These three legends of the Irish button accordion went on to influence the modern accordion style in traditional Irish music.
Read on to learn about the accordion in traditional Irish music and how these three accordion players changed the game for B/C accordion playing in Ireland.
Traditional Irish Accordion Origins
The accordion is a free reed instrument from the same family as the concertina and was invented in Germany in the early 19th century.
It became popular in Irish dance music in the early days thanks to its naturally loud sound and remains particularly popular in Ireland for traditional Irish music and céilí bands.
The button accordion in the key of B/C is the most commonly played but there are also a number of prominent players of the C#/D button accordions. Irish accordion players have long disputed which accordion key is best for playing traditional Irish music. Both are key members of the traditional Irish music community however.
Three Legendary Button Accordion Players
The traditional Irish accordion scene has produced some extraordinary musicians over the years but three names will come up again and again when you discuss Irish button accordion music with fellow trad music lovers, namely, Paddy O’Brien, Joe Burke and Finbarr Dwyer.
Born in 1922, Paddy O’Brien hailed from Nenagh in Co. Tipperary and came from a musical family. His father Dinny O’Brien was a renowned fiddle player and there were frequent sessions in the family home.
Paddy started on the fiddle but had little love for it. It was his neighbour’s two row button accordion that caught his eye. He started practicing on it in secret. Thanks to his natural musicality, he quickly mastered it.
In 1936, at the age of fourteen, Paddy made his first radio broadcast. He played alongside his father Dinny on fiddle and Bill Fahy on the concert flute. They were known as the Lough Derg Trio.
Their performance was broadcast live on 2RN, the former name for Radio Éireann, throughout Ireland and the UK. The virtuosity of this 14 year old player astounded listeners. Paddy’s name fast became synonymous with traditional Irish accordion music.
He went on to play with Seán Ó Riada’s Ceoltóirí Cualann, Lough Derg Céilí Band, the Aughrim Slopes Céilí Band and in 1949 he joined the Tulla Céilí Band replacing Joe Cooley – giant of the C#D accordion style.
O’Brien’s Unique Accordion Technique
Paddy had also developed a new appreciation for the Irish fiddle style and studied closely the various violin techniques such as rolls, grace notes and triplets.
These techniques were brought to bear on his accordion playing and helped produce the unique style he became famous for.
Indeed, Paddy perfected the B/C style – playing from the inside out – of accordion playing in the 1950s.
This style is very evident in the playing of our second legend of the accordion, Joe Burke, in which the accordion is given the flowing and highly ornamented style of the fiddle.
Listen to Paddy’s Unique Style
Paddy O’Brien The Composer
Paddy was also a great composer of traditional Irish tunes. Sadly, his perfectionistic nature meant that many of the tunes he composed were destroyed. If they were not 100% perfect, as he saw it, they were immediately binned.
Some of his most commonly played tunes include The Coming of Spring, Dinny O’Brien’s, The Nervous Man, Ormond Sound, The Foggy Morning and Hanly’s Tweed.
Listen to 3 of his compositions here, played by his daughter Eileen on fiddle and granddaughter, Jennifer on piano:
Paddy O’Brien suffered a stroke in 1988. While no longer able to play the accordion, he continued to compose. He died on March 2nd 1991 aged 69.
His extraordinary influence on the world of traditional Irish music continues to be felt to this day. Many contemporary trad heavyweights cite him as their main influence.
Joe Burke truly deserves the accolade of living legend of the B/C button accordion.
He gave his first live performance in November 1955 and still performs to this day.
Born in 1939 in Kilnadeema, Galway, Joe was heavily influenced by Paddy O’Brien’s ground breaking B/C accordion style. As a realist, he emulated his musical hero’s flowing, highly ornamented accordion playing technique.
Joe Burke is often credited with the accordion’s revival in Ireland.
Joe’s Early Years
Raised in a musical family, both his parents played the Irish accordion, he started off on a Hohner two-row button accordion at the age of 4 on which his uncle showed him some tunes.
