Several existing histories of Clare playing include a hypothesis that seamen on ships that plied the Shannon estuary, or the chandleries that supplied them, may have been responsible for the arrival of concertinas in Clare, with the implication that the 20th century concentration of concertinas in Clare might have resulted, at least partly, from this seaborne link.3 But, as will be shown below, the instrument once had a much wider distribution in Ireland.
For example, William Mullaly, a prominent Anglo player of the 1920s who was the first Irish concertina player to make commercial recordings, hailed from near Mullingar, County Westmeath in the eastern part of the Irish midlands.
Neighbors around him played concertina as well, and taught him to play.
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The Anglo concertina, and its direct antecedents, the two-row German and Anglo-German concertinas, have long been popular in Irish traditional music circles.
It has been said of County Clare in the early part of the 20th century that ‘almost every house …
had a concertina, usually kept in the chimney corner nook.’1 This heyday of popularity, however, was followed by a steep decline that left relatively few players in Ireland by the 1960s, most of them located in County Clare.
The past three decades have seen a great resurgence in its use, and much has been written about those surviving players and their histories.2 Most of what we know about the instrument in Ireland comes from these living sources, and yet there are gaps.
Oral history only reaches back as far as living memory, so such accounts only extend with any real detail to perhaps eighty or more years.
Beyond the memories of these sources, there are a few all-too-brief accounts, written posthumously, about the famous Clare player Mrs.
Elizabeth Crotty (who herself learned to play in the late 1890s), and even-more-brief recollections from living sources that their ‘grandmother played one.’ The 19th century experienced the instrument’s formative period in Ireland, but there is very little published information about Irish concertina playing then, or about the concertina’s arrival and establishment in the country.
In addition, most of the twentieth century sources interviewed in published accounts have been from County Clare, leaving largely unrecorded the extent to which concertinas were played elsewhere in Ireland, and raising a question as to why surviving players of the mid-20th century were so highly concentrated in that County.
When did they start playing it in significant numbers? What sort of music did they play, and why did the vast majority of them give it up?
And perhaps most importantly, why did only Clare concertina playing survive as a more or less unbroken tradition?
If these questions are difficult or impossible to answer from existing oral history accounts, there is even less in the way of documentation of Irish concertina playing in key studies of Irish traditional music that were written in the 19th century.