German concertinas. Another 1868 event shows that the instrument was also becoming popular with the rural
folk of western Ireland:
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
It was not the last time the concertina was to be used in Ireland’s political and social struggles, as we shall see.
In summary, German and Anglo-German concertinas were increasingly popular in Dublin in the 1860s, following
a fairly slow start in the 1850s. The increase in sales in the 1860s is perhaps due to three main factors:
improving economic circumstances of the (Dublin) populace in the 1860s following the Great Famine and its
aftermath, improvements in the design and construction of the German-made models (and the arrival of much
improved English-built ones), and the continually dropping prices for the German-made models throughout the
1860s. Although most recorded information on German concertina occurrence in Ireland in the 1850s and 1860s
is specific to Dublin, the Nenagh court case of 1868 is a harbinger of a a remarkable growth to a nationwide
adoption across the social, political, and geographic landscape in the next few decades.
The Anglo-German Concertina’s Heyday in Ireland (1870-1930)
Distribution and Acceptance
Period documents show that the 1870s ushered in a golden era for Anglo-German concertinas in Ireland, in
both English-speaking and still Irish-speaking parts of the country. Sales of the instruments broadened to
all sorts of merchandisers, not just music shops, and expanded to other parts of the country. More importantly,
references to concertina players themselves began to appear in newspapers, books, and journals of the time.
From these various sources, a picture emerges of a popular boom in the German concertina in Ireland that is
unrivaled by any other musical instrument of the era.
Figure 8. Advertisement for concertinas in a pawnbroker’s shop,
from the Freeman’s Journal of December 5, 1872.
The advertisement shown in Figure 8 was taken from the Dublin Freeman’s Journal
of December 5, 1872, and ran for several months. The ‘Old Established Pawnbroker’s Sale Shops’, run by Patrick Keogh,
advertised a variety of goods, including ‘large assortment of Concertinas, and other Musical Instruments’.
This pawnbroker was selling to a mass-market rather than luxury or specialist clientele, and the concertina
was just one of a long list of everyday commodities that he sold to the growing middle class in Dublin. Not only
pawnbrokers, but also hardware stores and even jewelry shops began to distribute the instruments.
Figure 9 shows an advertisement from a 1904 Cork jewelry shop that
carried melodeons and concertinas alongside its
This tradition of variety store vendors carrying these inexpensive instruments carries down to the present day;
for example, Comiskey’s hardware on Clonbrassil Street in Dundalk (Co. Meath) carries inexpensive concertinas
in addition to hardware, baby carriages, and other home items. Also outside of Dublin,
G. Morosini’s Pianoforte and Harmonium Warerooms carried them in Kilkenny, Co. Kilkenny by
Prices for German instruments continued to fall. General merchandiser C. L. Reis & Co. of 5 Grafton Street in
Dublin advertised concertinas for as low as 2s 6d in April 1878, as did May’s at 30 Stephen’s Green in 1876.
By 1898, according to a Clare concertinist quoted by Harry Bradshaw, ‘Concertinas were cheap then, you could get
the smaller one for half-a-crown (2s 6d) and the large one cost 6s 6d and if you minded it, it would last a few
years anyway with constant
Such prices allowed many working class and rural people in all parts of the country to afford one.
Distribution of these instruments occurred by other means as well, in venues across the country.
In 1862 Dublin, a ‘Grand Bazaar for the Relief of the Poor in the West’ contained a large number of
prizes, among which were ‘Celestial, Organ and other
In a ‘Grand Drawing of Prizes’ for the Ballinasloe, County Galway Convent of Mercy on
October 4, 1872, the 8th prize was a concertina awarded to Dr. McMullen of Queensland, who just
missed a fat sheep, a gentleman’s saddle, a game of lawn croquet, and several other higher-ranked
Amongst a large assortment of prizes won at a raffle for the St. Joseph Convent in Longford,
County Longford in 1877, a concertina was won by a Miss McDermott of that
In the parish of Drimoleague, County Cork on St. Stephen’s Day of 1892, a concertina was awarded as
second prize in a track and field competition. First prize was a pair of
There is some information that shows that concertina raffles were also carried out in the late 19th
Century in the homes of farming folk of very limited means in rural villages—showing yet another
way that the concertina reached people with low income, and also demonstrating that it was reaching people
who were deeply involved with traditional music. In the following 1885 account of an American visitor who
traveled to a small rural village in order to learn Irish step dancing, he discusses a visit of a traveling
dancing master to that village. One of the ways these dancing masters were funded was a ‘benefit,’ which
could take several forms:
There are many kinds of dancing “benefits.” Marvin (the traveling dancing master in this village) had two
during the ten weeks he spent in our village—both for the fiddler. … On such a night, when all the company
have been assembled, the fiddler or dancing-master, whichever one the benefit is for, goes round with a plate
or, more generally, his hat; and each person present willingly gives a trifle ….
I have known several cases where poor people wanting to thatch their cabin, perhaps, or to buy a pig
without any means to do so, will organize a benefit, and thus obtain the necessary money. For this purpose
a written notice will be carried round to the neighbors. Sometimes they may just be told that Pat Murphy wants
money to set the praties, and he will hold a benefit on Friday (or more generally, Sunday) night. Perhaps fifty
neighbors will come. Of course, so many could not possibly come into a small cabin at once; but they always take
it in turn to “fut the floor”—for in step dancing, only a certain number can dance at a time. These people
will dance away all night, subscribe their mite, and never eat or drink anything, because, naturally, such poor
people could not provide food for so many. It is not unusual for the neighbors each to bring some victuals with
them, such as bread, tea, and sugar; and these will be divided and distributed as far as they will go.
Another kind of benefit for the same purpose is got by raffling—a goat, a turkey, or a concertina, perhaps a
donkey, being the most general things to raffle. The winner will sometimes provide refreshments, often
getting up a second raffle to do
In an 1877 contest at the Dublin Rotundo (Figure 10), a ‘German Concertina’ was
the prize for solo concertina playing at the ‘Great Band Contest and Concertina Contest’. The concertina competition was
‘confined to five paid-up competitors’ who paid an entrance fee of 3 shillings and were given ‘Ten minutes to play. Set of
Waltzes and variations. Professionals excluded.’ The concertina competition judge was a Mr. Thomas McCarthy.
‘Owing to the great demand’, tickets were sold in advance, ‘to avoid any crushing at the doors’.
Clearly, the concertina was by this time in Dublin an item of appreciable public interest and appeal,
and had already begun to be accepted for playing dance
An instrument with broad popular appeal
In Drogheda, Co. Louth in the winter of 1870, 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, and
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.57
These relatively inexpensive Anglo-German instruments began to show up in all parts of middle and working class,
urban and rural Ireland, both in English- and Irish-speaking enclaves. Because the concertina, like other
musical instruments, is of course a minor player in the grand overall scheme of everyday life, it tends
to be noticed by newspaper writers only when associated with something unusual, such as in a story of the
above strong freeze, but more often in a crime story, a court case report, a charity case, or a complaint
to the editor. For this reason, everyday ‘normal’ players tend to be under-reported. For example, in an
1873 report of ‘Street Rowdyism,’
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
The concertina (undoubtedly an inexpensive German-made one) was also to be found even with 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
The association of concertinas with pubs was made early. An 1877 Dublin newspaper story entitled
‘Music and Refreshments’ recalls that:
Mary Brown was summoned by Inspector Darcy for keeping drink for sale on her unlicensed premises, at
51 Grattan-court. Inspector Darcy stated that about 1:30pm on Sunday, the 15th 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.
Concertinas appeared in proper public houses, too, and were not always greeted with approval. In a public hearing
discussing an application for a license for a Bantry, County Cork pub in 1896, an objection was raised by a
Mr. Sheehan against the license sought by a client of Mr. Powell:
Mr. Powell asked what parishioner Mr. Sheehan represented.
Mr. Sheehan said he represented Mr. Jonas Wolfe, solicitor.
His Honor- Why is not Mr. Wolfe here?
Mr. Powell- I am sorry to say that he is indisposed. If he had stirred himself up with a little whiskey he
might have been possibly here (laughter). I believe that Mr. Wolfe’s objection is to music of the concertina kind;
it is not classical enough for him (laughter).
