Modern Day Irish Button Accordion Legend – Tony MacMahon
Published: January 29, 2021
‘There’s no bog hole too deep for all the accordions in Ireland’ is a sentiment that some might agree with, but definitely not something you’d expect to hear from the mouth of one of Ireland’s greatest accordion players.
If ever there was a statement to sum up the great Tony MacMahon, that’s it!
A wonderful contradiction of talent, humility and self deprecation, Tony is one of the greatest Irish button accordion players to have ever graced the world of Traditional Irish Music. Not that he’d ever agree with that statement himself!
Though sometimes considered a controversial figure due to his passionate views on Irish music, there’s no denying his contribution to the tradition. He has played with the best of the best and earned his rightful place among the greats of Irish music.
Born in 1939, Tony MacMahon is a proponent of the C#/D press and draw style of Irish button accordion playing. His father came from an area steeped in traditional Irish music and dance and his mother concertina player. So, like most of the greats, he was surrounded by music from a young age.
Growing up in Co. Clare, Tony was inspired by the accordion playing of the legendary Joe Cooley. Joe was a frequent visitor to the MacMahon household, arriving on the back of a motorbike – every inch the epitome of a modern day wandering minstrel.
During the years in which Joe Cooley was ‘raising a storm of music through Clare’, Tony MacMahon fell in love with his playing. There’s no doubt he idolised the charismatic accordion player, and still does to this day. He reminisces fondly on the magical experience that was hearing Joe play the accordion:
When he played he threw his head back, closed his eyes and seemed to sink down into his own playing, making the music go on, seemingly forever. Your senses were assaulted… a slow music-massage of your inner being, drawing out every little molecule of tenderness you had.
– Tony MacMahon, Journal of Music
Joe Cooley was not the only brilliant musician to inspire the young Tony MacMahon however. Piper Willie Clancy and fiddle player Bobby Casey were both neighbours, while the likes of Tommy Potts and Felix Doran were also frequent visitors to the house.
It’s hardly surprising that today, like Joe Cooley, Tony MacMahon is also regarded as one of the most iconic and influential Irish button accordion players – despite his own protests to the contrary.
Reverent and Humble
The true magic of Tony Mac Mahon lies not only in his skilled playing or unique style, but in his humble, unassuming nature.
Like most great musicians within the Irish music community he does not consider himself ‘one of the greats’. His reverence for the music and tradition is evident at all times, but his attitude to his own musical skills seems to be almost dismissive.
In his own words he has claimed that:
I wouldn’t regard my own music either as traditional or indeed anything to write home about. A self-appointed, big-mouthed guru, I plead guilty to most of the musical sins, mortal and venial, which I have laid at the doors of others. For longer than I care to remember, I have hacked my way through tunes of beauty and tenderness on stage.
– Tony MacMahon, Journal of Music
To those who don’t know Tony, this could easily be misinterpreted as false modesty. A brilliant musician deflecting, purely to seem all the more humble. Really, it’s evidence of his grá (love) for Irish music.
This is perhaps best explained by first understanding Tony’s own attitude to traditional Irish music:
It means having a mind-set to one’s gift that is devoid of aggression, of narrow personal ambition. It involves an innocence, a humility in being the bearer of something that can infuse both musician and listener with a shaft of luminous joy.
– Tony MacMahon, Journal of Music
A Dedicated Life
Tony MacMahon’s influence on traditional Irish music has been far-reaching.
Throughout his life Tony has done brilliant work not only in advocating the old press and draw style of Irish button accordion playing, but also in promoting other musicians. Much of his career as a producer and presenter in RTÉ (Raidío Teilifís Éireann – Ireland’s national broadcaster) was dedicated to promoting the careers of other traditional musicians. Tony is a man who, despite his own musical skill, was always putting others first.
MacMahon enjoyed a long career with RTÉ, beginning work in 1969 and retiring in 1998. He began his career as a presenter of traditional Irish music TV programmes before becoming a radio producer. Tony established the iconic Irish music radio show, The Long Note which brought top quality Irish music to every home in Ireland.
