By Ronan Nolan
IT IS an indication of the changes in Irish music during the past
hundred years that the single row melodeon, so popular once at
crossroads and house dances, had lost its place in the modern session.
Even with the well-received 1991 Cló Iar-Chonnachta
recording An tOileán Aerach behind him,
Johnny Connolly was bewildered to find he didn't fit in. Lacking any
formal music training, he had much to find out about C and D boxes and
elusive C naturals. But with a gentle determination he figured his way
through the maze.
Johnny Connolly was born on the now-abandoned island of
Inis Bearacháin, off Leitir Móir in the Connemara
Gaeltacht. Once, when he was about nine or ten, with his parents away
at the currach races in Leitir Móir, he got his hands on his
older brother's melodeon. Soon he was playing a tune on it. By the time
his parents got home that evening, he was playing every tune he knew.
"So it was left to me after that."
Huddersfield was a magnet for Connemara people and contracting extended
the network out to Preston, where the 17-year-old Johnny went to work.
He learned English on the building sites and married his wife,
Patricia, who hails from Kiltimagh in Co Mayo. On the odd weekend he
would bring the box to the pub.
He found that when he returned to Ireland in 1976 with his wife and two
sons, it was all new, double-row style. They settled down in Inverin,
west of Spiddal, overlooking Galway Bay. A neighbour, Micheál
O Coisdealbha, played the BC accordeon. They started
visiting, sons Johnny Og playing the box and Jimmy
on the tin whistle. Micheál got him into the new double row
style and he kept at that up until 1990. "When I started playing the
double row, I could never get the same rhythm as on the melodeon. Maybe
it's because I started on the single row from scratch. I always found I
could get a better rhythm on the single row."
In 1991 he was part of a group organised by Meaití
Jó Shéamais O Fátharta of
Radio na Gaeltachta that went to the Lorient Festival. MJS suggested he
borrow a melodeon to play a few tunes on it, so he borrowed one from Padhraic
O Lochlainn of Carraroe. His interest in the single row
melodeon was renewed.
But to return to the early days: "I started out teaching myself the
small, single row Hohner melodeon with the four bass buttons in the
front. And I managed to get a few tunes popular here in Connemara - The
Connaughtman's Rambles and The Irish Washerwoman,
Miss McLeod's and The Swallow's Tail. I
was a year or so playing that when my parents sent for one of those
Black Dot Hohners for me.
"Then I went off to England in 1961 and brought that with me and left
the single row behind." He spent 15 years there. In 1963 he bought a
double row Paolo Saprani, "which I still played single row."
The box he brought to Lorient "was the real melodeon," he says. "It
wasn't like the melodeon I started off. It had two spoons as bass keys.
The other had four bass buttons on the front. And you had another spoon
at the back, the air button. I had that for two weeks before going to
Lorient and I found it hard getting used to it. I practised a few of
the old popular reels and jigs. I liked it and there was a lovely sound
off it as well, the four stopper melodeon.
"I got to like it so much that I decided 'this year won't be out until
I have one of those myself.' So myself and my wife went into Galway.
There was loads of them, the single row with the four stoppers, to be
got that time in Rafterys (now closed). I think it was £250,
a lot of money then. I wasn't going to bother at first, but my wife
said 'buy it.' I bought it."
Johnny practised away on his new C melodeon and the result was the
album, An tOilean Aerach, which sparked renewed
interest in the old-style melodeon. But even as the album was getting
wide airplay, particularly on Radio na Gaeltachta, at the pub session
Johnny was still playing the BC accordeon. Musicians were asking when
he was going to bring the melodeon with him.
"I told them it was a C melodeon and that I'd be playing it on my own
if I brought it out".
He decided to get it changed to a D melodeon, but his problems were far
from solved. "I brought it out one night, and I was playing away with
the same kind of fingerwork as on the C box. But then the BC box player
wouldn't join in. After a while I asked what was wrong. He said 'that's
a different key altogether. That doesn't suit me at all'."
Says Johnny: "I was kinda fed up after changing and everything. I
thought 'what am I going to do now?'"
Where many people might have put the box on the shelf and forgotten
about it, Johnny set about trying to find solutions. "I messed about to
see if I could play more tunes in a different key on it to suit the BC
player. That's how I found out that there were a lot of tunes on the
draw on a D box that you could play in G like, say, The Sally
Gardens. But I found that very complicated at first, playing
in G on the box."
He got some tunes together and soon the other musicians in the session
were joining in."That's how I found out that there was a lot of music
there, once you studied the box and knew what to do."
Then there was the missing note. "On a D box you had no C natural and
in certain tunes that came in a lot. So you would have to study that as
well to see what note you would take there to cover up for it. To get
around that you might hit one note twice."
Could he play the note soft?
"You could if there are others playing, but if you play it on your own,
people are going to notice it's the wrong note. So you'll have to go
around it in a different way, maybe by sounding the note below or the
note above a couple of times to suit the tune better."
On Miss McLeod's, how many times would he be short
the correct note?
"If you play it in D you get all the notes. In G there might be one
note that you don't have so you work around it by changing it a little.
In A you'll have to put a different note in again. But if you tried to
play it the same as you play in D, it would sound really bad."
Johnny has played a lot of the Cois Fharraige pubs with flute player Liam
O'Hara. With the C melodeon "Liam would have a problem. but
on the D box he'll follow every tune with me." Similarly with another
flute player, Marcus Hernon from Carna: "With
Marcus, he can play any key. Go into any key and he'll follow you."
Like most Connemara musicians, Johnny learned to play by ear and is
quite fast at listening to tapes and picking up tunes. How long would
"Well, I remember when Charlie Lennon gave me two
fairly complicated jigs on tape to learn. Now he had them in a way that
suited the melodeon. I liked the jigs so much, I sat down here in the
house on my own and learned them in two and a half hours. But when I
went over to the pub that night, my problem was that I couldn't think
of them. So Charlie started off and we played them together then. One
of them is called Jig for Johnny and the other is
for a friend of Charlie's up in Leitrim, Pat Finn,
and he called that Finn from Fairymount.
"The two tunes that Charlie gave me for my own CD I took my time
because I had loads of time."
He always plays a Hohner. "I think the Hohner is easy to handle. I
bought another box in America when I was out there. It's a Martins.
It's a Cajun box made in Louisiana."
He finds there's a lot more interest in the melodeon now with more
people playing it around his area. "There was always a few of the old
people in Connemara playing the melodeon. Even some of the young people
are taking it up now. You can play the melodeon for two or three hours
and not repeat the same tune."
Of the older musicians, Johnny recalls his schoolteacher Stiofán
O Cualáin from Carna who played the melodeon and
who lived on the island for a period. "I used to wait for him to come
down to the house and give him the melodeon to play. He was also a
great sean nós dancer and he'd play the melodeon as he
danced." Before emigrating he remembers going to ceilis in
Tír an Fhia where there might be five box players on the
stage and only one of them playing a BC accordeon.
An tOileán Aerach, Johnny Connolly,
Driobal na Fáinleoige, Johnny
Connolly with Charlie Lennon and Steve Cooney, 1998