After more discussion, the judge granted this, a license for the fiftieth public house in the small town of
Not all such complaints involving concertinas involved public houses and alcohol, however. In Navan, County Meath in 1899,
a complaint was lodged against Miss Julia Young, ‘who has James Reilly annoyed with a concertina …. He is a night man, two
scores of years. He can’t sleep with the noise of Julia Young. Yours truly, Bridgit
In 1893 Cork, a correspondent 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
A similar complaint in the 1876 Irish Times concerns similar ‘street’ music played in the third class compartments
of the railway line to the then-fashionable seaside resorts of Kingstown and Bray, near Dublin. The Irish Times, like
other city newspapers of that era, favored the genteel and fashionable music of its upper and middle class customers, and
gave short shrift to the ‘shrieking’ of 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
That general theme resonated with others; another Kingstown railway passenger complained of ‘a class of
itinerant beggars, in the shape of concertina players and bone rappers’ on an 1878
A correspondent to the Southern Star in 1911 opined that ‘In deft hands, the concertina is, I think,
the most deadly instrument.’66
The same year, in Clonakilty, County Cork, a woman charged that ‘she has been
continually annoyed, abused and insulted by T___ and family. They play an old concertina to annoy her, and call
her … names.’67
That might seem amusing, except that a two way feud developed that ended up in the Plaintiff having her head
smashed with a shovel, requiring a lengthy hospital stay; deadly, indeed. In another such domestic dispute,
an Avondale (near Castleblaney in County Monaghan) butter merchant was sued in 1891 by another Avondale man
for ‘alleged misconduct with the plaintiff’s wife’. Two men had been visiting at the plaintiff’s house one
afternoon while said plaintiff was away in America; one man danced with the absent man’s wife while another
played the concertina. A zealous neighbor had seen all of this through an open window, and the court case was a
Other incidents reflect the popularity of the instrument with youth, sometimes causing mischief, such as this
case from County Clare in 1928:
The potent attraction exercised by a pot of jam and a concertina resulted in three young boys being charged
with housebreaking. The three boys are from the Lisheen district and they appeared before District Judge Gleeson
in the Children’s Court at Ennis on Friday. The superintendent, who prosecuted, suggested that the most serious
part of the charge was the language in which it was couched. He explained that the boys had been attracted by the
jam and the concertina and had entered the house by a window to create great ‘ruck’ as they themselves admitted.
They had eaten the jam, played the concertina, and then made their exit again through the window. The ‘ruckers’
were discharged with a caution after being reminded of the rights of property by the
In an internationally reported incident of 1905, a woman in Ballinasloe, County Galway sought to have her
husband committed to an asylum after he attempted to
… emulate the performance of Pan, the mythological god, with his flute. The attempts consisted of
going out in the field with a concertina—which he had borrowed—and playing the dulcet tones to his bullocks,
after inviting some neighbors to see them dance. The bullocks did not dance, and the assistant medical
officer of Ballinasloe Asylum hinted that all (his) ‘goings on’ were actuated by the belief that the wife
was engaged in a conspiracy against him, and had put him in an asylum in order to enjoy his property, which was
In a boating disaster on the Shannon River near Ballybunion, County Kerry in 1893, a group of 17 pleasure boaters
had been out in a hired boat for the afternoon to cross the Shannon estuary between Ballybunion and the Clare
coastline a few miles south of Kilkee:
… the water being smooth, Murphy and his friends had no hesitation in starting for home across the river …. They had
enjoyed themselves during the day, but were all sober, two of the party playing on violins and a third on a concertina.
They were remonstrated with as to the risk they incurred, but made light of any danger, and so they rowed away on their
The boat drifted out to sea, and all were drowned, save Murphy, a local farmer who had hired out the
In the days of the Irish Free State, an official of the Waterguard (the Customs agents), discussing the
wily smugglers they had been encountering, related that
An officer once told me that the most ingenious smuggler he had ever heard about was a tough old salt
who always carried his concertina ashore after each voyage. One day an officer asked him to play a sailor’s hornpipe.
He refused. The officer then said he would play it. But the concertina was unworkable because it was filled with
In Kilmessan, County Meath, a constable standing guard at a local 1905 election ‘whiled away with concertina
selections the long intervals of inactivity in the polling
In a ghostly Snap-Apple (Hallowe’en) party in County Meath, ‘Katy Walsh could make a corpse dance with the
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 an early automobile
event, 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
It may seem difficult today to understand the Anglo-German concertina’s early broad-based popularity, not just in
Ireland but in England, Scotland, the United States, and many other parts of the western world. Excepting mouth
harmonicas and jews’ harps, these little boxes were (along with melodeons) the first inexpensive, mass-produced
consumer musical items, pre-dating future public love affairs with guitars, ukeleles, and mass-produced pianos.
In a world lacking electric lights, radios, televisions, and recorded music, the concertina gave people an
additional way to entertain themselves during long, dark and quiet winter evenings, and was easy to learn for
people who had no formal music training. It allowed persons with very modest means to make music, thus foregoing
more expensive (and handmade) fiddles and bagpipes. It came in a neat bundle of shiny wood, painted cardboard and
varnished buttons, and made reasonably nice noise; such shop-bought finery at a low price! It is no wonder that it
became a global phenomenon. In a country where dance music was highly valued, and which was just emerging from a
traumatic few decades of extreme poverty and despair, these instruments were just what the doctor ordered.
An instrument for all music
The Clonakilty, County Cork Football Club held a fund-raising concert at the town hall, to a large audience in 1892,
in an area that was rapidly changing to English speech. Amongst songs, instrumental duets, and comic pieces,
Kate Kearney played a ‘valse’ as a concertina solo. In that evenings entertainment there were many popular
and sentimental songs and light classical pieces, but no mention of any reels, jigs, or traditional
It is well known that in even in more Gaelic western parts of Ireland in the late 19th Century, native Irish
‘traditional’ music was being eclipsed by English and American popular music, much to the disapproval of
Irish nationalists. At that time, the Anglo-German concertina was not yet connected to either one or the
other sides of this cultural and musical divide; both sides played it, as has been seen above. In more
Anglicized eastern areas like Dublin, or increasingly, in ‘modern’ social venues farther west, both popular
English music hall and the latest American minstrel tunes might be heard on the concertina. For example,
in the Bijou Theatre of Dublin in 1885, the local ‘Star Minstrel Troupe’ performed a ‘good selection of
comic and sentimental songs’ that included the usual stereotypical minstrel jokes about southern US blacks
in a sketch entitled ‘The Black Servant’, songs by Stephen Foster, and banjo and concertina solos by Mr. Killie,
which drew ‘unceasing applause’.77
Such nightly popular entertainment resulted in the following missive from the Gaelic League, delivered at a
meeting in Dublin in 1908. Gaelic League organizer ‘Mr. McNestor’ lamented the disappearance of the Irish language
and Irish ways. He recommended that
They should get back to their native music. They were at one time the most musical nation when a 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
A similar view, including another disparaging swipe at an insufficiently Irish concertina, was given by another
observer in 1884:
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
The prominent collector Francis O’Neill seems also to have also been in this camp; he mentions the concertina
but once in all his collections and writings (more on this below).
As has been shown in the ‘step-dancing’ story above, however, people in some rural areas in the west had
already begun to use the new instrument for their own ‘traditional,’ native music. It is widely thought
that the concertina served in such areas as a replacement for the pipes; the professional ranks of traveling
pipers had been dramatically thinned by the Great Famine and its aftermath, when pipers immigrated in
droves to American cities like New York and Chicago. These largely rural people started to see the new but
quaint little box as something well suited to the tunes of olden times, as is made abundantly clear in this
lovely poem from the 1893 Cork Southern Star:
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 caubeen80 flew,
Flung his coat the table under;
Forgotten now his years three score,
He only thinks of when an airy,
Jovial bouchal,81 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,82
“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.
(Click to view a larger version of this picture.)
Figure 11. Dancers in the fictional town of Ballymaclinton at the Franco-British
Exhibition of 1908, where ‘colleens’ danced for fairgoers on the
village green to traditional Irish concertina music.
From the author’s collection.
It seems quite remarkable that the concertina, which had been around in significant numbers for only three 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 traditional players, and was 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 11) 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
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.
A bystander 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, minor bystanders in some of the great
issues of the day. 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.
The widespread use of evictions by government bailiffs was one of these major issues, and it was not always as dramatic
an affair as throwing a destitute widow out into the street. In Skibbereen, County Cork in 1896, an officer of the
Sheriff’s department had evicted a Mr. Emerson from his home, presumably for non-payment of bills. Immediately afterwards,
it was reported that that officer ‘and his assistant bailiffs had a gay time of it for five days in the house, and during
that time a great deal of Mr. Emerson’s property was removed.’ In the court case that ensued, the Plaintiff, Mr. Emerson,
laid out his evidence of damages to his personal possessions to a skeptical and somewhat hostile court, and described how the
… bailiffs kept an open house, being drinking, dancing, singing and having music the whole time (courtroom laughter).
He believed the house was full of parties every night.
His Honor- Where were you all this time?
Plaintiff- I was after being evicted, and was walking about.
(Defendant’s attorney)- Who played the fiddle?
Plaintiff- I think it was a concertina they had (courtroom laughter).
(Defendant’s attorney)- I suppose there were a great many young ladies there (laughter)?
Plaintiff- I could not say; they would not allow me in at all.
After cross-examination, in which the Defendants sought to show that the Plaintiff could not have known who
if anyone was playing the concertina, and then demonstrated that a ‘fair’ remuneration had already been
paid for the alleged damages to household goods, the case was dismissed by the judge. Whether the unfortunate
man was ever returned to his home was not
More serious evictions had been the order of the day elsewhere. Clare Island, County Mayo, as recently as 1890,
had been the scene of many dramatic and tragic confrontations between bailiffs and police in service of the local
landlord on the one hand, and an impoverished populace on the other. A Congested Districts Board was finally formed
to alleviate the problem, resulting in the welcome removal of the landlord and bailiffs, and more equitable rents
for the ‘tenants’:
The power of England, which for generations suggested nothing to the islanders except gunboats for their
eviction and lawyer’s letters for their torment, is now represented by … the agent of the Congested Districts Board,
and by the police who now have no more harmful duty than playing the concertina on summer
The image of these policemen transformed to gentle concertina players by local progressive legislation must have
been comforting to period readers.
