The Golden Age of Irish Concertina Playing 1870 – 1930
The Anglo-German Concertina, often shortened to Anglo Concertina, has had a fascinating journey through Ireland’s 19th and 20th century, with its popularity beginning after the end of the Great Famine and continuing unabated until the around the 1930s when, thanks to religious and political interference it experienced an almost catastrophic decline in usage, the tradition being kept alive by a few hardy outliers in Co. Clare who essentially saved the concertina from extinction in the world of traditional Irish music.
The initial rise in popularity of the concertina amongst Ireland’s poorer people was due to the availability of two-row cheap German concertinas. They were usually played at house gatherings, crossroad and house dances and were seen as a woman’s instrument. In fact they were referred to as a bean chairdín in Irish which literally means ‘woman accordion’. They were seen as a more delicate and sweeter version of the accordion, popular feminine characteristics of the age. Thanks to their reedy sound which was voluminous enough to be heard over chatter, they were popular at house dances, where the neighbours gathered in small groups to dance half-sets in the kitchen, and their small size meant they were easily stored and eminently portable taking up very little room – an important factor in already cramped social spaces. Most houses at the time had a nook built into the chimney for the concertina ready to be played by the family or a visiting musician.
As the original Anglo concertina only had two rows of notes on each side they were easy to learn and pretty soon the concertina invasion of Ireland hit fever pitch prompting some members of society to decry the loss of so-called indigenous instruments like the pipes, etc.
A 1897 letter to a London music magazine illuminates this concern:
Cheap German concertinas are the chief instruments occasionally seen. I cannot but regret that the national harp and bagpipes seem to have disappeared in favour of these importations from the Fatherland [Germany].* (Worrall: 201)
Luckily the harp and the uilleann pipes are still going strong, so this gentleman’s fears were unfounded and thanks to the proliferation of these ‘cheap German concertinas’ today we have a thriving concertina playing community across the globe.
However, the concertina’s future looked very bleak in the 1930s. So what caused the concertina’s popularity to cease so abruptly? That’s for another blog post but we can assure you that it’s both fascinating and enraging in equal measure!
*Worrall, Dan. 2010. The Anglo-German Concertina: A Social History, Volumes I and II, Third Edition as cited by Noel Fahey http://midnight-court.com