Concertina players are coming to fore; instrument’s versatility is called a key

Q. How do you make a concertina?
A. Cross an accordion with a stop sign.
It’s not as if the concertina has never gotten respect in the traditional Irish music world – maybe it’s just overlooked, in comparison with, say, the fiddle, uilleann pipes, flute, whistle, and accordion.
But what with the emergence over the past few decades of eminent concertina players like Noel Hill, Mary MacNamara, Jackie Daly, John Williams, Mícheál Ó Raghallaigh, and Niamh Ni Charra (not to mention New England’s own Christian Stevens), perhaps the squeezebox’s moment has arrived.

That is certainly the view of two other leading Irish concertina players who will be visiting Boston in the next several weeks, Niall Vallely and Edel Fox, appearing as part of The Burren’s “Backroom” series in Somerville. Fox will perform on Aug. 7, with fiddler Neill Byrne – the two have just released a CD, “The Sunny Banks” – and New York City area fiddler Dylan Foley, who on this occasion will be showing his skills as a guitarist; opening will be the New York City-based duo The Murphy Beds, Eamon O’Leary, and Jefferson Hamer. Vallely will hit The Burren along with his uilleann pipes-playing brother Cillian on September 4.
Fox and Vallely may not have statistics at the ready, but they do claim a lot of anecdotal evidence suggesting that the concertina is gaining in popularity. At last month’s Willie Clancy Festival in her native Miltown Malbay, for example, Fox counted upwards of 16 different classes for concertina – definitely a change from past years when she attended.
“It’s not just numbers, it’s also the amount of talent and interest you see among younger musicians,” says Fox. “You see kids 11 to 14 years old playing concertina, and they just blow you away. Of course, you know there are some who are kind of just going through the motions, but then you find the ones who really like playing traditional music, and they are great to hear.”
Vallely, for his part, finds “there aren’t enough hours” to accommodate all those who want to take his concertina classes at University College Cork. What’s more, he adds, “If you look at the list of commercial recordings before the 1990s that feature the concertina, the number is in the single digits. Since the 1990s, there’ve been loads.”
So, what is it about the concertina that makes it so ideal for Irish traditional music? While there are obvious similarities with the accordion, Vallely and Fox say the concertina’s unique qualities serve it well.
“I think it’s a tremendously versatile instrument,” says Vallely. “I like its harmonic nature, and its scope for playing different music in different situations.”
“The tone of the concertina is so special, and matches up well with a number of different instruments, particularly the fiddle,” says Fox. “While playing solo is all well and good for your confidence, Irish music is about duos and trios – or more – and so it’s important to have an instrument that blends in and complements the others.”
The concertina first surfaced in Irish music in the 1870s and 1880s, according to Vallely, but after an initial period of popularity was superseded by the accordion when recordings of Irish music were first made in the 1920s. William Mullaly was a pioneer in the early recording era, and is, in fact, thought to be the only concertina player to be recorded commercially in the first half of the 20th century; his successors were notables like Packie Russell, Paddy Murphy, Elizabeth Crotty, Fr. Charlie Coen, and John Kelly, who all helped bring the concertina a greater degree of prominence through the middle part of the 20th century and into the Irish folk revival of the 1960s and ’70s, when Noel Hill came of age.
“Some of the concertina players from that era weren’t necessarily brilliant technically, but there is a wildness about their playing that I like,” says Vallely. “Paddy Murphy was an important influence on Noel Hill, who went on to create techniques that have become standard for many players today – Noel was certainly an influence on me.”
Yet when he first began playing concertina at age 7, Vallely, who grew up in Antrim, didn’t have much in the way of immediate influences – well, not conventional ones, anyway.
“There weren’t exactly loads of concertina players in Antrim,” he explains. “The guy who originally inspired me to take it up was an Englishman named Paul Davis, who was a dealer and repairman of concertinas and accordions. He was just a real character: a big fella with a heavy beard and a limp, and he would busk around and play all kinds of tunes, not all of them Irish.
“I stuck with it, I guess, partly because the concertina was different than what my parents and brother played, the fiddle or the pipes – although I also spent several years learning the pipes. But growing up, my music was influenced by lots of other kinds of instruments, because the concertina simply wasn’t popular where I was.”
Vallely also explored other musical influences, such as classical – he learned piano and trumpet in secondary school – and jazz, through a partnership with composer/pianist Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin. In 1990, he co-founded the band Nomos, which released two well-received albums and toured throughout Europe, North America, Australia, and Hong Kong before breaking up in 2000. Since then, he has formed a new band, Buille, and toured and recorded with his wife, singer Karan Casey, and been involved in projects with, among others, Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Tim O’Brien. Besides playing together in Buille, he and Cillian – who has fashioned a pretty good career himself, as a member of the Irish super-group Lunasa and solo performer – have recorded an album as a duo and, when they can, they get out on the road.
“With all we have going on, we’re lucky if we can play maybe once a year,” says Niall. “I know I certainly enjoy playing with Cillian; it’s different repertoire than what I might do normally. And in fact, The Burren is one of our favorite places to play as a duo.”
Fox started on the concertina at about the same age as Vallely and, much like him, was inspired by watching someone else play it – in this case, a complete stranger. “My father took me into town one day, and I happened to see a girl playing one,” she recalls. “I was completely fascinated by it, and I kept annoying my dad until I got a chance to hold it in my hands. I just became obsessed with the instrument, not even so much the music.”
Noel Hill was an important figure in Fox’s musical development, too: When her father saw a newspaper ad from Hill offering music lessons, he bought young Edel a Wheatstone – considered one of the leading brands of concertina – and she was off and playing. Fox would later come under the tutelage of Dymphna O’Sullivan, Tim Collins, Tony O’Connell, and, in particular, Jackie Daly. But while she may have found more in the way of concertina mentors as a youth than Vallely did, like Vallely she also was influenced by masters of other instruments, such as piper Willie Clancy, and fiddlers Bobby Casey and Junior Crehan.
“I think it’s only natural to be influenced by other instrumentalists,” says Fox, “because although the concertina can certainly stand on its own, like I said, it blends so well with the fiddle, or the pipes, or the accordion, and so on.”
Fox, who has a TG4 “Gradam Ceoltóir Óg na Bliana (Young Musician of the Year)” award to her credit, released her first album in 2006 with fiddler Ronan O’Flaherty, and four years later recorded “Chords and Beryls.” She spent some time studying in the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance at the University of Limerick, where she received a bachelor of arts degree in 2007, and recently earned a graduate degree in music therapy.
“The Sunny Banks,” which took her and Byrne about two years to complete, includes compositions by traditional musicians like Charlie Lennon and Frank McCallum.
“The idea was to bring the work of these people into the greater realm of traditional music,” says Fox. “It was a great experience to put it together, and we’re quite excited to have the CD all set to go.”
Fox is particularly pleased to have the Boston area, and The Burren in particular, as one of the launch sites for “The Sunny Banks.”
“[Burren owners] Tommy and Louise McCarthy are from Clare, and they are good friends,” she says. “Of all the cities I’ve toured, Boston is my biggest love. I always enjoy a night at The Burren, or a session at The Druid. Boston is just so vibrant, and the most authentically Irish place in the US.”
For more on the “Backroom” series, see The Burren website at