The CLARE SET
The Concertina in County Clare
Notes by Neil Wayne
with some 1977 comments from Muiris O Rócháin
The concertina is a mild-toned instrument not differing greatly in timbre or loudness from the uilléann pipe chanter. It was found to be well adapted for reproducing the characteristic phrasing and ornamentation of the pipes, and being small, light, relatively cheap and easier to manipulate than the pipes, it quickly gained favour. That is not to say it was an entirely satisfactory replacement for the pipes, which are capable of much greater shades of expression and richness of ornamentation. Nonetheless, many of the present traditional tunes would be forgotten but for our concertina players.
The concertina entered Irish music around the middle of the nineteenth century. An Englishman, Charles Wheatstone, invented it around the year 1829. It is said to have been popular in Clare as early as 1860: Clare at that time had an abundance of musicians, particularly pipers and fiddlers. With the decline of the pipes the concertina became popular, particularly for the new-style set dances. Generally it was the womenfolk who played the concertina up to 1940 or so, with the notable exception of Mrs Elizabeth Crotty, who is commemorated in the annual Scoil Éigse Mrs Crotty. The pipes and fiddle remained exclusive to the men, with a few notable exceptions. After 1940 the concertina was played mostly by men-folk and at the time of these recordings in 1975, the best exponents of the concertina were men.
In the thirty years since the recordings, many ladies and young women have risen to prominence as concertina players and teachers: Noted teachers of the instrument including Jacqueline McCarthy. **** and *** have introduced hundreds of keen young players to the instrument and its traditions, notably at the Scoil Éigse Mrs Crotty, the fine Concertina Festival and Summer School held in Kilrush each August (visit www.eigsemrscrotty.com ).
The Cree-Cooraclare district of Clare is a remarkable centre of traditional music and dancing, and the instrument most commonly played is the concertina. Indeed, this area probably has more concertina players than any other district in Ireland. Up to thirty years ago, almost every house in the parish had a concertina, usually kept in the chimney corner nook. One reason for the proliferation of concertinas was their cheapness - it used to be possible to buy a German-type concertina for as little as five shillings.
How did Clare come to be known as the home of the concertina? One theory is that sailors along the banks of the Shannon introduced it to Clare. Muiris O Rócháin believes 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.
Some historical notes
In the first few decades after the English-system concertina’s invention and development in the 1830-40 period by London manufacturer Wheatstone & Co (and by the many small firms set up by ex-Wheatstone craftsmen during the 1850s & ’60s), the concertina was an expensive instrument, and its popularity was centred within upper- and middle-class ‘amateur’ music enthusiasts.
However, from the 1850s, German and Saxony-based makers began to export a simpler form of the concertina, whose notes were arranged in a push-pull or diatonic manner, and though of hexagonal form, were much more cheaply made. Originally called German Concertinas, they were eagerly adopted by less well-off players and working class musicians, since British Wholesalers and Music Warehouses could offer these 20-key German instruments for as little as 1/6d (one shilling and sixpence) compared to the three to ten guineas commended by Wheatstone’s ‘English’ instruments!
The spread of this imported form of the instrument – and its migration ‘into the hands of Buskers and street-boys’ according to one prim mid-Victorian commentator - caused the middle class amateurs to snobbishly abandon the concertina as their instrument of choice, but also led most of the mid-Victorian manufacturers to make their own higher-quality german-system instruments, (with much higher standards of quality, and with enhanced button arrangements), which they called the Anglo-German Concertina.
By 1880, makers like Lachenal & Co, C Wheatstone & Co and George Jones were producing hundreds of their good quality Anglo concertinas, which began to find their way into the hands of traditional musicians, both in England, where the Anglo became a major instrument for Morris Dance and Country Dance music, and of course to Ireland, especially to Clare and the west, doubtless via merchants, dealers and via the sailors of the Shannon mentioned in Muiris O Rócháin’s comments herein.
The late-Victorian Anglo concertinas from the workshops of Charles Jeffries, and latterly made by his sons and brothers into the early 20th century, are now the most highly-prized Anglo concertinas amongst discerning Irish musicians, commanding high prices, and this demand is now serviced by a number of specialist dealers and restorers.