Among his many TV contributions are the shows The Pure Drop and Come West Along the Road, to name but a few in a long list of incredibly popular and successful shows that have been dedicated to showcasing the best that Irish music has to offer. As Sue Wilson of Roots says,
Even if he wasn’t the man who first brought The Bothy Band together to perform on his RTÉ radio programme The Long Note, accordionist Tony Mac Mahon’s place in Ireland’s traditional music pantheon would nonetheless be secure.
But luckily he was, and the traditional Irish music community is all the richer for the support Tony MacMahon has shown it throughout the years. Today’s landscape could have been very different indeed if not for his gentle encouragement and passionate commitment.
Lifetime Achievement Award
For a man as humble as Tony, you can imagine how outraged he must have been to be honoured with the TG4 Gradam Ceoil Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004. This is one of the highest accolades in traditional Irish music and Tony is a truly deserving recipient.
If music doesn’t make that little part of your back crawl or give you that intense thrill of knowing that you’re alive in the world for an instant in time, then it’s wasted.
– Tony Mac Mahon
There’s no doubt that time spent listening to Tony’s playing is time well spent indeed. His lively, rhythmic playing is energetic without ever being frantic. He’s never in a rush to get to the end of a tune. You can tell he considers and appreciates every note along the way.
You can also easily hear the influence of Tony’s first mentor Joe Cooley in his playing style. Have a listen to his passionate performance from the event, alongside the magical guitar player Steve Cooney and see if you agree.
Farewell to Music
In 2014, Tony was misdiagnosed with Parkinsons Disease due to a tremor in his hands. As a result he announced his retirement from music, but not before he was convinced to record (and believe me, it took some convincing) his magnum opus, his final album, Farewell to Music.
Despite receiving rave reviews for his collaborations with iconic concertina player and fellow Clareman Noel Hill, singer Iarla Ó Lionard and the legendary guitarist Steve Cooney, Tony frequently required gentle encouragement to showcase and archive his own solo accordion playing. His most recent album was no exception. While he is highly regarded as one of the most influential Irish accordion players in the history of the instrument, Tony had released only two solo albums prior to this recording.
Farewell to Music is a beautiful collection of slow airs – perhaps an unexpected offering from a button accordion player, but Tony MacMahon is highly regarded for his slow air playing.
This is hardly surprising however, when you consider his reverence for the music, and the regard in which he holds the tradition. Only a true master could tackle these airs in such a meaningful and touching manner.
It would be easy for an album of slow airs to seem maudlin and morose, but there is an air of celebration throughout. Each track offers its own unique moments of beauty which ‘resonate long after the final note has sounded’.
Tony MacMahon – Master of the Tradition
The opening track, Farewell to Music, aptly borrowed from the great composer and harp player Turlough O’Carolan himself, sets the scene perfectly. This is one of my favourite tracks on the album:
It’s a perfect example of Tony’s simplistic, unaffected playing style. There are no unnecessary bells and whistles in Tony’s playing – there never have been. This should not be interpreted as lack of skill however.
Tony is a perfect example of an older, truly traditional style of accordion playing. Each note is filled with intent. His playing feels almost like a tribute to all those great accordion players who have gone before him and in whose footsteps he has followed.
Tony Mac Mahon famously shared a flat with legendary piper and singer Seamus Ennis in the 1960s. It’s he who Tony credits with most strongly influencing his intimate performance and tender interpretation of Irish slow airs.
Farewell to Music should be compulsory listening for anyone who wants to master the art of Irish slow air playing, whatever instrument the play. Tony gives voice to these airs, breathing life into them in the same way a sean nós singer would.
The result is thirteen poignant and beautifully delicate renditions that will be remembered as some of the greatest artistry to have ever graced the world of traditional Irish music.
I spent a few days playing nothing but slow airs, digging deep into the fertile soil of those beautiful, plaintive, moving melody-narratives of our great tradition, to see what I could find there, one last time.
– Tony MacMahon
Never was there a more fitting farewell from a true master to his beloved art form.
[Image: Athlour via Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0]