Origins of the Irish Concertina

by
Dr. Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin, PhD. © 2008
Smurfit Stone Professor of Irish Studies
University of Missouri, St. Louis

The concertina has enjoyed a long and distinguished presence in Irish music history. Ever since the precocious twelve-year-old Franco-Italian, Guilio Regondi (1822-1872), gave the first public performances of concertina music in Ireland in 1834, Irish musicians have avidly patronized the small hexagonal box.

Invented by physicist Sir Charles Wheatstone in 1829, the English concertina was an expensive handmade luxury that appealed to the wealthy classes of its time. Popular in music halls, salons, and parlors from Victorian England to Tsarist Russia, Wheatstone's chromatic instrument was a 'high art' luxury for most of the nineteenth century.

Although Joseph Scates made and sold concertinas in Dublin between 1850 and 1866, the most popular concertinas in nineteenth-century Ireland were mass-produced in Germany. Developed by Carl Uhlig in Saxony in 1834, early German diatonic konzertinas were four-sided instruments with one or two rows of keys. By the 1860s, English craftsmen like George Jones, Louis Lachinal and John Crabb began making improved versions of the German concertina. Henceforth, both German and Anglo-German models took on the six-sided hexagon shape of the modern concertina.

In the decade leading up to the Great Famine (1845-1850), the concertina was still a musical novelty in Ireland. While the new invention made irregular appearances in music halls in larger towns and cities, it made few inroads into the world of Irish traditional music. As Irish society was emerging from the famine catastrophe, the old world of the gentleman piper and traveling dancing master was changing irrevocably.

“There is no doubt that the concertina found an enduring home in Clare, where it had virtually replaced the uilleann pipes as a popular vernacular instrument by the end of the century.”

Gone were the rundale farms and communal clacháns of the Gaelic-speaking masses. In their place was a new conservative Ireland, economically frugal and culturally traumatized. As music collectors like George Petrie scurried to conserve what was left of an older milieu, they noted with dismay the silence that had fallen on the 'land of song.' By the 1850s, Irish-language work songs and lullabies, like their custodians, had disappeared from the countryside, pipers had followed their audiences into exile, and instrument makers had gone bankrupt. It was into this musical vacuum that the mass-produced German concertina arrived in the decades following the famine.

While little or nothing is known of its early provenance, or its dispersal across the country, there is no doubt that the concertina found an enduring home in Clare, where it had virtually replaced the uilleann pipes as a popular vernacular instrument by the end of the century. By then, the region had a pedigree of sorts as a storehouse of concertina music, both light classical, as well as traditional.

As early as the 1840s and 1850s, when the county was still reeling from the shock of the famine, Clare ascendancy names like the Tolers and Abingers, as well as the notorious Vandeleurs, were showing up in the sales ledgers of the

“… an instrument that would become the icon of Clare's musical culture within a century.”

Wheatstone Company in London. As their bailiffs cleared their estates of unprofitable tenants, among them musicians, the rich offspring of Clare's landlord families dabbled in the emerging world of the concertina - an instrument that would become the icon of Clare's musical culture within a century.

Oral evidence suggests that the first concertinas to arrive en masse in Clare were cheap, fragile German-made instruments. They arrived through a variety of sources - emigrant parcels and remittances, traveling peddlers, local hardware and bicycle shops, as well as from music shops in faraway Limerick, Cork, and Dublin. Clare's geographic position at the mouth of the Shannon estuary - one of the busiest waterways in insular Europe and the last port of call for tall ships crossing the Atlantic - may also have exposed the area to concertinas arriving with maritime traffic.

The completion of the West Clare Railway in 1892 brought new consumer goods into once inaccessible parts of rural Clare, among them musical instruments, sheet music and, later on, gramophones. During the period of economic stability between the Boer War and World War I, concertinas had taken up residency in hundreds of Clare homes and were particularly favoured by women who bought them from the profits of domestic industry, mainly butter and eggs sold at local fairs and markets. In the Irish of west Clare, the instrument was sometimes referred to as a bean-cháirdín, or female accordion.

As important as a clock, kitchen utensils, and other household goods…

Housed in a clúid or alcove above the hearth, concertinas were even to be found in homes without players. As important as a clock, kitchen utensils, and other household goods, the instrument was kept in waiting for a neighboring musician who might come on cuaird and be asked to play a few tunes for a set, or for the old people of the house.

Dr. Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin, © 2008

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