Evictions continued in other places, however, resulting among other things in a violent protest and riot in the
streets of Loughrea, County Galway in 1905, following an attempted eviction by bailiffs on behalf of a particularly
unpopular landlord. After the riot, many of the instigators were barricaded in a local house; this time the
concertina was to be found on the other side of the barricades:
Early in the afternoon a great public demonstration was held in Church Street in front of Mr. Ward’s house,
from which several green flags floated serenely on the breeze. The defenders were still there in full force,
stripped to the waist, ready for action, and armed with such formidable weapons as reaping hooks and pitchforks,
while one brawny fellow proudly brandished a sword stick. From inside came the melodious strains of a concertina,
while the crowds all around made the welkin ring with lusty
In a similar riot that occurred during an attempted 1886 eviction in Woodford, County Galway, the aftermath
included negotiations for cessation of the disturbance, and 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
Presumably the Gaelic League would have been more approving of these appearances by the concertina.
Still later, in the uncertain but hopeful days following the 1916 uprising, a young Clare man, Michael Brennan,
and his two brothers were arrested in a cheeky and deliberate display of civil disobedience, by drilling and
protesting directly in front of British authorities. They were arrested and packed off to Dublin Castle.
With the devil-may-care attitude of the young, Brennan wrote home that ‘We are more or less all right now and
although we still have a few grievances left on the whole we are having a good time …. We are all together … and can
sing, whistle, talk, or do anything else we like. The food is good and we have plenty of smoking and reading.’
Deciding to push for even more, he requested a concertina to while away some of the hours. His request was
indignantly refused (‘musical instruments are obviously out of place in
Such martial drilling and marching was a not unusual protest. Also in County Clare, in 1917, John and Michael
Brady were accused by the King’s Bench Division of ‘taking part in exercises or drill of a military nature in
contravention of the Defense of the Realm Regulations’. In the village of Tuamgraney, about 20 men had marched
in and out of the village; ‘One of the men was playing a concertina or a
This event closely echoes the arrest of two other marching concertina players from Clare, and their sentencing at
Nenagh, nearly fifty years earlier (see above).
Not all protest marching was political in nature. As a result of a lockout in the Wexford foundries, County Wexford,
a violent protest ensued. At the start of the fray, ‘Led by a man playing a concertina, the men paraded the streets,
cheering and boohing’. Later in the evening, windows were broken, and the foundry foreman was burned in
The Belfast region had long been at the center of political and social unrest, and concertinas were to be
found on both sides of the divide, as part of protests. In 1880 Belfast, on August 16 ‘the streets in the
Roman Catholic district were unusually crowded … the streets were thronged with people at a very
late—or rather, very early—hour, for about half-past twelve o’clock this morning a very noisy crowd of
persons (headed by a person playing a concertina) passed up the Antrim road into the notorious locality o
f New Lodge Road’; an additional 800 police were eventually called in to quell the
On the Unionist side, some years later in 1913, an Anti-Home Rule leader, Sir Edward Carson, railed
in a political speech in Belfast about efforts of the colonial government to limit acts of Unionist protest:
Why, I read in the paper, with a good deal of disgust, yesterday, that a poor woman had been summoned before
the magistrate for sitting at her own door-step, and playing on a concertina the tune, ‘Boyne Water’. Well,
I don’t want to say anything about those who administer the laws, but I think if I and the rest of us are
allowed to go about not only playing the ‘Boyne Water’ on a concertina, but holding great demonstrations
of drilled men with banners that bring to mind the great victories of the past, it is a disgraceful
administration of the law under those circumstances that forces that poor woman to pay a fine of 40s for
playing what they are pleased to call a party tune, but which has brought back reminiscences of the days
that have gone before us. For my own part I say this, if they are going to treat us as privileged persons,
I say the more privileges they give me the more I despise
Concertina music, for a time, even threatened to replace the booming drum and fife bands of the Orange Order
of Belfast’s ‘Twelfth of July’ marches, as this 1927 report indicates:
In a few days the ‘Twelfth’ will be upon us, and the arrangements have been virtually completed
for this year’s Orange demonstrations. The Belfast procession is expected to prove a record event …. Throughout
the whole of the province the beating of the drum is heard accompanying the shrill music of the fife,
but this instrument of torture is falling into disfavour, its place being taken by really first-rate
bands of all descriptions, with the usual tympani. The musical youths of the city have introduced novel
combinations, and now it is not unusual to see concertina, melodeon and even mouth-organ bands with all
the assurance and dignity of regimental musicians. They have the charm of harmony, and are infinitely
better than the deafening arrangement of a trio of big drums, with a solitary piper … but their disadvantage
is that they lack the terror-inspiring effect of the
That was a contest the concertina and melodeon were ultimately not to win.
Back in the south of Ireland, in 1922 Dublin during the civil war that accompanied the early days of the
Irish Free State,
There was much disorder last night at the annual Irish gala at Durham in support of the Free State Government.
Republicans set up an opposition flag, and men and women engaged in a free fight, in which the Republican
banner was torn down. The speakers were interrupted by shouts of ‘Up De Valera!’ and the noise of a bugle blowing.
Sticks, umbrellas, and a concertina were used as weapons, and a smoke bomb was thrown in the
While these are all of course isolated and anecdotal incidents, they serve to show that the concertina was so
completely commonplace and ubiquitous as to be ‘seen’ in all sorts of places where one would not usually encounter
a concertina today, and among a much broader political and social spectrum than has been the case in later times;
a search through Irish papers of the next few decades (1930-1970, prior to the recent resurgence of its use)
has yielded no such similar sightings associated with major national or social causes.
These various sightings also make it clear that the German concertina in Ireland was throughout its heyday
an instrument of the ‘common’ man, whether a farmer in the Gaelic west, or a shipbuilder in Ulster, or a
foundry worker in the southeast. Each group who adopted it held it close, and used it unsparingly in occasions
where sentiment and emotion were close to the surface, such as this New Year’s Eve gathering in Dublin on
December 31, 1929:
From half-past eleven last night onwards, ever thickening streams of people converged on Christ Church Cathedral,
Dublin, to let the New Year in. They carried with them every concertina, banjo, and mouth organ in the city,
and many of them were running, as though they feared to miss
The concertina in the diaspora
Key sources of information on the extent of concertina playing in this period are reports of emigration and
immigration. The emigration that had been so heavy during the famine years continued at a fast clip throughout
the late 19th and early 20th century, when the concertina craze was at its peak. The local press in countries
receiving these immigrants, such as the United States, Canada, Australia and England, were keen observers of
this moving mass of humanity, yielding some fascinating accounts of early Irish concertina playing.
Figure 12. Passengers on the steamship Cedric, en route to New York.
From Winthrop Packard, The Modern Steerage, 1904.
On the steamship Cedric in 1904, bound for New York’s Ellis Island, an English observer had this
to say of the concertina playing amongst the Irish inhabitants of steerage, some of whom are pictured
in Figure 12:
As I became better acquainted with my fellow voyagers I found that most of them were not stupid, ignorant,
or unclean in their habits …. Very many of the Irish emigrants come well within this category …, though
others from the poverty-stricken bogs of the west were ignorant of the most rudimentary elements of personal
cleanliness and behavior. Yet even these certainly possessed youth and high spirits, good nature, warm affections
and a concertina to every dozen or so. The deck spaces of the “Cedric” are so huge that even the 1,700
third-class passengers did not crowd them, and ample room was offered for dancing to the music of these
concertinas, every one of which on a pleasant day was in pretty steady service. Young and old danced until
In a 1946 issue of the Irish Independent, an old woman recalled a journey in her youth on an emigrant
ship to Australia:
Even now as I write, it takes but little mental effort to conjure up the scene on the afterdeck. A bearded
man playing a wheezing, asthmatic concertina…a young tired-eye woman, her jet-black hair hanging down her
back, … washing clothes in a bucket … children shrieking as they played about I the scuppers … old men and
women gasping for breath beneath the canvas awnings protecting them from the merciless August sunshine of the
Wherever they landed, the Irish took their concertinas and other musical instruments with them, beginning with
their temporary lodging in places like New York City in 1891: ‘at the boarding houses there is considerable
sociability, plenty of concertina and flute
Earlier-arriving Irish immigrants may have learned the concertina while in the United States; the instrument
was used by soldiers in the American Civil War (1861–1865), where thousands of Irish immigrants were
An 1866 Ohio newspaper reported ‘The case of John Fitzgerald, charged with stealing a concertina from Mary
Hawley, valued at $10’, which shows that Irish in America were playing the instrument by that
The following somewhat lengthy story from the New York Times in 1888 is the earliest substantial account
of such concertina playing in the US:
Where Ignorance is Bliss
Although it is nearly a century since the tune of ‘Croppies Lie Down’ was sung by Orangemen in Ireland
while they massacred the Catholics, it still has the power to incite Irishmen to overt acts. Paddy Ryan
plays the concertina. He was born in this city. He had somewhere heard the obnoxious tune but knew nothing
of its historical significance. Paddy is a member of an East Side social club. The annual ball of his
society occurred a few evenings since. The usual fiddle scrapers were on hand to provide the dance music
but Paddy had brought his concertina along, being a little proud of his one accomplishment. During one of
the lulls between the dances the president of the association went up to the boss musician and said: ‘Av ye plaze, sor,
I wouldn’t be wantin’ t’ be interf’arin’ wid your music. Sure, we’re all highly plazed wid it, so we are, an’ more
power t’ yer elbow when yer waggin’ yer fiddle bow. Faix, ye’ll get yer pay whether or no, so ye will, an’ its not
wan o’ us ‘ud be takin wan cint off yer bill’.
