Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Eireann, the largest group worldwide devoted to the preservation and promotion of Irish traditional music, is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year.
With hundreds of branches in 15 countries on 4 continents, the non-profit organization sponsors classes, concerts, and sessions in local communities. It also hosts a website, which accounts for its presence in RILM. A page on their site titled The music includes links to tracks from their CDs, recordings of sessions, and tracks from the Comhaltas Traditional Music Archive; video recordings of some of today’s foremost performers; selections from their own tune books, as well as other tunes from historical sources; a photograph archive; and Treoir, the Comhaltas journal.
Below, Emma O’Sullivan dances a reel at a Comhaltas event. Note that this is not the rigid-posture style popularized by shows like Riverdance, which is considered by many to be a more recent development; this style is known as sean-nós, which means “old style”.
The first concertinas to arrive in County Clare, Ireland, were inexpensive German instruments, a far cry from the elegant parlor instrument invented by Sir Charles Wheatstone in 1829 and popularized among the social elite of Victorian England. They were disseminated by traveling peddlers and local and more distant shops—and probably by maritime traffic, given Clare’s position at the mouth of the Shannon estuary, the last port of call for tall ships about to cross the Atlantic.
By the end of the nineteenth century the concertina had all but replaced the uilleann pipes in popularity there, and Clare had already developed a reputation as a treasure-trove of concertina music and the home of some of the instrument’s finest players. After its completion in 1892 the West Clare Railway carried concertinas into formerly inaccessible rural areas, and before World War II the instrument became particularly popular among women musicians, earning it the nickname bean-cháirdin (female accordion).
This according to “Clare: Heartland of the Irish concertina” by Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin (Papers of the International Concertina Association III  pp. 1–19). Above, Ó hAllmhuráin learns a tune from the 101-year-old Clare concertina player Molly Carthy in 1997. Below, the Clare concertina player Kate McNamara plays two reels: Sergeant Early’s dream and The plough and the stars.
BONUS: Read about the gendering of another traditional Irish instrument in The female harp.
Although he never mentioned it in his published writings, the collector and compiler of traditional Irish tunes Francis O’Neill (1848–1936) made wax cylinder recordings of some of his fellow musicians in Chicago, probably in the late 1890s and early 1900s. Once believed lost, 32 of these recordings were discovered in 2003 when David Dunn opened a suitcase that had belonged to his grandfather, who had been a friend of O’Neill. Dunn brought them to the Ward Irish Music Archives in Milwaukee, which contacted the American Folklife Center for help in digitizing them. Several recordings by the renowned uilleann pipe player Patrick J. “Patsy” Touhey (1865–1923) are included, along with performances by four other luminaries of the Chicago Irish music community.
The recordings now comprise the cornerstone of The Dunn Family Collection, an online exhibit hosted by the Ward Archives that also includes manuscripts, artifacts, photographs, and sheet music collected by the instrument maker and repairer Michael J. Dunn (1855–1935). Dunn was also a captain in the Milwaukee Fire Department, while O’Neill—when he was not pursuing his passion for Irish traditional music—served as Superintendent of the Chicago Police Department.
Thanks to Patrick Hutchinson for alerting us about this collection! Patrick plays the uilleann pipes with Bento Boxty.