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Irish-German Concertina Project Begins


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All,

 

Back in February, just after the Concertina Cuinniu in Clare, Sean O'Dwyer made me a wonderful and quite unanticipated present - his mother's old German concertina. I guess I am getting a name for talking up the older form of the concertina! As readers of this forum doubtless know, Mrs. O'Dwyer was a wonderful player on the old German concertina, and was recorded in the 1970s as part of what is now known as the classic 'Clare Set' of Irish concertina recordings.

 

At any rate, I began thinking about what to do with it. Keeping it on my little farm in Texas was out of the question, as nobody but me would ever get to see and appreciate it, and of course it was once such a big part of concertina playing in rural Ireland - and is so rare there now - that it should get back there somehow. Maybe Sean figured I would try to do something good with it!

 

So I came up with the idea to send it on a little mission before donating it to an appropriate museum in Ireland, and to try in a small way to make a donation to the next Cruinniu as well. The idea is to get it into the hands of six prominent women players in County Clare, each of whom would 'own' it for one month before passing it on to the next. At the end of each such stay, each lady will record a few tunes on it - ones that, it is hoped, date back from within their families or communities to the old times (1850s to about 1920) when the German concertina, and music for house dances, was king. Each of these ladies was chosen for their family or community links back to old time music in Clare, and/or to their sensitivity to old time playing styles of the instrument. We hope to collect all their recordings for a CD, proceeds of which would all go to the Oidreacht an Chlair for a future Cruinniu. Harry Hughes, at the OaC, is quite interested in the project, and I should thank Aine Hensey and Tim Collins for their welcome help getting everyone on board.

 

I first sent the old concertina to Frank Edgley, who kindly donated his time to repair a nagging little air leak and thus bring it back to close to original playing condition. I allowed myself a few days to enjoy it before I sent it on to the first of our volunteer ladies, to start the project.

 

I've put a little article together describing this project in detail on my website (www.angloconcertina.org ) where you can read about it and the six ladies who are so kindly donating their considerable talents to this effort, and a bit about the times of the German concertina in rural Ireland. I'll update the website periodically as Mrs. O'Dwyer's concertina makes its way around Clare. I hope you enjoy it.

 

ps. I've somehow misplaced my link to the Irish concertina website....so could someone who also is a member of it pass this information on to them? They might be interested.

 

Cheers,

Dan

Edited by Dan Worrall
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  • 2 months later...

I've just updated the project diary with some entries describing recent visits related to this project with Mary MacNamara, Chris Droney (Ann Kirrane's father), Jacqueline McCarthy and Angela Crotty. Mary has finished recordeing her selection of tunes on the old German concertina of Mrs. O'Dwyer, and it is now with Jacqueline.

 

The full project story starts at http://www.angloconcertina.org/ODwyer_concertina_project.html

or you can go to simply to the new entries starting here and extending through the next page:

http://www.angloconcertina.org/ODwyer_concertina_project_4.html

 

There is some interesting interview material in the posting about Chris Droney's grandfather Michael Droney, born 1829 and of the first generation anywhere to play an imported German concertina. He played for house dances in mid-to late nineteenth century north Clare. Chris knows a lot about his grandfather, including many tunes, and Chris seems to have inherited his use of octaves from his grandfather's and father's playing at house dances.

 

Also in the posting, Mary tells a bit about the mix of dance tunes prevalent in her area once upon a time. Both her father and other Tulla area predecessors as well as Michael Droney played a lot of waltzes, polkas, barndances schottisches and Shoe the Donkeys (varsoviana) in the days before ceili dances brought reels to the fore. The project is attempting to unearth some of the older ballroom dance music and playing styles that constituted the bread and butter of the Anglo-German concertina in Ireland before the ceili and present revival eras... music that was played by many Clare women until well into the twentieth century.

Edited by Dan Worrall
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  • 2 weeks later...