There he stopped to take a breath and the German professor looked down at him from the platform in an enquiring way.
‘Vot you will haf, mine frent? Beer, ha?’
‘Go smother yersel’, ye cheese-headed Dutchman. I can buy me own beer, so I can, an small fear t’ me. I want
ye t’ stop squ’akin’ th’ fiddles an’ rattlin’ th’ brass till Paddy Ryan plays an Irish chune on his concertina.
Now, d’ye understand that, ye ould beer barrel’?
‘Yah, yah, das is all recht. Stop de moosic’.
The music was stopped and the president shouted: ‘Will Paddy Ryan come up [to] the platform an’ play an Irish chune
fer the b’ys an’ gur-rls’?
Paddy came bashfully forth, his face suffused with blushes and his beloved concertina under his arm.
‘Play the ‘Rakes o’ Mallow’’, shouted a voice.
The rollicking air set everybody’s feet to itching. This was followed by ‘The Wind that Shakes the Barley’,
‘The Cat in the Corner’, and ‘The Limerick Races’. All these were rapturously received. Paddy was encouraged.
He glowed with pride. Pulling his forelock apologetically, he stood up and said:
‘Av the ladies an’ gintlemin plaze, I’ll play a new chune I’m after larnin’ the other day’.
Of course the audience was pleased, and every ear was open to catch the air. Paddy pulled the lively measures
out of his instrument with eagerness. He had hardly played two bars, however, when the listeners turned and
looked at each other with surprise and indignation. Then twenty roysterers arose as one man and made a rush
for the luckless player. They seized him from behind and before. They kicked his concertina into the
middle of the floor, where the girls made a football of it. They tore his store clothes from his back and
bruised his cheeks with their hard fists. Those who could not get at him shook their fists in his direction
and swore terrible oaths. Impelled by a stogy boot, poor Paddy shot out the door, followed by the howling mob.
As he rolled down the staircase and out on the sidewalk, a friend picked him up and hurried him around the corner
into a saloon. Bleeding, bruised, and almost naked, Paddy stammered:
‘Shure, w-w-w-hats th’ matter, Jim’?
‘Ah, ye ould fule, weren’t ye playin’ ‘Croppies Lie Down’’?102
Regardless of the explosive reaction to poor Paddy’s tune, such performances of jigs and reels made stringent
demands on the players of these inexpensive Anglo-German concertinas, and there is early evidence that Irish
immigrants, as they became more prosperous, traded up to more expensive Lachenal, Jeffries and Wheatstone
instruments. An 1880 crime report in a Philadelphia newspaper noted that ‘George Lieb stole a concertina worth
$80 from a house in which John O’Neill resided; [Lieb, the burglar] sold it for
A concertina of that value would clearly have been an English-made one. A century and more later, Irish players of
today are still vying for the purchase of top-of-the-line vintage instruments.
In Brooklyn, New York in 1894, a Union of Irish Musicians was formed by recent immigrants which
contained ‘pianists, violinists, flutists, and concertina players’. Its object was ‘to revive
and preserve Irish music’, and its members banded together for appearances at local venues.
Interestingly, ‘Mr. James Rochford reported that he found it difficult to secure bagpipers,
unless they were assured of receiving payment for their services,’ whereupon the organization
considered blackballing the pipers for performances in local picnics and balls. Several observers,
notably Tony Engle and Gearóid O hAllmhuráin, have observed that the playing of concertina in
Clare filled the gap left by the emigration of most of the old class of traveling professional
pipers during the Famine and later years. It is consistent with such stories of the pipers’
departure that these immigrant pipers in Brooklyn considered themselves professionals, and above
playing for free.
William Mullaly, a native of County Westmeath who emigrated to the United States in 1910, is perhaps the best
known today of the immigrant concertina players. His Columbia and Victor phonograph recordings of 1926–27, made in
Camden New Jersey, are the earliest known recordings of Irish music (and perhaps any type of music) on the Anglo
Mullaly beat Dublin resident Billy Roberts for that title by only two years; concertina player
Roberts recorded ‘Kerry and Clare Jigs and Reels’ for ‘Parlophone—the Record that Studies the Irish’
Other immigrant concertina players joined vaudeville; J. D. Kelly ‘in his imitations of various familiar
sounds from the farm yard and camp on concertina and violin, won deserved applause’ at the Park Theatre
in New York City
a troupe visiting Omaha Nebraska in 1899 contained, in addition to the dancing Connolly sisters,
the Reagan Trio: ‘They have secured many a hit and earned a great deal of applause during their stay here.
Their musical comedy act, introducing singing and dancing with concertina, banjo, and guitar accompaniment,
will be the feature of the program’ at Wirth’s vaudeville
In Australia, as in the United States, arriving immigrants joined a population that was already playing the concertina,
and they soon joined in with local ‘bush music’. A 1911 poem by E.J. Brady (1869–1952) highlights a harvest
dance at an Irishman’s farm; here are the first two verses:
It was ‘threshing’ down at Daly’s, and the bearded bushmen rode
Over mountain gorge and gully, where the creeks, clear-watered, flowed:
From the slopes, and through the ranges, past the broad’ning river beds,
Round the spurs and o’er the flat-lands came the host of Daly’s friends;
Came to reap the yellow harvest, waving in the summer sun;
Came to dance with Daly’s daughter ‘neath the moon when day was done.
As the long day’s labor ended, and the horses munched their feed,
Far was borne upon the breezes faint aroma of the ‘weed’,
Sounds of song and year-old waltzes, new enough for rustic feet,
When the honest hearts above them with the joy of living beat.
On the hard earth floor together, youth and maiden, flushed and gay,
To the gasping concertina danced those charméd hours
England had a large number of 19th century Irish immigrants, some of whom played concertina. In the late twentieth
century the late Tommy McCarthy played concertina in London in a circle of musical émigrés that included the
legendary musicians Willie Clancy, Seamus Ennis, and Bobby Casey, among others. Nearly a century earlier, however,
a once prominent Irish composer and concertina player named Tom Maguire was not so fortunate as to have such
friends. During his prime he had written a large number of songs of the Irish, sentimental and comic varieties,
predominantly for the music halls. The sad tale of his older years is told in this story from a 1907 newspaper’s
London court cases column:
Composer’s Sad Plight
The spectacle of a popular song writer fallen upon evil days produced a pathetic impression at Bow street
Police Court yesterday afternoon. A blind composer, Tom Maguire, was, with his wife Frances, charged with
causing an obstruction. He was well known years ago, and he has written many songs which have secured a great
deal of popularity, including these sentimental ballads, ‘Spare the old mud Cabin’, ‘Kathleen Asthore’,
‘Wait Till the Clouds Roll By’, and others with a humorous note, but poverty and affliction overtook him,
and now, absolutely blind and nearly stone deaf, he lives in Clerkenwell, and goes into the streets trying
to sell his melodies. Mrs. Maguire, a neatly-dressed little woman in black, had to lead her husband carefully
into the dock. A zealous constable on the previous evening saw Maguire playing a concertina on the pavement
in Russell street. He stopped this, but later Maguire and his wife were on the pavement again selling song books.
They were arrested. A number of songs were handed to the magistrate, Sir Albert De Rutzen, which Maguire
proudly acknowledged having written twenty years ago. ‘I was very famous then,’ he added, ‘but now I’m in the gutter.’
He further stated that if he only had a decent instrument he could probably get his living on the music halls.
Maguire and his wife were discharged, and the old composer was led gently out of
Figure 13. A period broadside of a song written by concertina player Tom Maguire.
This story was carried in several American papers at that time, doubtlessly because of the popularity of his work,
an example of which is shown in Figure 13, from a British broadside sheet of that
Some of his songs have since been absorbed by the folk process and have turned up in collections, for example, of
‘traditional’ southern American song. A 1907 Salt Lake City Herald clarified his biography and his importance
in the world of popular song. His appears to be a story like Stephen Foster’s, as he sold dozens of tunes that
became hits on the London and worldwide stage—and, it is reported, that made the fortunes of many a music hall
performer—while he received almost nothing for them. That 1907 article lists these songs in detail, and is to be
found in its entirety in the Appendix. It is reported there that
His concertina is cracked and the music is wretched, but the devoted wife can see no blemish.
“If he only had a new concertina,” she said in court, “Tom could get a ‘turn’ at one of the music halls.
