Earliest Origins of the Piano Accordion in Irish traditional music / Sophie Cahalane

A guest blog from Cork piano accordion player Sophie Cahalane.  Sophie is studying for an MA in Musiclogy in Maynooth University and spent time in ITMA researching and presenting this blog as part of her coursework.

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Pat O Leary Ceilidhe Band, Cork, January 1938. Copyright of the Irish Examiner.

My name is Sophie Cahalane and I am a student of Maynooth University, currently completing a Masters in Musicology. My research seeks to find the earliest trace of the piano accordion in Irish traditional music and during my time at ITMA I discovered that this instrument had a much livelier presence in traditional music than first believed.

The piano accordion first reached Irish shores around the 1910s, taking another ten years or so to be adopted into the Irish traditional scene. The volume of images, tutor books and sheet music that I came across during my time at ITMA suggest that it was a popular instrument and was in demand when it first emerged. The piano accordion was new and exotic and there seemed to be an eagerness to learn it. Its versatility in terms of being able to produce a variety of sounds, across many genres, gives it an edge over other instruments. The piano accordion has a very powerful presence, enabling it to sound like a full band, having piano keys on the right hand and its ability to accompany itself with a bass section on the left. 

One of the first areas I researched was ITMA’s huge range of photographs. This led me to the picture above of the Pat O’Leary Ceilidhe Band taken in January 1938. This was roughly around the beginning of the instruments’ rise in popularity among céilí bands in Ireland. It became hugely popular among céilí bands, due to its adaptable nature, having the ability to fill a room with its sound. There is plenty of evidence of its presence in various popular céilí bands such as the Malachy Sweeney Céilí Band from 1954, The Richard Fitzgerald Céilí band from Bundoran and the Malachy Doris Céilí band from Tyrone who all featured a piano accordion in their line-up. Other pictures include those of the Liverpool Céilí Band and Bridie Sutherland from 1936. 

Irish Jigs and Reels for the Piano Accordion / Gaviani, 1936

“The piano accordion became hugely popular among céilí bands, due to its adaptable nature, having the ability to fill a room with its sound”
Sophie Cahalane

I stumbled across a wealth of sheet music and tutor books published in the 1930s for the piano accordion which is another indication of its popularity during this time in Ireland. The images above are from a book dating back to 1936 called "Irish Jigs and Reels for the Piano Accordion", arranged by Frank Gaviani, a prolific piano accordionist at the time. Housing nearly one hundred melodies, Gaviani’s book has a wide range of tunes varying from jigs and reels, to slow airs, containing pieces such as the “Stack of Barley” and the “Rocky road to Dublin’ jig. Preserved in hardback form, the book contains advertisements of Gaviani’s other works such as, “Irish Songs for the Piano Accordion”. 

As well as digitizing the material required for my blog, I fully digitized another piano accordion music book from 1934. “Gems of Irish Songs with Words, Tonic Sol-Fa and Ukulele with Parts for Piano Accordion”, published by Bank’s Music House, Leeds. This book contains a variety of slow airs and waltzes, all originating from Ireland. Songs include, “Londonderry Air”, “Rose of Tralee” and “Shamrock Leaves”. The Gem Series also includes other books such as "Gem of Irish Songs with Words" from 1934 that contains parts for the piano accordion. 

Other sheet music includes those belonging to Jimmy Shand and his band from Scotland who were a huge source of inspiration for many Irish piano accordionists. “Irish Jigs, Songs and Dances” by Geo. H. Farnell from 1937 contains many Irish melodies such as “The Connaught Man”, “Irish Merry-Making” and “Cockles and Mussels”. 

Gems of Irish Songs with Words, Tonic Sol-Fa and Ukulele with Parts for Piano Accordion / 1934

In terms of tutor books, Thurban’s “Piano-Accordion Tutor” dating back to 1935 provides a complete guide to learning the instrument. It teaches the reader through musical notation, key signatures and documents the purpose of the various parts of the instrument. Adam Elison produced a similar book called, “How to Play the Piano Accordion” from 1934. "Feldman's Piano-Accordion Tutor : How to Master the Piano-Accordion in Six Easy Lessons" from 1935 contains similar information, condensing the basics of the instrument into six sections.

The books that I have mentioned are only a handful of the amount I came across. The production of such a volume of sheet music and tutor books for the piano accordion during the 1930s suggest that there was a demand to learn and play the instrument, particularly in the genre of Irish traditional music.

How to Play the Piano Accordion / Adam. F. Elison, 1934

Although it was hard to find a recording of the piano accordion to date back as far as some of the texts and images I had found, there was a wealth of recordings from the early 1950s which I was very happy to find. ITMA hold many recordings of the instrument from players such as Dermot O’Brien and Albert Healy to name just a few but one in particular stood out to me. An RTÉ recording of the Ceolta Tíre programme, recorded in Co. Kerry in 1955. Played by John Clifford from Sliabh Luachra, this piece of audio is a set of reels called “The Dawn” and “Peter Street”. I choose this track as I play these two tunes and they are personal favourites of mine.

The Dawn reel ; Peter Street / John Clifford, piano accordion. Copyright of RTÉ

This was only one of the many Ceolta Tíre programme recordings I came across, the rest featuring other piano accordionists such as Sean Woods and Richard Fitzgerald. 

I am very pleased with the results of my research at ITMA. Firstly, discovering the earliest trace of the piano accordion in Irish Traditional music dates back to 1934. Secondly, I identified quite an exciting part of its history, uncovering an instrument that at the outset, had a lively existence in traditional music. It was fascinating to discover that demand for the piano accordion was high when it was initially introduced to Irish traditional music.  The demand to learn the instrument is reflected by the volume of tutor books available in the 1930s, as well its role in the céilí bands scene of Ireland.

I wish to thank RTÉ for allowing me to use the Ceolta Tíre clip and the Irish Examiner for permission to use the image of the Pat O'Leary Ceilidhe Band. 

This blog was created in association the Department of Music at Maynooth University.   Students undertook a five week placement as part of their course and gained experience in digitsation, cataloguing and web publishing.