I read through your pages on this project, well worth it and fair dues to you for making the effort. It would be so easy to just hold onto the instrument as a collector but you've done the right thing. Interesting to read about the nature of the old sets and the prevalence of the polka & barn dances etc. We tend to forget this when we think of the homogenising of style in recent decades. I think CCE may have done good for traditional music in some respects and a disservice in others, through the promotion of the fleadhs and competitions and the like.

Edited by tombilly
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I read through your pages on this project, well worth it and fair dues to you for making the effort. It would be so easy to just hold onto the instrument as a collector but you've done the right thing. Interesting to read about the nature of the old sets and the prevalence of the polka & barn dances etc. We tend to forget this when we think of the homogenising of style in recent decades. I think CCE may have done good for traditional music in some respects and a disservice in others, through the promotion of the fleadhs and competitions and the like.

Thanks, all, for the kind words. Nice to see the interest!

 

I hope this small work is seen not as against modern ways of playing the instrument, but as a reminder that the concertina in Ireland has quite a different history and historical repertoire than the pipes and the fiddle. The CCE and other organizations quite rightly gave pride of place in Irish traditional music to the fiddle and pipes with their largely pre-Famine era repertoire. With all that happened in the 20th century to rebuild that repertoire as well as the popularity of ITM - and that is of course a phenomenal story - the concertina's origins and original repertoire have been a bit lost at the fringe. Most of the great concertina players of the 20th C were strong devotees of the pre-Famine repertoire and the work that the cultural revivals were doing, and thus adopted tunes and playing keys of the fiddles and pipes that were the backbone of that revival. After all, they were playing for ceili dances (and later, sessions), and reels are what people wanted! The homogenization of playing styles in recent decades reflects the fact that the reel-rich pre-Famine repertoire is more efficiently (and perhaps more artfully) played in this newer way (i.e., the cross-row methods championed by Paddy Murphy, Noel Hill, and others).

 

What has been a bit lost in all this are the repertoire of the late nineteenth century German concertina players in Ireland ('simpler' and more relaxed polkas, waltzes, schottisches and barndances), and the simpler, dance-oriented octave-rich playing styles. The late nineteenth century was a time when we know from numerous accounts that solo concertina players were enormously popular, and were the backbone of the popular Irish music and dance of that particular era. For what it is worth - and it is just my opinion - I would think that every accomplished Irish-style player would wish to also be familiar with this way of octave playing not as an ornament but as a general approach to playing tunes, and would every now and then seek out some of the older repertoire of Irish concertina tunes, played in the old style. There is so little that was saved of it...read for example what Chris Droney and Mary MacNamara had to say about that.

 

And I suppose that as I get older, I find myself less desirous of ripping through reels at light speed, and find the gentler pace of the older tunes richly rewarding.

 

Have fun,

Dan

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Dan,

 

Thanks. I really admire this project. I love what you wrote here.

 

I'm not Irish myself and even if I were, I wouldn't want to pass judgment on where the living tradition of Irish concertina music is going. But as someone drawn into the music for decades now and sometimes asked by members of that community to teach beginners on the concertina, I have loved the older tradition of the german concertina music (and of the early players of the anglo-german instruments who only used 2 rows). It's brilliant music in its own right, it forms a core that informs the more modern 3-row anglo styles, and IMO success in that older style may be more accessible to many beginners, especially adult beginners -- in part because a much less expensive instrument can be used (with proper guidance in choosing it and in learning the style).

 

Taking further your point about different styles of music for home dancing versus a session of fast reels, I often compare the german-concertina music, and the basically "2-row concertina styles" (though often played on 3-row anglos) of musicians like Mrs. Crotty and John Kelly, to the 1-row melodeon styles that have made such a resurgence in recent years (2 row concertinas and 1-row melodeons are alike in having their own Irish repertoire that accommodates their "missing notes"- compared to more "complete" 3 row concertinas and 2-row button accordions ). Sure the modern styles of anglo playing are wonderful and they inspire and challenge me, too. But the 2-row concertina styles deserve great respect -- and with a little accommodation from other players (and a relaxing of the compulsion some players feel to play every tune), a 20 key concertina of good quality can work great even in a session, just as we see with 1-row melodeons.