He plays just lovely.”111
It should be pointed out that the concertina in question is of unknown variety; it could easily
be an English system instrument or even a duet, both of which were more common in the music halls.
A nationwide distribution in its heyday
Although the concertina is thought of as a predominantly Clare instrument in Ireland today, such was not the
case during the instrument’s heyday, as has been shown above. At that time, its use was not restricted to
traditional music, but played by other parts of the citizenry with tastes that stretched to Anglo-American
and European popular songs. It is very likely that at this time there were concertinas in every county in
the country. The dots shown on the map in Figure 14
show the positions of documented concertina use in Ireland, as researched for this study, in two eras,
1870–1900 and 1900–1930. It should be noted that this research was carried out using currently available
digitally accessible archives, which are at present only available for newspapers in a relatively few areas,
principally Dublin, Meath and Cork. For this reason, areas in the southeast and northeast, as well as parts
of the west (Clare, Galway, Donegal) are decidedly under-represented. Inasmuch as some of the Dublin newspapers
sought a national clientele, there are ‘sightings’ outside that city, but coverage is spotty. For all these
failings, the map shows a broad distribution, and show that distribution of instruments during the concertina’s
heyday was truly nationwide.
Figure 14. Concertina Players in Ireland, 1850–1930.
Colored counties are those with known concertina players—either
documented ancestors and influencers of current musicians (see Table 1),
or else with contemporary published reports of concertinas:
● published reports 1850–1899;
● published reports 1900–1930.
Counties with no documented players (white) are probably under-represented
in the data used to compile this map; it is very likely that the
concertina was to be found in all counties during its peak in popularity.
The vast majority of players who were active during the concertina’s heyday are long forgotten. They played the instrument,
as do most of us today, as a pleasant pastime and lived lives that were perhaps unexceptional in most regards,
and most of them successfully kept their lives out of the newspapers. Thus, no one but a family member might
now remember that grandmother or grandfather played a concertina. On a nationwide level very few have descendents
who play today, because of the decline of the instrument. Nonetheless, one way to roughly gauge the former extent
of these former players is to assemble a list of people, both living or of the recent past, with ties of one sort
or another with Irish music, and mark those who had an ancestor, family member or tutor who played the concertina
during the heyday (1870–1930). The following list (Table 1) was obtained from a digital search of
Fintan Vallely’s Companion to Irish Traditional Music (1999) as well as from other sources.
Each entry shows a person, their birthplace or domicile, and then lists each known ancestor, family member or
musical influence who played concertina during the ‘heyday.’ It is not intended to be exhaustive, scientific or
encyclopedic. The results are intriguing, however; the reach of the players of the heyday is large. Because there
are a great number of Clare musicians appearing in that Companion, the list is top-heavy towards Clare in its
representation of former concertina players as well. Not surprisingly, however, there are a fair number of non-Clare
concertina ancestors shown (from Counties Donegal, Leitrim, Tipperary, Westmeath, Cork, Limerick, Kerry, Louth, Galway,
Sligo, and Dublin). In the map of Figure 14, counties with either a member
from this ‘ancestors’ list or a documented ‘sighting’ are shaded. Only a few scattered counties are left without
observed players in the heyday, but as discussed above, this is probably an artifact of the sources used.
Anecdotal information supports the finding that former players had a nationwide distribution. Noel Hill,
the most prominent of modern players of the instrument, has said that throughout the years of his various concert
appearances, various people from the audience or workshop will mention to him that a grandparent had played the
concertina; he reports that these people came from locations throughout
Table 1. Influences of Irish Concertina-Playing Forebears 1870–1930
List of selected persons with connections to Irish music, who reportedly are either descended from
or were significantly influenced by concertina players from the period 1870-1930. These concertina ‘forebears’
are shown beneath each listing.
- Mary Ann Carolan (1902-1985): singer, concertina, Drogheda Co. Louth
- Nicholas Carolan: Director, Irish Traditional Music Archives, Dublin
- Paternal grandfather and grand-aunt, northern Co. Meath
- Willie Clancy (1918-73): uilleann pipes, Miltown Malbay Co. Clare
- Father, Gilbert Clancy, Islandbawn, Co. Clare
- Mother, Ellen Killeen, Ennistymon Co. Clare
- Eamonn Cotter: flute; Kilmaley, Co. Clare
- Two maternal aunts from Kilmihil, Co.Clare
- Martin (Junior) Crehan (1908-1998): fiddle, concertina, Mullagh, Co. Clare
- Mother, ‘Baby’ Creehan (b. ca 1876)
- Elizabeth Crotty (1885-1960): concertina, Gower, near Cooraclare, Co. Clare
- Jackie Daly: accordion and concertina, Kanturk, Co. Cork
- Influence, Johnny Mickey Barry, Sliabh Luachra, Co. Kerry
- Micheal and Triona Ni Dhomhnaill: guitar and clavinet, Ballymote, Co. Sligo
- Chris Droney: concertina, Bellharbour, Co. Clare
- Father, Jim; grandfather Michael
- Kitty Hayes: concertina, Faha, near Lahinch, Co. Clare
- Martin Hayes: fiddle, Feakle, Co. Clare
- Tutor John Naughton, Feakle
- Noel Hill: concertina, Caherea, Co. Clare
- Both parents; grandparents; grandaunts and granduncles
- Tutors: Paddy Murphy, Connoly, Co. Clare; uncle Paddy Hill
- James Kelly: fiddle, Dublin
- Father, John Kelly (1912-1989)
- John Kelly (1912-1989): fiddle and concertina, Rehy, Co. Clare and Dublin
- Mother Eliza Kelly, uncle Tom Kelly, Co. Clare
- Tutor Mary Holohan, Kilballyowen, Co. Clare
- P. J. Lynch: fiddle, Co. Clare
- Aunt Brigid McGrath (1880-d.?), Clogher, Co.Clare (Kilfenora ceili band, 1920s)
- Tommy McCarthy (1939-2002): uillean pipes and concertina, Kilmihil Co. Clare
- Influenced by Solas Lillis, Co. Clare
- Jacqueline McCarthy: concertina, b. London, now Co. Galway
- Father Tommy McCarthy (1939-2002)
- Paternal grandmother
- Josie McDermott (1925-1992): flute, Colmeen, Co. Sligo
- Tommy McMahon: concertina, Cooraclare, Co. Clare
- Influence, Bernard O’Sullivan (b.?-2007) Cooraclare, Co. Clare
- Mary McNamara: concertina, Tulla, Co. Clare
- Tutor, Mickey Donoghue, Tulla, Co. Clare
- Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh: fiddle, Gweedore, Co. Donegal
- Paternal grandmother
- William Mullaly (1884-ca1950s): concertina, Rathconrath, Westmeath
- Tutor Mrs Heydune, Painstown, Co Westmeath
- Tom Mulligan (1915-1984): uillean pipes, fiddle; Bornacoola Co. Leitrim
- Paddy Murphy (1913-1992), Bealcragga, Fiach Roe, Co. Clare
- Uncles: John and Martin Meehan, Inagh, Co. Clare
- Sonny Murray: concertina, Ennis, Co. Clare
- Tutor Mick ‘Stack’ Ryan, Leitrim near Cree, Co. Clare
- Paddy O’Brien (1922-1991): accordion, Newtown Co. Tipperary
- Grandfather Pat, uncles Paddy and Mick
- Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin: concertina, Co. Clare
- Grandmother Nora Coughlan, Kilmaley, Co. Clare
- Tutor Paddy Murphy, Connoly, Co. Clare
- Sean O’Dwyer: concertina, Dublin
- Mother Ellen O’Dwyer, Limerick
- Padraig O’Keefe (1887-1963): fiddle, Castleisland Co. Kerry (fiddle)
- Mother Margaret O’Callaghan, Kiskeam, Co. Cork
- Peader O’Loughlin: flute, fiddle; Kilmaley, Co. Clare
- Seán Ó Riada (1931-1971): composer, Adare, Co. Limerick
- Bernard O’Sullivan (b.?-2007): concertina, Cooraclare, Co. Clare
- Influence Mick ‘Stack’ Ryan, Leitrim near Cree, Co. Clare
- Willie Reynolds (1916 - ): uilleann pipes, Athlone, Co. Westmeath
- Micho Russell (1915-1994): flute, tin whistle; Doolin, Co. Clare
Packie Russell (1920-1977): concertina, Doolin, Co. Clare
- Mother Annie Moloney
- Influences Patrick Flanagan, Jack Donoghue
- Sharon Shannon: accordion, Ruan, Co. Clare
- Paddy Taylor (1914-1976): flute, Loughill, Co. Limerick
- Rena Traynor (1955-1995): concertina, Co. Clare
- Michel Tubridy: flute, whistle, concertina, Kilrush Co. Clare
- John Williams: concertina, Chicago, Illinois
- Father, grandfather: Doolin, Co. Clare
- Dan Worrall: concertina enthusiast, Fulshear, Texas
- Grandmother Theresa Hanrahan Doyle, Inagh Co. Clare
- Granduncle Michael Doyle, Ballymakea, Mullagh Co. Clare
(Click to view a larger version of this picture.)
