The World of Paddy Murphy

Heir to a Family Tradition

It was into the isolated world on the western edge of Europe that concertina player Paddy Murphy was born on the eve of the Great War. His music developed during a time of unprecedented change in Irish society. In the years of political and economic readjustment after the War of Independence (1919-1921), when emigration from the Irish countryside was again reaching critical mass, Murphy chose to remain at home on a mountainy farm and take his chances as the world braced itself for depression and the second major war in a generation. During the next fifty years, he would become one of the most celebrated concertina players in Ireland, responsible for developing a unique fingering system and for passing on his skills to a new and eager generation of teachers and performers. Modest about his achievements and astute in his awareness of Irish music history, his imprint can still be felt today wherever Irish concertina music is played.

A visit to Paddy Murphy's house in the townland of Bealcragga, Connolly in the west Clare parish of Kilmaley, usually conjured up childhood memories of visits to my grandmother's home place in Shean, a short distance south across the bréan tír. It also brought to mind idyllic memories of west Clare on a fine summer day, not least, the heathery splendor of Mount Callan that leaves a lasting impression on the mind's eye. Topping the Hand Hill and driving west into the setting sun, the traveller is treated to a sparkling panorama of Atlantic blue, with Miltown Malbay, Spanish Point and Quilty spread out idly along the coast. To the west lies Mutton Island and beyond, its mythical neighbour Cill Scoithín buried like Hy Brasil beneath the waters of the Atlantic.

This majestic vista, however, was nowhere to behold on Saturday, September 26, 1981, when Paddy and I met to record the first in a long series of chats. From Kilmaley, the rain poured down incessantly and Mount Callan was lost inside a mist that had spread inland from the sea. In the boreen leading into Bealcragga, the mountain stream had overshot its banks, gushing across the car tracks and spilling down profusely towards the tar road below. By late evening, Paddy Murphy was weather beaten and tired. He had spent the day cutting rushes. After tending to the tractor in a dry-stone cabin flanked by wind-breaking trees, he discarded his oilskins and made his way towards the house, a neat low structure built in the traditional style with a parlour west of the hearth and several rooms off to the east.

The kitchen was deserted but a clock ticked away steadily in the darkness. The hearth still held the remnants of the morning's fire buried beneath the gríosach. Down on one knee, Paddy propped a new lot of turf on the embers and nursed it skillfully into a gentle blaze. He then set the kettle for tae, the opening act in an age-old ritual of Irish hospitality. A shy man by nature, Paddy never felt at ease around microphones. Despite the presence of the mechanical intruder on this wet September evening, Paddy agreed - after a lot of coaxing - to record a conversation about his life and music. When the sound of the family car pulling into the yard broke the silence two hours afterwards, he said with an understated sigh of relief: 'Thanks be to God, we're nearly done.' What follows are extracts from Paddy's recollections that evening and other such evenings during the next ten years. They offer a rare insight into the life and times of a modest man and an exceptional music maker who made a seminal contribution to Irish traditional music - sadly, a legacy that has often gone unacknowledged in the fifteen years since his death in April 1992.

Paddy Murphy's first concertina was bought with a five-dollar bill sent from America by his uncle John. 'I learned to play the concertina from my uncles John and Martin Meehan. They came from Inagh and they both played German concertinas. It was from them that I got my first love of concertina music. I thought it was beautiful to listen to and I thought I'd love to be able to play it, and that was how I started. The first tunes I learned, my uncle Martin Meehan sat down and taught them to me. It was this slow business of press and draw. I was about ten or eleven years at that stage. I did a lot of playing for years but the opportunities were not there to learn. Some of the older players around here were good. I looked up to Jacko Hehir here in Connolly. Minnie Murphy was another good concertina player from Bealcragga. Then, there was Jimmy Tommy Reidy. Mickey O'Loughlin, Peter's father, was another very good concertina player. He played the flute and fiddle as well, and was very handy with the thongs.'

The People:

Paddy Murphy

Peadar O'Loughlin

Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin

Tom Eustace

The Place:

Maps of Clare

Map of the Parish

The Music:

The World of Paddy Murphy

The Irish Concertina

Music News of the Time

Other Sites of Interest:

Celtic Crossings

Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin

The World of Paddy Murphy

An essay by:

Dr. Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin, MBA, Ph.D.
Smurfit Stone Professor of Irish Studies & Professor of Music
Center for International Studies, University of Missouri-St. Louis

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Funding for the Paddy Murphy website was graciously provided
by a generous grant from the Irish Arts Council.