The Concertina in Irish Music

By Tim Collins

Mrs. Crotty came down from the town of Kilrush She plucked a high note from the bird in the bush She sang all the day without ever a blush Good girl yourself Mrs. Crotty.

The above few lines are taken from Robbie McMahon’s famous song about the Fleadh in Ennis in 1956. It recalls one of our best loved and revered characters, the concertina player Elizabeth Crotty.

At the turn of the century like Elizabeth herself, the concertina was only in its infancy. Pioneered by Englishman Charles Wheatstone in the mid to late 1800’s, it was essentially an instrument for the drawing rooms of middle class Victorian England. However, its popularity among the working class spread and soon it was commonly played in Industrial bands and other organisations such as The Salvation Army.

Wheatstone’s English System concertina (same note on the push and pull) did not suit the rhythmic nature of Irish music. Consequently, the concertina did not become established here until the slightly later arrival of the Anglo-German system (different note on the push/pull).

And so it was these bulky but affordable German models with their big buttons, decorative bellows and husky tone that Elizabeth Crotty as a young woman would have been familiar with. Some years later, the superior and more expensive English Anglos of Lachenal, Crabb, Jeffries and Wheatstone made their way into this country. Mrs. Crotty herself played a 30 key rosewood-ended Lachenal which is now in the possession of her good friend Michael Tubridy.

The concertina became very popular here especially among female musicians, and was much sought after especially for house dances. In fact, many households bought a concertina and kept it in a safe place for this reason alone. The ability of the instrument to be heard above dancers (competing against a set on a flag floor cannot have been easy!) together with the rhythmic nature of the Anglo version and its price were strong points in its favour.

Many styles of concertina playing developed, especially around Dancing. Techniques such as Double-noting (playing two octaves together), and chording added volume and depth to the music. (Chris Droney and Elizabeth herself being fine exponents of these techniques). Our history of piping also influenced concertina players and ornaments such as crans, cuts and droning were adapted for the instrument.

Being a very musical nation, high standards of musicianship were quickly achieved on the concertina, as the old 78 recordings (circa 1920’s) of early exponents such as William Mulally will bear testament to… Listening to such great exponents must surely have contributed to the rise in popularity of the concertina down through the decades.

And so the Anglo concertina has become firmly established within the many facets of Irish music. From solo playing to duets, groups and céilí bands. The clarity of the single reed giving it a very distinctive tone. Judging by the numbers of musicians playing the concertina, its future is secure. We even have festival of concertina music, Eigse Mrs. Crotty, which continues to expand every year. Another sign of the rising popularity of the instrument is the waiting list among the elite modern concertina makers (4 to 5 years in some cases). I’m quite sure that Wheatstone and his comtemporaries never expected to have such an impact on our music scene.