• Procession of priests watched by onlookers in rural Ireland 1931

Why the Catastrophic Decline of Irish Concertina Playing 1930 – 1960?

As we learnt in the previous blog post, The Golden Age of Concertina Playing in Ireland, the concertina was viewed somewhat suspiciously by concerned members of the public who were worried that indigenous instruments were under threat from this foreign ‘interloper’. This concern was also held by official organisations founded to protect and promote the Irish way of life such as The Gaelic League. Happily, despite this intellectual and cultural disapproval this alone was not enough to dissuade enthusiastic Irish concertina players! So what happened in the 1930s?

Well, a number of factors played a part in this much loved instrument’s dramatic demise. In 1922 The Irish Free State was officially formed, 26 out of 32 counties were finally out from under the yoke of British rule and were free for the first time in centuries to determine the future of the Irish people both culturally and economically. Eamon de Valera, an Irish/American republican and devout Catholic who was central to the creation of a new national ideology came to power proper in 1932.

Photographic Portrait of Eamonn de Valera

Whatever your personal opinion on the man, there’s no doubt that the church’s prominence in Irish culture up until quite recently (in 2018, Ireland finally voted to remove the Anti-Blasphemy Law from the Irish Constitution) is down to the central position de Valera and his supporters afforded the Catholic Church in the drawing up of the Irish constitution.

Thus, a slow moral strangulation commenced on rural Irish culture and music, and most significant for the concertina, was the relocation of the house dance to the Parish Hall. It is said that Irish Catholic priests were so terrified of even an opportunity for licentious behaviour that they felt compelled to have these dances held where they could keep a watchful eye on the souls of the good Irish men and women who, God forbid, might be tempted by an ankle or an amorous look! It also helped monetise this much-loved Irish pastime which was no bad thing for a cash-strapped Irish church.

Accordingly, the controversial Public Dance Halls Act came into being in 1935. Thus, that cosy kitchen session concertina player was replaced by the ‘big hall band’, one version of which still survives today as the modern céilí band, but mostly Irish traditional dancing was replaced by the more internationally influenced styles of swing, waltz, jive and jazz as the dance halls took over rural Ireland. Would this have happened anyway? Quite possibly but this was a decisive nail in the coffin.

People jiving in a dance hall in the 1940s

The céilí band’s subsequent rise within the somewhat endangered Irish musical arena coupled with an institutional suspicion of these foreign music machines, contributed to the demise of the humble concertina in the traditional Irish music community. Unable to be heard in large spaces and usually in a different key to the other instruments (popular German two-row concertinas could only play in two keys), the concertina was replaced by the larger and louder accordion, and as the Irish population followed the music, the concertina was slowly but surely forgotten and all but confined to the annals of time if not for the efforts of players in one beautiful county on the west coast of Ireland.

Co. Clare produced some of the most prominent Irish concertina players of the 20th century even during the concertina’s darkest hour. Look out for our next blog post on one of Ireland’s most significant concertina players, Clare woman, Elizabeth Crotty, who kept the Irish concertina very much alive from the 30s up to the end of the 50s.

Read all about Elizabeth Crotty, one of the Saviours of the Irish Concertina Tradition

By McNeela Instruments, Specialists in Traditional Irish Musical Instruments

Posted by McNeela

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