Celebrating the concertina

 

The new money in the West of Ireland has made Clare a skyburst of summer festivals, and when it comes to music, it seems like they'll use any excuse for a bit of craic and bar extensions. Kilrush itself has its fair share, but a new one on the calendar is Eigse Mrs Crotty, a small new summer school in memory of a great musician, and dedicated to that odd little instrument, the concertina.

To be honest, the mere name of the festival raised mirth in the office (up here in "Dublin 4"), with its Mass card image of Lizzie Crotty herself. But in the 1950s, Crotty was perhaps the bestknown concertina player in the country, thanks to Ciaran MacMathuna, whose very first excursion into rural Ireland with RTE's Mobile Recording unit was to her pub in Kilrush.

She became a bit of a household name, due to MacMathuna's constant airing of the tunes she is now most associated with: The Wind that Shakes the Barley, and a variant of Drowsy Maggie, the Reel with the Beryl (a "beryl" being either a gem, or a "lift" to the tune), as well as a song she made her own, An Droighnean Donn (The Blackthorn Stick).

In 1954 - when she was 69 - she and others founded the first Clare branch of Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann, and she was elected president, a position she held until her death on December 1960. And although she ailed badly with angina throughout her later years, she rarely missed a Fleadh, and timed her medical visits to Dublin with musical events like the Oireachtas competitions.

Born Lizzie Markham in 1885 near Cooraclare, where she went to school between 1889 and 1895, she picked up music on many instruments from her mother and sister, who played fiddle and concertina. As she grew up, she went to the local house dances, to dance or play for the set dances, or at the American Wakes which sent off all but one of her siblings.

In 1914, she married Miko Crotty (or "Crutty" as locals pronounce it), who had spent a few years in the US. They were the same age, 29, and had gone to school together. What with the pub in the square of a big market town, they weren't the worst off - in 1935, they bought a radiogram for £50 - but they saw tough times. Lizzie lost her first three children, and Miko spent a year on the run after being seriously wounded in a "running engagement" with the Black and Tans.

Miko was a greatly popular athlete, while Lizzie made the pub a great gathering-spot for music sessions, particularly after the big horse and cattle fairs in the square. There is no doubt she was a strong and independent-minded woman, at a time when, although a lot of women played music, they often kept it to themselves once they got married.

By her later years, Lizzie had become a great store of old Clare tunes, and Paddy Moloney of the Chieftains remembers a night after the Clare Fleadh in 1959 when, at the age of 75, she got up to dance a set. Miko died in 1966, and the three surviving children (one son died in a drowning accident in 1946) all died unmarried, including Mrs Crotty's daughter Peggy, who ran the pub until her death in 1994.

You certainly can't miss that pub, at the top end of the square, where its present owners are a young couple of local origins: Kevin Clancy, a former electrical engineer and Rebecca Brew, who worked with the UN and the EU, before coming home to fling herself into local projects, including the Eigse Mrs Crotty which she runs with a small, informal subcommittee.

They bought the house, although they had to go to auction to nail down most of the contents; and they have kept the pub pretty much as was, with its tiled floor, old wooden and frosted glass panels, and the snugs and back kitchen where Mrs Crotty played.

Kilrush itself is an odd place, a solid, pre-Famine town, laid out by the Vandaleurs, a landowning family of Dutch origins. It overlooks a briny tidal creek onto the Shannon estuary, which, although still surrounded by dereliction and signs of Famine depopulation, has had its shopfronts repainted in a marzipan blaze of colours. There are many public signs of the Catholic resurgence in the last century - the tall steeple of St Senan's church, or the 1903 Maid of Erin monument to the Manchester Martyrs (with its railings still proudly dented after the Black and Tans toppled it in 1920, after burning down the Town Hall). The summer school is a living monument to more recent heritage, as much as a forum for the concertina itself. It kicked off last Friday night in the library, opened by Ciaran MacMathuna with Kilrush man Michael Tubridy, formerly of the Chieftains, who has done more research than anyone else on Mrs Crotty's music.

It was a warm but peculiar event: the essence of the shy unassuming man, Tubridy respectfully outlined Mrs Crotty's life and music for an audience of mostly snowy-haired local people; he played crackly old recordings of the woman on a kind of antique ghettoblaster.

Lizzie was very shy of talking into the microphone, but she had a great lively clarity to her music, which came from her playing at set dances. Apart from rhythmic triplets, there was no great departure in terms of musical variation, but for her habit of using the three-octave range of the instrument to melt from one octave to another, sometimes setting the tunes in unusual keys to do so.

After the late pub-sessions afterwards, the following day dawned early on the concertina classes given by Jacqueline McCarthy, the Griffin sisters, Yvonne and Lourda; and for more advanced players, Tim Collins, a dab-hand solo player himself. There were about 60 pupils all told, both adults - predominantly women - and kids.

The afternoon saw a concertina maintenance workshop, which quickly transmuted from Geoff Wooff's talk and demonstration, into a mender's shop for malfunctioning reeds and leaky stops, with both Wooff and German concertina-maker Jurgen Suttner knuckling down with their little screwdrivers.

