The concertina is one of the most unique sounds in Irish music. It’s particularly associated with Co. Clare, where concertina players were once almost as plentiful as sheep in the Irish countryside. While concertina playing declined during the middle of the 20th century, it has come roaring back. Today, there are plenty of brilliant young players who are set to carry on the tradition of concertina playing for decades to come.
There are far too many great Irish concertina players to list them all. These 10 represent a broad sample of old and young, past and present, traditional and innovative. Listen to them all, and you might catch the concertina bug yourself!
No one has had more influence on modern Irish concertina playing than Noel Hill, and few players are as admired. He grew up in the concertina heartland of West Co. Clare, in a family where concertina playing was a constant. While he initially wanted to learn the uilleann pipes, Hill instead brought some of the sounds and techniques he heard from Willie Clancy and other pipers to the concertina. He recorded his first album at 17, and has been a mainstay of the Irish music scene ever since. His style has become one of the building blocks of modern playing, and he’s consistently cited as a reference by top concertina players. Even though he has stepped back frequently from performing and recording, his presence is still very much felt in Irish music.
Edel Fox grew up in one of the epicenters of Irish music, the town of Miltown Malbay in Co. Clare. Not only is it host to thousands of players during the annual Willie Clancy Summer School, it’s at the heart of concertina country. Fox got a great start on the concertina, getting lessons from Noel Hill when she was just six years old. She was named TG4’s Young Musician of the Year in 2004, and now works in the TV industry presenting arts and culture programming. She’s also a highly sought after teacher, and can be found teaching workshops and classes at many big Irish festivals.
Elizabeth Crotty, better known just as “Mrs. Crotty,” was one of the most important concertina players of the 20th century. She was born in 1885, at a time when the concertina was becoming a very popular instrument. It was said that every house in Clare had a concertina at one point, and she grew up steeped in tradition. Unlike most other well-known musicians, she never emigrated, toured, or made commercial recordings. In fact, she spent most of her life not being known outside of her area of West Clare. She was “discovered” during the revival of interest in folk music during the 1950s, and recorded by Radio Éireann. She was self-taught, and couldn’t read staff notation. Her playing is a window into an older style of concertina playing, where clarity and rhythm was the main focus.
Niall Vallely is one of the few concertina players on this list not from Co. Clare. He grew up in a musical family in Armagh, and started on the concertina when he was seven. When it came time to go to college, he moved down to Cork, where he has lived since 1988. There, he has established himself as one of Irish music’s great composers and players. He founded the band Nomos there, which became known for their musical innovation and energetic performances. Vallely is married to singer Karan Casey, and frequently appears with her in recordings and concerts. He’s also a founding member of Buille, which brings a contemporary classical edge to traditional Irish sounds.
Here’s a list of everyone who won the All-Ireland Concertina Title between 1956 and 1967: Chris Droney. That’s it! He was born and raised in Bellharbour, and spent much of his time as a young man playing in céilí bands and dance halls around Ireland. His first engagement at a dance hall came at the age of 14. You can hear his musical upbringing in his playing, which is relaxed but rhythmic, perfect for dancing. He made his first solo recording in 1962, and has recorded two since. He has also been a stalwart in the traditional music scene in his home county of Clare and across Ireland.
Caitlín Nic Gabhann
Caitlín Nic Gabhann has made a name for herself in short order as a musician, dancer, and composer. She grew up in Co. Meath, and moved to Cork to study at UCC, where she discovered her love of writing music. Her compositions include the beautiful Sunday’s Well Waltz, named after a neighborhood in Cork. She and her husband Ciarán Ó Maonaigh, a fiddle player from Donegal, have formed a very successful duo. They’ve recently joined forces with bouzouki player Cathal Ó Curráin as the High Seas. The group that blends together music, singing, and dancing in a way that sounds both traditional and fresh.
Cormac Begley isn’t content with just the usual Anglo concertina. He has experimented with many different sizes, from bass all the way to piccolo. The various sounds he gets from them have helped him create a unique style. Begley hails from West Kerry, and is a member of the remarkably talented Begley family. While his father Brendan and uncle Seamus have both made their names as accordion, Cormac has staked his claim to fame as a concertina player. He can often be found busking on Shop St. in Galway, where he runs the popular Tunes In A Church concert series.
Mícheál Ó Raghallaigh
Dublin-born Mícheál Ó Raghallaigh won the All-Ireland concertina championship in 1990. Since then, he has released a number of albums, both solo and in various bands. He’s known for, as one reviewer put it, “swimming against the tide of current Irish traditional music.” While some players and bands have amped up the tempos and written finger-twisting tunes, Ó Raghallaigh has been content to take a more laid-back and subtle approach. That gained his band Providence a lot of notice when they debuted in 1999. Another project paired him with fiddle player Caomhín Ó Raghallaigh (no relation) and flute player Catherine McEvoy for a well-received album of “pure-drop” traditional Irish music.
Most of the players on this list have been playing all their lives, but no one has a story quite like Kitty Hayes. Another concertina player from Miltown Malbay in Clare, Kitty Hayes was an elder stateswoman of sorts in the area’s music scene. As a girl in the 1930s and 40s, she would grab her father’s concertina and play when no one else was listening. She ended up playing as a young woman at house dances and parties. But after getting married and starting to raise a family, there was neither the money nor the time to devote to a concertina. So, she spent nearly 45 years without playing a note. She picked the instrument back up in the early 90s, and soon started performing again. Even after such a long time, her playing reflected the older, traditional style she grew up in.
Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin
Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin is both a musician and a scholar, with an extensive knowledge of Irish musical history. He’s a longtime professor at Concordia University in Montreal, where he teaches at the School of Irish Studies. He has researched and written extensively about concertina playing in his home county of Clare. But his interest is not merely academic. He’s also a remarkably accomplished musician, with All-Ireland titles on both the concertina and uilleann pipes. His playing reflects the decades of careful study he’s put in, without ever seeming dry or overwrought.