 

Of course Dan, our teachers Tony Crehan and Tommy McCarthy senior (may they rest in peace), and our classmate Jim McArdle from the long-ago year that I met you knew all this very well. :-)

 

PG

Edited by Paul Groff
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Of course Dan, our teachers Tony Crehan and Tommy McCarthy senior (may they rest in peace), and our classmate Jim MacArdle from the long-ago year that I met you knew all this very well. :-)

 

PG

Paul,

 

Good to hear from you and that you are happy with the project. I suspect there are a lot more who feel that way about the simple old ways of playing the concertina! By the way, my recommendation to anyone wanting to try out the old German-style two row that they call Danie Labuschagne in Pretoria and find a way to buy one of his. They are very reasonably priced and excellent instruments. And of course, two row Lachenals are great value too - are you still reconditioning them?

 

But back to your comment. That must mean that you were in the same intermediate class that I was in, and Jim MacArdle was in, in 1984 (or was it 1985) WIllie Clancy school. The one taught by Tommy McCarthy. I had completely forgotten, so I checked my photos (see attached). So that must be you, the bearded guy on the back row? Jim and I are squatting in front, and the late Tommy McCarthy is standing toward the left. That was a long time ago!

 

Dan

post-976-0-89629300-1375414771_thumb.jpg

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I hope this small work is seen not as against modern ways of playing the instrument, but as a reminder that the concertina in Ireland has quite a different history and historical repertoire than the pipes and the fiddle. The CCE and other organizations quite rightly gave pride of place in Irish traditional music to the fiddle and pipes with their largely pre-Famine era repertoire... What has been a bit lost in all this are the repertoire of the late nineteenth century German concertina players in Ireland ('simpler' and more relaxed polkas, waltzes, schottisches and barndances), and the simpler, dance-oriented octave-rich playing styles.

Have fun,

Dan

 

 

I'm not quite sure what the pre-famine era repertoire was - don't think anyone really is, apart from a few early collections which may or may not have been reflective of what the ordinary people played. I do perceive though the modern view of traditional music in Ireland is very much driven by reels, jigs and hornpipes - polkas are a thing they play down in Cork & Kerry and maybe a few barndances in Clare & Sligo/ Leitrim etc. That's kinda the 'received wisdom'.

 

Probably all sorts of reasons for this but I also know from my own experiences of older local people and what they think of 'Irish music' in the south east of Ireland, that the above definition is very limited. Sure you'll have a few sets of reels and jigs but there's a surprising amount of other tune types played; waltzes, quicksteps, polkas, marches etc. never mind the song & recitation tradition - all sorts of odds and ends in fact. The difference between being in a session of 'modern players' and 'older people' is very noticeable in terms of variety. I wouldn't say that this is necessarily a reflection of a very old tradition, more a continuation of a process of acquiring repertoire that is always changing. For myself, I'm trying to play more with these older folk and acquire some of these tunes.

Edited by tombilly
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Hi Dan,

 

Well it figures that a historian would have the documentary evidence. Great to see Tommy senior looking so young (even if possibly feeling the effects of a night's rambling, may he rest in peace), yourself, Jim, Sandra, and Amanda Lacy who first loaned me a concertina to play. I remember the first day of the class was taken by Tony Crehan (R.I.P.) because Tommy had not yet arrived.

 

I had been playing concertina just since January that year (1985), which is now more than half my life ago. I was a Fulbright fellow in North Wales that year so Ireland was close; unfortunately I was never able to make it back to Ireland for Willie Clancy week but that one was memorable. I did meet Tommy often in Boston in later years, and Tony too on his one trip to the US. As I alluded in the post above, I remember both Tony and Tommy teaching mostly tunes in lovely old style that sit comfortably on only 2 rows of the anglo. Of course, both did also use the C# in other tunes.

 

Thanks again Dan and keep up the good work.

 

PG

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I recall a hand written tune book that I viewed ,many years ago, which belonged to a neighbour of mine in Australia. This tune book was dated 1814 , as I recall and had belonged to the neighbour's fiddle playing fore-bear . The fiddler's address was also noted in the cover as a small town in north Co.Cork... perhaps Fermoy , I don't recall exactly.