Musically gifted he went on to master other instruments including the fiddle, the Irish tin whistle, the uilleann pipes and the wooden flute. However it was the accordion which captured his imagination.
He was captivated by Irish fiddling styles he was exposed to growing up, particularly that of fiddler, Michael Coleman.
Joe brought this style to bear on his accordion playing and when he acquired a B/C accordion by Paolo Soprani at the age of 15 his technique and mastery took a big leap forward.
Burke’s Accordion Playing Style
The late great Ben Lennon, a leading Irish fiddle player, puts it beautifully:
I have studied his playing over the years, so as to gain an understanding of why things work so well. I can only conclude that the secret lies partly by the way he weaves the bellows, creating a series of notes, sometimes giving a rocking effect all with superb measured time.
Add to this a right hand that spans longer than long, embracing rolls, doubles, trebles, all kind of grace notes, of the most delicate texture and other quiffs known only to the man himself. The result is a masterful rendition of traditional music at its very best.
– Ben Lennon on Joe Burke’s CD ‘The Morning Mist’
Listen to Joe Burke’s Accordion Playing
Joe plays a series of reels from his album Traditional Music of Ireland released 1973 on his much loved Paolo Soprani B/C accordion
Finbarr Dwyer was born in Castletownbere, Co. Cork in 1946 and like his aforementioned peers came from a very musical family. Both his parents played accordion along with two of his brothers; his father and an older brother also played the fiddle.
His father, John, played the fiddle similar in style to the east Galway fiddler, Paddy Kelly. This would greatly influence the young Finbarr’s playing style.
John was also a member of the old IRA and spent some time in prison on Spike Island where he encountered many other musicians and swapped music with them. He passed this music on to Finbarr who was a sponge for these tunes.
Finbarr began playing accordion himself at the age of three and he composed his first two tunes while in boarding school in Killarney, Co. Kerry at the ripe old age of nine.
The London Years
Finbarr emigrated to England to work as a teacher in 1966. Three years later he became the All England Champion Accordion player. He stayed in England for ten years and became a well known and much loved player on the London Irish music circuit.
Finbarr played regularly in the thriving pub scene with musicians such as Raymond Roland, Liam Farrell, Bobby Casey, Martin McMahon and Martin Byrnes. He described that Irish music scene in London as “booming”.
He released his first album in 1970, Irish Traditional Accordionist, recorded at International Studios, Belfast and was accompanied by Teresa McMahon on the piano. Teresa and her husband Martin, another box player, were also extremely active on the London pub circuit.
Finbarr the Composer
In an interview with RTÉ in 2014, Finbarr claimed that the art of composition is imagination. He likened it to a poet writing or being inspired by a scene in nature. As he says himself, “I didn’t invent music, ’twas was there before me”.
The Berehaven, and Farewell to Kilroe are two such inspired tunes. The melodic singing of a chaffinch on Christmas morning in London, 1968 also inspired his beautiful Waltz of the Birds.
Other Finbarr Dwyer tunes include Kylebrack Rambler and The Holly Bush, with countless others attributed to him.
His compositions continue to be played by traditional Irish musicians around the globe.
Fiddle player, Liam O’Connor plays The Holly Bush by Finbarr Dwyer
A Seventeen Year Hiatus
Finbarr was part of a car rally team doing particularly well in the 1980s. In 1988, tragedy struck when a much loved member of the team died in a crash in Donegal. In Finbarr’s own words “we all took it that badly we never played for 17 years.”
It was with some fear and trepidation that Finbarr took out the accordion again seventeen years later. Happily, it all came back to him however and he was playing ‘better than ever’ as he stated himself.
Here he is playing with the brilliant Brian McGrath in 2007.
Finbarr passed away on the 8th February 2014, in Mallow, Co. Cork, Ireland
For a full range of accordions for traditional Irish music including button accordions, piano accordions and vintage accordions visit: The McNeela Irish Accordion Store