Elizabeth Crotty – The Saviour of the Irish Concertina
In our most recent concertina blog we mentioned the name of Elizabeth Crotty, a torchbearer for Irish concertina-playing during its darkest hour. But who was Elizabeth Crotty, or Mrs Crotty as she became more commonly known, and how was it she came to prominence in the male-dominated world of traditional Irish music?
Mrs Crotty was born Lizzie Markham in 1885 in a small townland called Gower, in Cooraclare, in the beautiful county of Clare. She was a musical child in a musical family; her sister, Maggie also played concertina and her mother played the fiddle, and she was largely self-taught. Lizzie and Maggie played at various house dances, christenings, wakes and so-called ‘American Wakes’*. At that time, house dances and the like were restricted to single and married men and single women (married women were expected to keep house and refrain from these get togethers) and Elizabeth, as a single woman until her late 20’s, enjoyed a substantial taste of freedom attending social gatherings and dances as she pleased.
It was probably this freedom coupled with her marriage at 29 years old to a returned emigrant from the US, Miko Crotty (pronounced ‘Crutty’ locally) that informed her somewhat more liberated views on life in general but more particularly a woman’s place in traditional Irish music, no doubt also enhanced by her husband’s ‘new world’ views.
The Square in Kilrush circa 1903
They opened a pub together in Kilrush and it was this establishment that was to become a beacon for traditional Irish music in Co. Clare and for Mrs Crotty’s own personal favourite, the Anglo-concertina. In fact, until the Dance Hall Act in 1935, the concertina and the fiddle were Co. Clare’s Irish instruments of choice. The status of the Anglo-concertina changed as we now know but Mrs Crotty kept up her concertina playing and probably used her position as proprietress of Crotty’s of the Square to take part or even lead plenty of music sessions.
Moreover, because of an ongoing medical condition, Mrs Crotty was up to Dublin on regular hospital visits and would often combine these trips with visits to the Pipers Club on Thomas Street. This led her into contact with a wider audience of traditional Irish musicians and she became known and admired for her unique and unaffected style of playing which was seen as a hark back to simpler purer times. This coupled with her warm and energetic nature endeared her to many.
Have a quick listen to Mrs Crotty play here:
In 1951 RTÉ (Ireland’s radio and television broadcaster) dispatched Ciarán Mac Mathúna, broadcaster and music collector, to record Mrs Crotty and her playing as by then her reputation was spreading. It was Mac Mathúna’s first outing in his new mobile broadcasting studio and so taken was he with her that he was to play her often on his radio show and bring Mrs Crotty’s music to a much wider audience thereby cementing her reputation. In 1954 Mrs Crotty was elected President of the County Board of Comhaltas Ceoltoirí Éireann (Society of the Musicians of Ireland) and the primary Irish organisation dedicated to the promotion of the music, song, dance and the language of Ireland. It is often referred to as just Comhaltas (kohl-tus)
Mrs Crotty never made a commercial recording and her work survives only in archives and through tunes she handed down. A limited edition CD released by RTÉ in 1999 of the music Ciarán Mac Mathúna collected, titled: Concertina Music from West Clare by Elizabeth Crotty, has been out of print since roughly 2008 and it is nigh on impossible to find recordings of her playing online.
Her music may be carefully archived in RTÉ but her spirit lives on in concertina players not just in Ireland but across the globe and there’s many a female Irish trad musician who would take a quiet moment to thank her if they could.
Elizabeth Crotty died in 1960 of a severe angina attack. The Éigse Mrs Crotty (the Mrs Crotty Festival) was set-up in 1998 to honour her music and her antique Lachenal with bone keys was often brought out and given another spin.
“Michael Tubridy put his foot up on the stone surround, and played the air of An Droighneán Donn on Mrs Crotty’s own concertina, an ancient old Lachenal box fixed up with sticky plaster, its little keys looking like the stained teeth of an old animal.” Irish Times Aug 18, 1998
The festival has since been expanded to the Kilrush Traditional Music & Set Dancing Festival to include a wider range of music and dance; Mrs Crotty was also an avid set dancer and never let age or illness stop her.
*held for a person who was emigrating to the US, the dramatic nature of the gathering was based on the belief that that person would never return to Ireland and was, for all intents and purposes, dead.
Featured Image courtesy of ITMA (www.itma.ie)