Figure 15. Chris Droney, who holds an accordeon in this 1946 photograph, learned to
play concertina from his father, Jim Droney (second from right). Many if not most
of the remaining players in the lean years of 1930-1970 had parents and
grandparents who had played during the instrument’s heyday in Ireland.
From Joseph Green, ‘A conversation with Chris Droney’,
Concertina and Squeezebox, No. 32 (1995), p. 39.
Much has been written about the fact that women were frequent players of the instrument; some have said
that women were in fact the predominant players in those past
O hAllmhuráin reports that the concertina was often referred to as the bean chaírdín (female accordion), although a
count he made of Clare concertina players in the early to middle twentieth century showed approximately equal numbers of men and
It may be of interest to note that a count of male vs female players in Ireland as noted in the newspapers and
other documents during the ‘heyday,’ as discussed above, yields a 4:1 frequency of males to female players and
owners. Among the list of ‘precursor’ players in Table 1, however, the numbers are approximately even, at 34 to 32.
The much larger ratio in the newspaper accounts is understandable, in that women in those days were much more
likely to be found at home than involved in the sort of activities that would land one in the newspapers.
The 1:1 ratio of ‘forebear’ players in Table 1 and in O hAllmhuráin’s count is perhaps more representative of
the relative numbers of men vs women players at that time, and still represents a remarkable proportion of
women players at a time when public playing of pipes or flutes by women was ‘just not done’. The low cost of
concertinas (a woman might thus be able to make the purchase without the involvement of her husband), the growing
financial position of women due to domestic industries stimulated by schemes of the Congested Districts
and the relative newness of the instrument (thus, no long-standing ‘tradition’ of male dominance amongst players,
as in piping) made them attractive to increasing numbers of women players. In modern times, the concertina continues
to attract a large following among women; Noel Hill notes a large majority of girls and women in his classes in Ireland.
When asked why they prefer the concertina, they typically respond that it is small, easily portable, and has a reedy tone that
‘sounds like the pipes.’116
Ignored by a famous collector
It has been noted above that the concertina drew strong voices of disapproval from some in the Gaelic League
and other such quarters, which linked the concertina and banjo to the same modern cultural malaise that
caused the disappearance of the harp and pipes. The premier collector of Irish traditional music of the day,
Captain Francis O’Neill, almost completely ignored the instrument in his extensive writings on Irish music,
at a time when the concertina was at or near its all-time peak in popularity among traditional 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, Co. 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
As Barry O’Neill wrote in the introduction to the reprinted edition of this 1913 work,
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
Captain O’Neill’s disapproval tells us much about the times of the concertina’s arrival in western Ireland.
He was born in 1849 during the famine to parents who were both fluent Irish-speakers, and accomplished singers
of old Irish songs as well. O’Neill himself, however, was raised speaking only English, as part of the great
wave of cultural change of that time; he never became fluent in Irish. O’Neill left in 1866, not to return
for forty years. When he began his collecting activities, he was driven to capture the airs to the songs he
remembered his parents singing in his youth, as he rightfully surmised that most of these tunes would disappear
along with the songs, because the songs were in rapidly-disappearing Irish. While in Chicago he met scores of
émigré 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 had been emptied of its professional class of traveling pipers by emigration, and as we have seen, part of
the musical slack left by the departing pipers was taken up by the populace themselves, on the inexpensive German
concertina. When O’Neill returned in 1906, he would of course have seen this situation in Clare, along with the near
disappearance of the Irish language and its attendant erosion of other parts of traditional folk culture.
Of music during that visit,
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 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 émigrés) here
Like his friends in the Gaelic League, of which he was a
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 19th century 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 … 122
It is clear that O’Neill found it hard to relate to new instruments that were emerging within Irish
traditional music, so much so that they were regarded as things outside the tradition. The concertina
was one of these, and to the extent that it 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 system of patronage of traveling
musicians by the gentry. He was not alone. Amongst more recent writers, Ó Canainn’s Traditional Music in Ireland (1978)
does not mention the concertina, melodeon or banjo, and only the pipes, fiddle and harp are
O’Neill may have disapproved of the concertina, but his publications were avidly used by
concertina players in Clare. O hAllmhuráin 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
Although the evident disapproval of the concertina by the most eminent collector of that era is disappointing,
it is perhaps understandable. The concertina was a very modern thing at the turn of the last century, and
its use may have been difficult for some to accept. How many persons above a certain age today accept the
electric guitar in Irish music, even though it slowly creeps into the reels played by younger ‘Celtic rock’
groups? Moreover, the old German-made twenty button Anglo-German instruments lacked the technical ability to
play some of the more complex fiddle and pipe tunes, especially in ‘fiddle’ keys like D and A. The influx of
higher quality three row instruments seems to have occurred later, in the mid-twentieth century (see below);
until that time concertinas in the west of Ireland were seen by many musicians as a ‘step down’ from the pipes
and the fiddle, regardless of their
It well may be that O’Neill was reacting to the Anglo-German concertina’s technical limitations rather than simply its newness.
Regardless of its evident technical limitations, the Anglo-German concertina came into Ireland at a low ebb
of traditional music, after the departure of pipers 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. This instrument, 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
The people became their own teachers, and the cheap and easy-to-learn concertinas and one-row melodeons helped that to happen.
A popular pastime goes into decline
Almost all of the clippings found in this study as ‘sightings’ of Anglo-German (or suspected Anglo-German) concertinas
are from the period 1870-1930 (searches were not attempted for years following 1970, during which the concertina has
experienced a resurgence in Ireland). They show that during most of this period, use of the concertina was widespread;
oral accounts corroborate this, at least for the early decades of the 20th century. Beginning about 1920, however, its
use began to dramatically decline; this paralleled equally steep declines of that time in England and
The leading culprit in those latter two places was the advent of electricity as well as the growing popularity of recorded
music (the gramophone) and the radio. With recorded or broadcast music, average people no longer had to learn to play
an instrument to be able to have music at home, so usage of all musical instruments went into decline. A 1925 article
in the Irish Independent entitled ‘Is the piano a thing of the past?’, subtitled ‘Revolution by Gramophone’,
showed that this global phenomena was taking hold in Ireland as well:
[The home piano] is being superceded by the gramophone …. It is the fashion to be lazy nowadays, and the percentage
of those epicures who do not actually play the piano—that is, almost 90%—have taken to the gramophone …. People who,
a few years ago, would be crowding into the [music] halls are now staying at home sunk into their armchairs, listening
to their gramophone.’ 128
In many rural and working class homes, that home musical role had been held by the humble Anglo-German concertina
rather than piano, but the effect was the same.
An additional detrimental effect in the concertina’s demise was that global popular music was rapidly becoming
more chromatic as the effects of ragtime, jazz, and other new genres began to be felt. That was bad for the
two-row Anglo-German concertina, because it lacked the chromatic capacity to play some of this new music.
In the United States and England, more chromatic instruments like mandolins, guitars and ukuleles overtook
concertinas and accordions in general popularity (where music continued to be played at all); the concertina
became something that your aunt or uncle had played. For those ‘up-to-date’ Irish whose musical tastes were similar
(i.e., those who did not remain as players and listeners of native Irish music), the Anglo-German concertina became
unfashionable, although there were some in the late 1920s, such as the concertina player in this group in Kerry, in 1927,
who gamely tried the new music:
The advent of the monoplane has given Ballybunion and West Kerry red-letter days, for when it became known yesterday
that [the Princess Xenia] had landed on Beale Strand crowds gathered there all day today from many parts of
Kerry and even Limerick …. A small fleet of motor, sailing, and row boats were anchored off the shore, and in one case
a jazz band, composed of two violins, a saxophone and a concertina, played selections during the
Such accounts are few and far between, however. The general decline in concertina playing can be seen
in the virtual absence of mentions of the concertina in Irish newspaper stories that appeared after 1930
and before the traditional revival began in the 1970s. The types of stories that are reported above,
where the concertina is a bystander to a crime perhaps, or a prize in a raffle, or played by a policeman
or a civil protester, do not happen when the concertina is no longer in general use. Remaining (and few)
references were more likely to bemoan its disappearance from popular culture in most of the country, such
as a note from Myles na gCopaleen (a pseudonym of writer Brian O’Nolan, who also wrote under the pen name
Flann O’Brian) in 1949, discussing the ‘cloud of Bad Times that hangs over Rural Ireland’; according to Myles,
We may talk about the “Harp of Tara” and the “Minstrel Boy” but we all know that when the Concertina
and the Bag Pipes left the Cottage the heart left the
The general decline in concertina playing was noticed even on board emigrant ships by the 1920s.
A reporter from the Times of London posted the following report from Queenstown Harbor, County Cork,
a traditional stopping off point for transatlantic emigrant ships.
This report paints a scene quite different that that on the Cedric twenty years earlier, mentioned above,
where there was ‘a concertina for every dozen passengers’:
This ship is one of the dwindling number that stops its course in the roadsteads of Queenstown Harbour. …
From the inner harbour, tapering into the soft mysteries of the Irish hills, came fussily out a crowded
tender, carrying a triple freight of third-class emigrants.