It's an intriguing instrument, a two-handed hexagonal little squeezebox invented in the 1820s. Its current form is dominated by the Anglo-German model (in which the note is different whether you push or draw), with its three rows of keys at either end, poking through a floral lattice of shiny metal. The concertina is often seen as a women's instrument, being light and portable and smaller than an expandable handbag - but the truth is, it is just as popular with men, particularly in Clare.

The gender issue was touched on rather too lightly in a "seminar" in Crotty's, really an overcrowded all-women pub session hosted by Clare FM presenter (and fiddler) Maire O'Keeffe, and featuring local women musicians, including the McCarthy sisters, raised in London but all now back in west Clare.

The sight of Marian McCarthy strapped into her uileann pipes almost looked like a contradiction in terms, but there was little exploration of the difficulties women faced - apart from some high-pitched hilarity as Brid Donoghue, a whistler from Miltown Malbay, told of disappearing off on a "musical episode", leaving the babysitter on "double overtime".

A couple of the young concertina players from Tim Collins's class chimed in with a few tunes, not least young Michelle Mulcahy, daughter of Mick Mulcahy, the Abbeyfeale box-player, and her sister Louise with a full set of pipes. No joking: Mozart came to mind.

Then a beautiful Japanese woman, Isao Moriyasu, sat in on a couple of reels. There was a kind of watchful tapping of feet as she started, a yowp as she changed from one tune into another, and by the time she finished, roars of appreciation. After that, it all melted into a session, with Michael Tubridy emerging from the snug to join in a free-for-all Bucks of Oranmore.

The weekend highlight was the big concert, with RTE presenter Aine Hensey as bean an ti, in a newish split-level hall behind the vast, Gormenghast-like, abandoned Mercy Convent. It was a night out for the concertinas, the styles seeming to emerge as much from family idiolects as west Clare regions: the drowsy bounce of the Griffin sisters; the Mulcahys all together; even the McCarthy's joined by their spikily droll father, Tommy.

The acts just kept coming for three and a half hours, without any interval per se: old hands like Chris Droney; the staggering younger crew of Edel Fox, Rory McMahon, and Hugh Healy; and, stealing the show, the John Fennell school of set dancers who who are the All-Ireland under-six winners - a bunch of perfectly drilled wind-up munchkins, who hammered daintily through a couple of figures of the Caledonian. They lit up the hall.

There were a couple of other eye-openers: the dynamic ensemble of Tim Collins, Pat Liddy (fiddle), Claire Griffin (accordion) and Anthony Quigley (flute); and Turas, a five-piece outfit of students, schoolboys and young pros, embellished by some of the finest trad piano-playing I've heard in a long while (Padraig O'Reilly).

Topping the bill was the finest living exponent of the concertina, Noel Hill. It was an astonishing performance, with the staggering range of fingering and bellows techniques. As a Clareman, he had utter mastery of the audience: getting them to shout up requests for tunes; or blowing them away with a tiny midget concertina he picked up a few years ago; a jerking little caterpillar whose high reedy little voice he managed to punch tunes from.

Things got serious again the following morning for the packedout Mrs Crotty Memorial Mass. Michael Tubridy and young Rory McMahon did the honours, while Edel O'Brien's soprano voice soared over the local choir, and bounced around the algal niche of the monument to the Famine priest, built into the side wall.

After that came the oddest event of all, the visit to Mrs Crotty's family grave, out in Shanakyle overlooking the monastic ruins of Scattery Island (only evacuated in 1978), across the road from the older burial ground where a mass Famine grave is marked simply by a high cross. ("In enduring memory of the numerous heroes of west Clare who died of hunger rather than pervert" - presumably, convert to Protestantism - "in the Great Famine, and who were buried here coffinless in three large pits.") Locally, these disappeared dead are better remembered in the forlorn song, Lone Shanakyle.

A young priest said a short prayer, and assuring us that Mrs Crotty was in ceili heaven, gave the grave a few dollops of holy water. Then after a short eulogy from Mrs Crotty's niece, Baby Killeen, a bright-faced elderly lady, and a wreath was laid by Mrs Crotty's friend, Mary McInerney, Michael Tubridy put his foot up on the stone surround, and played the air of An Droighnean Donn on Mrs Crotty's own concertina, an ancient old Lachenal box fixed up with sticky plaster, its little keys looking like the stained teeth of an old animal.

After that, the concertinas started emerging from the cuboidal cases, and Tubridy was joined in a few dance tunes by Rory McMahon, Tommy McMahon, Dympna O'Sullivan and Una Grogan. And just when the session seemed to trail away, Shay Fogarty picked up another tune, and they were away off again, as the breeze tugged at the hair and the head scarves.

It was no doubt a deeply personal experience for all concerned, a tribute to a woman dead and in the ground this 38 years, but who is looking to become a local folk saint, or at least a patron saint of local music.

But at the graveside, she seemed more an element of a deeply commemoratory culture, emerging from rough, bare ground so full of corpses, mausolea and memories of hardship only a couple of generations away; a culture in which the dead seem more predictable and consoling, indeed often more alive than the living.