 

The interesting thing about this tune book was the almost total lack of any Reel. Some Jigs I recall but plenty of Country Dance 2/4's and tunes for specific dances, perhaps polkas and waltzes too.. I don't really recall all the détails , my main interest being the lack of what I then thought was the bread and butter of Irish music during that period.

 

I too find your project very interesting Dan, and highly commendable!

 

Very best of luck to all involved,

Geoff.

Edited by Geoff Wooff
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I'm not quite sure what the pre-famine era repertoire was - don't think anyone really is, apart from a few early collections which may or may not have been reflective of what the ordinary people played. I do perceive though the modern view of traditional music in Ireland is very much driven by reels, jigs and hornpipes

Tombilly,

 

You can get an excellent idea of the pre-Famine repertoire by looking at the 19th century collections, especially O'Neill and Petrie. If memory serves, these collections include jigs, reels, hornpipes, and set dances (a step dance, not the quadrilles), and that is it except for the non-dance airs and O'Carolan pieces. This is of course a pre-concertina repertoire too for the most part. O'Neill pretty much figured that nothing good happened after he left Ireland just before the Famine. He studiously avoided the mid to late ninettenth century arrivals of the concertina, banjo and accordion, and totally ignored all the ballroom stuff (quadrilles, waltzes, polkas, schottisches, varsovianas and barndances) that were all the rage when he visited Ireland....he did not consider that anything but foreign, and thought the Irish had stopped playing music. It is very like rock and roll today, with the hugely popular electric guitar taking the role the concertina once had (and dirty dancing or whatever the kids call it today taking the role of the old ballroom dances, some of which were once also considered very risque). Not the stuff of traditionalists then....but what a difference a century makes!

 

Paul, I still have a little notebook where I wrote down Tommy's fingering of each piece he taught, including grace notes and on what row he played everything. Great stuff....and simply played. That doesn't mean it is easy...I still struggle with a coule of those tunes, as my brain isn't wired the same (better than just admitting I'm a bit clumsy!). Tommy wasn't an octave player though from what I was able to tell -- very different than Chris Droney or Mary Ann Carolan in that regard.

 

sjm, the best two row old style playing? Well, for octaves I'd go Chris Droney, Mary Ann Carolan, Ella Mae O'Dwyer, Katey Hourican. For old style playing along the row but singly (few octaves), I'd go with Terry Teahan, Martin Howley, Bernard O SUllivan and Tommy McMahon (who also play some tunes in octaves), Elizabeth Crotty (ditto), Kitty Hayes, Michael Doyle, William Mullaly, Tom Barry, Patrick Flanagan, John Kelly, Tommy McCarthy, Tony Crehan and Junior Crehan. Not listed in any order! I'm sure I've left some great ones out. Most of these will not be found on YouTube. There is the Clare Set recordings of Neil Wayne (Free Reed/Topic), and some recordings on the Comhaltas Archive. Or the best single collected source of the real old-timers (those who played concertina before 1920) there is of course my House Dance collection, which you can read about on my website (www.angloconcertina.org). It has the added advantage of having lots of recordings of their peers in England, Australia and South Africa....interesting how similarly the real oldtimers played.

 

Geoff, thanks, I forgot to mention Country Dances -- which of course were then typically played to simple single reels (like Girl I Left Behind Me), jigs and hornpipes.

 

Greetings, all!

Dan

Edited by Dan Worrall
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Hi Dan, I certainly wouldn't wish to labour the point about pre famine repertoire as it's not that relevant to your project. I do think though that early collections by Bunting, Petrie, Joyce and even O'Neill etc, do show a large variety of different types of tunes and song airs. Of all these collections, surely O'Neill's 'Dance Music of Ireland' was the most influential and reels, jigs and hornpipes predominate in this. I also think it's fair to say that CCE have had a substantial impact on repertoire in the same way that their competitions have had an impact on style. Francis O'Neill himself was born immediately after the famine, as far as I know, and I'd guess most of his contributors also but it's fair to say that the repertoire they played must have been in use in the pre famine decades. His books were published some 50 years after the famine in Ireland.

