How English Concert Flutes became Irish Traditional Flutes
You’ll notice that flutes played by traditional Irish musicians tend to be of a certain type, Matt Molloy owns a Pratten’s Perfected by Boosey & Co. made in England in 1861, Catherine McEvoy owns a Rudall & Rose made in England in the 1820s, Conal Ó Gráda plays a Hammy Hamilton modelled on the 1851 style of Rudall, Rose & Carte … These are not names you’d expect to find in the world of traditional Irish music and yet mention these names to anyone with half an interest in the music of the traditional Irish flute and you’ll get at the very least a knowing nod!
How did these rather grand English names end up in the hands of modern Irish musicians? The story starts back in England in the early part of the 19th century. The concert flute of choice for all classical flutists at that time was the conical-bore, transverse flute, and was usually constructed of African blackwood but in the middle of the 19th century a change occurred in concert flutes that was to ultimately shape the sound of the Irish flute you hear today.
In 1847 the all new Boehm-system flute was introduced to the classical music scene. The Boehm-system flute was created by Theobald Boehm or Böhm in answer to his desire for a greater volume of sound without losing intonation. He replaced the wooden conical bore with a silver cylindrical bore, improved the low register and developed a system of finger plates designed to cover the larger tone holes, these larger tone holes were required for optimal tone and bigger volume.
The Boehm flutes were a hit with the concert musicians and slowly but surely began to push the old wooden simple-system style of flute to the sidelines. These began to gradually find their way down to the poorer population who had up ’til then been unable to afford them and eventually found their way to rural Ireland among the folk musicians of the time. Traditional Irish music found that the simple system flutes catered perfectly for the most common keys used in Irish music and produced a rich characterful sound, robust and breathy, thanks to the wood, and as improved versions of these simple system flutes made their way into the hands of these musicians via antique dealers and pawn shops, a playing style was born – we know it today as the traditional Irish flute style.
Picture of Matt Molloy courtesy of Canley – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2919984