The last time I saw this sight, the mingling of laughter and tears, the rough music, from Jew’s-harp to concertina,
the homely luggage, the waving of sticks and coloured handkerchiefs, gave me an enduring picture of human emotion,
of parting that is sweet sorrow, of youthful hope and excitement, of wonder and of strange misgiving. What had
happened in the interval? Music? There was none, not a concertina on board.
[‘The Emigrants’, The Times (London), 6 May 1922.]
Although Dublin papers, especially the Irish Times, contain frequent advertisements for concertinas
from the 1860s through World War I, after about 1918 such advertisements become rare; Butler’s in Dublin
kept going throughout the early 1920s, but other old vendors disappeared or dropped the concertina from their
advertising. By the 1930s, the once common marketing of concertinas by musical and general merchants effectively
ceased to be recorded by advertisements in Irish newspapers.
However, this simple story of abrupt twentieth century decline had one very significant exception in
Ireland relative to America and most of England, where extinction was nearly complete by 1925.
This exception—the continued use of the concertina by a few hardy traditional musicans in
County Clare—occurred largely out of the view of the general public, and seemingly entirely out
of view of the newspapers, until recent decades. There seem to be a variety of reasons this unlikely
survival took place in Clare. Ireland, still a poor country, was slow to electrify, especially in its
poorest western areas like County Clare. In and near Clare, only in 1929 was the Shannon estuary harnessed
to provide power to an electrical grid connecting the large towns of Ennis, Limerick, and Galway. Much of
the surrounding rural countryside waited until after World War II for electricity; about 420,000 customers
were finally linked to power by Ireland’s Electricity Supply Board between
1947 and 1979.131
This meant that many poor parts of the west—which included many of the last bastions of traditional
Irish music and Gaelic culture—were not to receive electricity and all its attendant cultural side
effects until a quarter to a half century or more later than their Dublin, London and New York counterparts.
For all the negative effects on the local economy, this had a slowing effect on change and a preservative
effect on local traditions, which perhaps benefited the concertina. Continued poverty played its role too;
even with electricity one needed money to buy new electrical gadgets like radios and gramophones. It was not
until ‘sometime during the 1930s’ that Mrs. Crotty bought a radiogram (a combination radio and gramophone)
‘which was only the second to arrive in Kilrush at the
By that time, she was already fifty years of age, and mature in her musical outlook. Noel Hill remembers
the arrival of electricity to his home in Caharea, eight miles from Ennis in County Clare, when he was
eight years old (ca 1964); prior to that time, his family had a wind-up gramophone. It may not be wholly
coincidental that his house was one of the last in his area for house
Such poverty and its side effects may have had a preservative effect on social customs in such areas,
but traditional music declined overall even there during this period. The Irish government dealt a
major blow to traditional music with some of their legislation, and inadvertently helped spread newer
forms like jazz. As the late Junior Crehan (1908–1998) remembered,
I played at country house dances, at weddings, at concerts, and crossroads. About 1936 the house dances
were banned by the government and the Dance Hall Act was passed. The halls were built and jazz and
foxtrots were the dances and the country man couldn’t cope. It was the greatest crime ever committed
against our culture and way of life. The country house was our workshop and school. It was there we
learned our music song and dance. At that time and for a good few years after music song and dance faded
away and most of my pals who played with me emigrated to America. It was a sad lonesome
time … 134
In the face of this, it seems remarkable that a substantial community of hardy traditional musicians
(including some concertina players) persevered, but they did. This dogged perseverance became the
primary agent that saved the last few concertina players in Ireland from cultural extinction. Certainly,
it appears that all concertina players who tried to play newer music, like jazz, gave it up, either as
the concertina became unfashionable in modern circles, or as they encountered difficulty playing jazz
accidentals with simple two row instruments. By 1970 the concertina’s use may have been measured in a
few dozens of players in County Clare, and all of these surviving musicians played traditional Irish music.
Traditional music (including concertina playing within it) was at a low point during these times, as Junior
Crehan noted, but those times were not nearly as devastating for concertina playing there as was the arrival
of new, more chromatic ‘global’ music and its attendant changes in fashionable instrumentation to people in
more ‘modern’ households.
Several writers of articles on Irish concertina playing, or of CD liner notes accompanying concertina recordings,
have struggled to explain the predominance of the concertina in County Clare today; it certainly was not the only
poor and tradition-minded county, for example. A thought that was perhaps first put in writing by Tony Engle,
in the notes accompanying the ground-breaking Topic/Free Reed recording Clare Concertinas of 1975,
has resonated with others:
How did Clare come to be known as the home of the concertina? One theory is that it was introduced
to Clare by sailors along the banks of the Shannon. Personally, I believe that as Clare had, in the
last century as well as now, more musicians per head of population than any other county, it was only
logical that a new instrument would find acceptance where the tradition was strongest.
As we have seen, however, the instrument was played nationwide; there seems to have been nothing special
about Clare on its arrival into the hands of Irish players. Like Engle, however, others have noted the
relatively larger overall numbers of traditional musicians in County Clare. For example, P.J. Curtis has written
that ‘It is widely accepted that Clare produces more traditional musicians than any other
If that statement is accurate—and I know of no objective data to substantiate it—this would help
explain the greater numbers of remnant concertina players in Clare. If there were more traditional musicians
in County Clare to start with, it follows that it would be easier for a few remnants of a once-popular
instrument to survive a general decline in traditional music relative to areas where the density of such
traditional musicians was less. In areas farther east, for example, where the English language and its
attendant cultural changes were adopted several decades or more earlier, pockets of traditional music
survived, to be sure, but there were fewer traditional musicians (including concertina players) per capita
of the general population, so that after the general and abrupt decline in concertina playing during the
1920s and 1930s, there were not enough surviving concertina players left to be noticed as a distinct group
(no more William Mullalys near Mullingar, for example).
It is also possible that the broadcast media simply wrote more stories about survivors in Clare during
the early years of the Irish music revival, neglecting and leaving unrecorded survivors in many other
areas (many of which are listed in Table 1, and played well into the 1950s and
And amongst concertina players in less traditionally-inclined
communities who had embraced global popular music (music hall and minstrel material, later followed by jazz,
modern show tunes and the like) rather than traditional music, the decline of the concertina seems to have been
every bit as abrupt and thorough as it was in America.
The concertina’s barest survival in Ireland, then, and its recent resurgence, was largely enabled by the
efforts of these few remaining traditional musicians in those rural western areas (predominantly County Clare)
who stuck with the music, and the concertina, in the very lean years of the 1930s to 1960s. One significant
factor in the continued use of the instrument by these few remaining players in those lean years may have
been the arrival of better quality instruments. Although newspaper reports discussed above show that English-made
Anglo-German instruments were available for purchase in Dublin from their very beginnings in the 1860s, such
expensive items were in short supply in the rural west, even after the general population lost interest in the
concertina. Gearóid O hAllmhuráin notes that many Jeffries, Wheatstone and Lachenal instruments began to show
up in London antique shops after World War II, and that Clare émigrés there shipped them back to
Ned Falvey of Kilmaley, Co. Clare, was one who seemed to have played an especially prominent role in such distribution
of quality instruments, bringing them home in his suitcase when
These better instruments breathed new life into Clare playing, allowing some players like Paddy Murphy to
experiment with new, fully three row fingerings, and allowing all to play with other instruments (especially
fiddle and pipes) in their own keys. The more complex side of some Irish tunes could now be more fully realized
on the concertina, and no longer would it be considered a ‘step down’ from other Irish instruments, as it was in
Elsewhere in Ireland by the middle of the twentieth century, the once ubiquitous Anglo-German concertina had become
little more than a nostalgic memory. As the Anglo-German concertina disappeared in America, it became something of
an icon for ‘olden times’ in American popular culture, appearing in movies in the hands of sailors, on wagon trains,
and with star-crossed lovers in those movies that looked back in
A somewhat similar phenomenon is evident in Irish paintings and other illustrations that were made after the
instrument disappeared from the view of most Irish citizens; such paintings used the appearance of the concertina
to evoke simpler times. A 1939 painting by Waterford-born artist Power O’Malley, An Irish Ballad, reviewed
at the time, ‘presents a young man of the West playing a concertina while another sings’ in an ‘extremely subtle’
An exhibition in Waterford in 1949 showcases a work by native artist Robert Burke, whose painting
‘gives a sort of imaginative interpretation of a fisherman beside a lonely harbor at evening whiling the
time by playing a concertina. He has captured the quiet atmosphere of this secluded little spot in the Ring Peninsula
very neatly.’ 142
Anglo-German concertina playing was endemic throughout Ireland in the period 1870–1930. Concertinas were found
both in the relatively Anglicized east and the more Gaelic west; amongst people who sang popular songs from the
minstrels and music halls, and amongst those who played Ireland’s native reels and jigs. Its distributors may
indeed have included a sailor or two, but the dominant method of sale by far was via music shops, pawnbrokers,
jewelers, hardware shops, and general merchandisers of every sort. It was an inexpensive item easily obtained,
and seems to have been available in Dublin at least from the early 1850s. Indeed, there seems to be nothing special
about how it arrived in Clare, but rather how it was preserved there during a century of astonishing cultural change.