 

I was interested in the comments from Mary MacNamara & Chris Droney etc., re the older types of tunes that their fathers etc. played - more polkas, waltzes, barndances as well as reels and jigs. I'd guess they'd be talking of the 1920s, 30s and 40s - that sort of time period. Supposedly a period of stagnation in Irish trad music, before the 'great revival' but I think it was just there and largely ignored, unobserved.

 

But this older tradition is not entirely dead as I mentioned above. I live in the SE of Ireland and would go along to two distinct types of 'sessions' - the more regular pub session where reels, jigs and hornpipes are the norm and then the 'rambling house' type session where you'll hear great variety, these latter sometimes called 'Irish nights'. These rambling house type sessions in Wexford and south Wicklow are in themselves a revival of a tradition where people met in neighbours kitchens and would take turns to play a tune, sing a song, tell a story etc. Nowadays tend to be more formalised and held in community halls and lounge bars etc - run by a fear an tí, who'll call out people to play or sing. You'd be as likely to hear someone singing or playing Brendan Shine type 'Do you want your lobby washed down' songs as much as local traditional ballads and songs and then sets of polkas, marches, waltzes as well as a few reels and so on. There'd be the odd bit of dancing, a few waltzes, a bit of a set - taking into account that people are often elderly. The thing is that in many ways, these gatherings are far truer to the real local cultural tradition of the area, local people would be attending these who wouldn't take much interest at all in the 'reel, jig, hornpipe' type pub session. Some people associated with Irish trad music might well look down on these sort of gatherings as too loose and 'not very traditional' but I don't think that would occur to the participants - they just regard it as an 'Irish night'.

 

As regards concertinas, not that many to be seen around here and mainly young people playing them in the 'modern style', so part of the anglo concertina revival. Boxes are different though, I know a few that play B/C accordions and would mostly play in C, along the row. Saw a fine one row melodeon player recently, great rhythm and style. Piano accordions also evident, something you'd rarely see in a 'standard session'.

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Perhaps it is interesting to note some opinions of older generation musicians I have known. Kitty Hayes could come up with the odd waltz (which she invariably called 'airs') , polka or other 'unusual' tune. Yet often when we played, at home or at concerts, and time was limited she'd say 'Peter, let's not waste time on jigs or airs, let's go straight to reels' .

 

Another man I knew was piper and fiddler Martin Rochford from Bodyke (and note that Mary Mac would have spent time with him and learned tunes from him). He'd be of the same mind, although he was probably one of the loveliest jig players I have ever met, reels were the business. There's one story he told often about the first visit to East Clare of Johnny Doran. All musicians flocked to hear Doran but as Rochford often told it, the local music teacher, Paddy Poole, was there asking Doran to play all sorts of tunes ('set dances and that sort of stuff he had heard in America') to the frustration of those present. As Rochford often said 'we wanted to hear him play reels'.

 

 

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Ah yes, Peter but you're quoting established musicians there and they might well have more 'refined' views on what they want to play and hear etc. But take your rural Irish neighbours down around Miltown generally, how many of them would actively seek out a session of reels and jigs? I'd be guessing there are some but that the majority might have an eye for a night where things are a bit more mixed.

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I just thought it interesting to note the opinions of a few musicians of that generation. Maybe that generation just grew tired of playing those popular tunes while the current musicians are perhaps getting back to them just to have something different to play.

 

I don't get the impression people around here are averse to a a night of jigs and reels but I am not sure that's a matter of 'refinement'. The set usually danced locally is the Caledonian, all reels, jig and a hornpipe to finish. Towards Kilrush you get the Plain set occasionally which used to include a polka but not anymore at this time as far as I remember. Perhaps that plays a part as well.

 

Mind you, when playing for dancers in Gleeson's of Coore we always played a few waltzes for the old ladies to dance ('Time for an old time waltz. And no shifting').

Edited by Peter Laban
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