Paddy Murphy: In Good Hands

Field recordings from a Pioneer of the Irish Concertina

Paddy Murphy Put a Permanent 'Hex' on Irish music
Clare Master Elevated Standard of Concertina Playing

By Earle Hitchner

[Published on April 2, 2008, in the IRISH ECHO newspaper, New York City.
© Earle Hitchner. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of author.]

My first significant brush with the concertina mastery of Paddy Murphy (1913-1992) was through "Kit O'Mahony's" jig and "The Mason's Apron" reel, two tracks he contributed to a 1977 album, "Irish Traditional Concertina Styles," that had been recorded in Clare and Dublin three years earlier by John Tams and Neil Wayne for London's Topic/Free Reed label.

I coveted the Irish traditional music releases back then from Topic, which in 1977 also released Jack and Charlie Coen's "The Branch Line," produced by Mick Moloney, and four years later issued "Handful of Earth" by Dick Gaughan, a Scottish singer-guitarist whose paternal grandfather came from Ballina, Mayo.

Solus Lillis, Tom Carey, Sonny Murray, Gerald Haugh, Michael MacAogain, Sean O'Dwyer, and Ellen O'Dwyer were the other skillful players on Topic Records' "Irish Traditional Concertina Styles," but the two tracks by Paddy Murphy stood out for me. They shimmered with unfussy vitality and unforced virtuosity that I recognized as pioneering on the hexagonal box.

I also understood more fully why young Lissycasey concertinist Noel Hill would ask his uncle to drive him six miles to Murphy's home in Bealcragga, Connolly, West Clare, so that Noel could learn firsthand from the master. Paddy Murphy was the lodestar from which other, younger concertinists took their bearings. (Bell Harbour, North Clare's Chris Droney, born more than a decade after Murphy, also inspires awe among budding concertinists, as does Noel Hill, who was born in 1958.)

In my list of the top recordings issued during 2007, I placed Paddy's Murphy's "In Good Hands" second among the seven archival or reissue recordings I felt were last year's best. Placing first was "The Raineys," recorded in 1956 at Freeneys Pub in Letterfrack. The raw power and dazzling wildness of the fiddling by Paddy "Big" Rainey and Stephen "Spare Parts" Rainey simply bowled me over, and it still does.

But I also know it can be tempting for a critic to extol an unfamiliar wonder, like the music of "The Raineys," more than a familiar wonder, like the music of "In Good Hands." Even so, I vowed to give "In Good Hands" the full review it deserves. What I discovered in closely listening to this CD again is how wondrously unfamiliar, in historical context, Paddy Murphy's concertina playing was.

As Clare concertinist Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin states in his excellent essay for "In Good Hands," Paddy Murphy "perfected the three-row ornamental style of concertina music that has now become a benchmark for the Irish concertina.... Paddy experimented with alternative scales, melodic runs, cuts, rolls, and double stops.... His complex phrasing moved effortlessly through a range of dance music meters, lacing them with a treasury of ornaments from single-note cadences to subtle double-octave variations."

Effect demolishes method, however, in these words from the irascible classical conductor Sir Thomas Beecham (1879-1961): "The function of music is to release us from the tyranny of conscious thought. Music first and last should sound well, should allure and enchant the ear. Never mind the inner significance." (Fiddler Kevin Burke is fond of quoting Beecham's first sentence.)

So which perspective applies to Paddy Murphy's concertina playing? Both do. Murphy's music satisfies equally as musicology and allurement.

Consider the album-opening medley of "The Five Mile Chase/The First House in Connaught/The Copper Plate" reels. Like the other 27 tracks on the album, it was taped nonprofessionally in a non-studio location--in this case, by the late Inagh fiddler Joe Ryan in Kilmaley flutist-fiddler Peadar O'Loughlin's kitchen in 1958. When you factor in Paddy Murphy's chronic aversion to recording devices, this track borders on the miraculous. Ever-present light ambient noise dissolves before the combined control, imagination, and drive of Murphy. Jaw-dropping in dexterity, it's as close to what I call statement playing as you're likely to hear in recordings of him.

If that track is the highest-carat diamond on this CD, then these three tracks come close in precious-jewel quality: "The Chattering Magpie/The Flax in Bloom," "The Dawn," and "Lawson's/Maud Miller/Cooley's Ivy Leaf/Rakish Paddy." The invention, lift, and beauty of Murphy's playing simply cannot be overvalued.

Most of the tunes on "In Good Hands" were or have become session staples, so the threshold for listeners' (and this critic's) surprise is higher now. Uilleann pipers Johnny Doran and Paddy Keenan and fiddler James Morrison have each recorded memorable versions of the "Colonel Fraser" reel, for example, yet Paddy Murphy's rendition remains distinctive, a magnificent balance of steady dance rhythm and singular creativity.

The CD:

In Good Hands

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