Poverty and the slowed approach of modern popular culture in parts of western Ireland created the environment for
concertina playing to continue, if barely, just as it was disappearing elsewhere in more prosperous, Anglicized
and/or ‘modern’ areas. That, as well as a possible predilection toward a greater number of musicians per capita
in Clare relative to other parts of western Ireland, and the arrival of better instruments to many of the remaining
players in the middle of the 20th century, may well have made the critical difference in allowing a few small pockets
of Irish concertina players to survive into the late 20th century.
Appendix 1: Recordings
Ireland is blessed with a number of commercial recordings of Anglo concertina players who were active
during the heyday of this instrument, or who were at least children during that time. The following list
highlights players thought to have been born before 1930; the first three entries are for players who were
adults during the heyday.
William Mullaly, The First Irish Concertina Player to Record (Viva Voce Records, cassette 005). William Mullaly
(1884-ca 1955) was born near Mullingar, County Westmeath in eastern Ireland. He learned from a concertina-playing neighbor,
and had siblings who played pipes, flute, whistle, harmonica, and bodhran. He emigrated to the US in 1910, and recorded
for the Columbia and Victor companies in 1926 and 1927.
Elizabeth Crotty, Concertina Music from West Clare (1999, RTE Music Ltd, 225CD). Mrs Elizabeth (Markham) Crotty
(1885-1960) was born near Cooraclare, County Clare in a musical family; her mother played fiddle and an older sister
played concertina. Her playing was brought to the public eye by Ciaran MacMathuna, who recorded her in 1955. She is
remembered today at a concertina school named in her honor, the annual Eigse Mrs Crotty Festival of Concertina Music,
in Kilrush, County Clare.
Junior Creehan and his mother Baby Crehan, as featured on Junior Creehan (1908-1998): The Last House in
Ballymakea (2007, Clare College for Traditional Studies,CD012-JC). Junior Crehan was a highly regarded and well-loved
fiddle player from Ballymakea, near Mullagh in County Clare. The concertina and the tin whistle were the first instruments
he learned, however, and he is recorded playing the title tune on his concertina. On this collection of tunes played by
himself and by other family members, there is also an utterly charming track recorded in 1963 by his mother Baby Creehan
(b. ca 1876) on an old German made concertina, when she was 87 years old.
There are several players born in the early twentieth century who as children witnessed the popularity of the
concertina at its heyday, and who helped keep the tradition of Irish concertina playing alive during the relatively
lean years of the middle of the twentieth century. Some of them were recorded, and these recordings were key parts
of the instrument’s revival during the last decades of the twentieth century. Many were recorded in the 1970s by
Neil Wayne and Free Reed Records; these have been recently re-released as a set (The Clare Set, AnClar 06) and individually:
Clare Concertina Styles (FCLAR 06). Originally issued as Irish Traditional Concertina Styles in 1977,
this recording features Mrs Ellen O’Dwyer of Limerick, Sonny Murray of Kilmihil and Ennis, Paddy Murphy,
Solis Lillis and Tom Carey of Kilmihil, as well as younger players Gerald Haugh and Michael MacAogain.
Of particular interest is the playing of Mrs. O’Dwyer, who uses an old German-made instrument on the
recording. All of the other players in the recordings listed here use higher quality English-made anglo
concertinas; the German-made ones are however what the vast majority of Irish would have played during the
Clare Concertinas (FCLAR 02) and Traditional Music of County Clare (FCLAR 05) were both originally
issued in 1974, and feature Bernard O’Sullivan (d. 2007) and Tommy McMahon. Both are from the Cooraclare parish
in west Clare. Bernard learned from legendary Clare player Stack Ryan; neighbor Tommy is of a younger generation
of players and also has a string of All-Ireland championships to his credit.
The Flowing Tide (1974, FCLAR 03) features Chris Droney of Ballyvaughan, County Clare. He was taught by
his father, also a concertinist, and came to musical prominence in the 1950s, winning a series of All-Ireland championships.
He continues to play today; other CDs include Chris Droney: The Fertile Rock (Clo lar Chonnachta) and
Irish Dance Music (Copley 5007, tape only).
John Kelly—Fiddle & Concertina (1974, FCLAR 04), features John Kelly (1912-1989), a native
of the Rehy district of west Clare. John lived in Dublin, but was a frequent teacher at the Willie Clancy School
in Miltown Malbay, Clare.
The Russell Family (1974, FCLAR 01) features Micho, Packie and Gus Russell of Doolin, County Clare.
Packie (1920-1977) initially learned concertina from his mother, and was a musical friend of players like
Willie Clancy, Johnny Doran, and concertina player Paddy Murphy.
Still other commercially available CDs of ‘vintage’ players include the following:
Kitty Hayes: A Touch of Clare (2005) and Kitty Hayes and Peter Laban: They’ll be Good Yet (2006) feature
concertina player Kitty Hayes of Lahinch, west Clare, who learned from her father.
Two Gentlemen of Clare Music (2006) features concertina player Gerdie Commane (1917-2007) of Ballyknock,
Kilnamona County Clare as well as fiddle player Joe Ryan. Gerdie started playing in 1926, learning concertina alone,
in his words, ‘by hit or miss’.
There are, of course, recordings of other great Irish players who preceded the concertina’s recent revival but are
not included in this list, which restricts itself to players thought to have been born before 1930.
Appendix 2: Tom Maguire
Story about Tom Maguire,
from the Salt Lake City Herald of 24 December 1907.
It is the irony of fate that Tom Maguire, the one-time famous composer of popular songs, who wrote
“Wait Till the Clouds Roll By,” should find himself heavily beset by the clouds of adversity. Blind,
deaf and compelled to earn an insufficient living by playing the concertina before the lines of
people who wait at the doors of London’s theatres nightly, he has been arrested for “creating an
obstruction” and hauled into court. He was discharged, however, by a kind-hearted magistrate.
Maguire’s case is a striking contrast to the stories one reads of thousands of dollars made out
of popular songs. In his day Maguire’s songs were as popular as any, but if thousands were made
from them, he, at least, never saw any of them.
“Wait Till the Clouds Roll By” and “Three Leaves of Shamrock,” both of which were written by Maguire,
were almost as popular and widely known in the United States as in England. His “Bold Robert Emmett,”
“The Sweetest Sweetheart of All,” “Spare the Old Mud Cabin,” ‘The Soldier’s Letter,” “The Wars are Over, Mother Dear,”
and “Kathleen Asthore,” all made big hits in England, and thousands of copies were sold, yet Maguire
never received a penny of royalty. For his “Three Leaves of Shamrock” he was paid $40; ‘Spare the Old Mud Cabin”
netted him $25, and “The Soldier’s Letter” he sold for $16.
Maguire’s songs have been the stepping stones to popular favor for many of England’s famous music hall
stars. He wrote the word’s for “Oh, Jeremiah, Don’t You Go to Sea,” which was one of the early successes
of Marie Lloyd. Marie is now the highest paid singer on the English music hall stage, and earns more per week
than Tom earned for all his songs put together. The Two Macs, Henry Melville, Charles Russell, Harry Tate and
Harry Monkhouse sang others of his songs nightly at Deacon’s music hall, the old Gaiety and other famous halls
of days gone by.
Maguire makes his way about with the help of his wife. He plays some of his old tunes and she tries to sell
cheap copies of the music. His concertina is cracked and the music is wretched, but the devoted wife sees no
“If he only had a new concertina,” she said in court. “Tom could get a ‘turn’ at one of the music halls.
He plays just lovely.”
For “old time’s sake” some of those who have profited by the genius of the fallen song writer are going
to help him. Hundreds of less deserving people than he make their living by singing and playing to the
people waiting to get into the London theatres. But unlike them, Tom and his wife are old and infirm
and cannot “22” upon the approach of a bobbie.
About 28 years ago I was introduced to the tradition of Irish concertina playing during a first trip to
County Clare, the birthplace of my maternal grandparents. I was very impressed by not only the music
but the gracious manners and generosity of the concertina players who I met on that and subsequent trips,
among them Chris Droney, Sonny Murray, Tommy McCarthy, Junior Crehan (who played concertina in addition
to the fiddle), John Joe Healy (another concertina-playing fiddler), and Tommy McMahon. The research that
went into this note is, in a small way, a ‘thank you’ to all of the above persons for their kindness and
I also thank several people who helped bring this note to fruition, including Allan Atlas, Noel Hill,
Randall Merris, and Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin, all of whom gave me helpful suggestions on the first draft, and
Robert Gaskins, who made space available in the Concertina Library and prepared the document for placement
A Request for More Information
Some of the delights of the internet age include the ability to reach others with knowledge on
very narrow topics such as 19th century Irish concertinas, and the ability to update a note such
as this as new information is found. I would greatly appreciate any information others might have
that would either help further illuminate some of the above material, or correct any errors I may
have made. Please send any such information to me via the email on this website:
I would especially appreciate any photographs of early Irish players (i.e., before 1940 or so)
so that they could be included; there seem to be many more such photographs of English, American, and
Australian players of that time than there are of the Irish. I will of course fully and gratefully
credit any materials received and used.
Have feedback on this article?
Send it to the author.
Reprinted from the Concertina Library
© Copyright 2000– by Dan Worrall