The Melodeon

A personal perspective – by Robert – to celebrate St Cecilia, the Patron Saint of music, on her day: 22nd November

Girl with Melodeon

…My father played the melodeon
Outside at our gate;
There were stars in the morning east
And they danced to his music.

Across the wild bogs his melodeon called
To Lennons and Callans.
As I pulled on my trousers in a hurry
I knew some strange thing had happened.

Outside the cow‑house my mother
Made the music of milking;
The light of her stable‑lamp was a star
And the frost of Bethlehem made it twinkle.

A water‑hen screeched in the bog,
Mass‑going feet
Crunched the wafer‑ice on the pot‑holes,
Somebody wistfully twisted the bellows wheel.

My child poet picked out the letters
On the grey stone,
In silver the wonder of a Christmas townland,
The winking glitter of a frosty dawn.

Cassiopeia was over
Cassidy’s hanging hill,
I looked and three whin bushes rode across
The horizon — The Three Wise Kings.

An old man passing said:
“Can’t he make it talk” —
The melodeon. I hid in the doorway
And tightened the belt of my box‑pleated coat.

I nicked six nicks on the door’post
With my penknife’s big blade—
There was a little one for cutting tobacco,
And I was six Christmases of age.

My father played the melodeon,
My mother milked the cows,
And I had a prayer like a white rose pinned
On the Virgin Mary’s blouse.

from A Childhood Christmas by Patrick Kavanagh 1943; the photo of the girl is from the collection of Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh, who documented life in rural Ireland between the 1930s and the 1950s
Traditional musicians playing ‘squeeze boxes’ – top: Fred Pearce from Norfolk and Johnny Connolly from Connemara, both playing ‘The Melodeon’ – a single row instrument, while below: Jackie Daly from the Sliabh Luachra area (Cork / Kerry borders) and Joe Burke from Galway play the Irish Button Accordion

I have been playing the melodeon for well over 50 years: I should be a lot better at it than I am… My father didn’t play it: I didn’t even know that melodeons existed until I saw a secondhand one on sale in my local music shop when I was a teenager. I was fascinated by the look of it – it beckoned me; it was ten pounds, and in those days I earned seven shillings and sixpence a week from my paper round. Eventually I had saved enough to buy it, took it home and scratched my head over it.

Spot the difference: Robert then (playing a one-row melodeon) and now (playing a two-row button accordion – photo by Peter Clarke)

There’s a logic to playing a melodeon, but it’s not an immediately obvious one. Perhaps I’d better explain that a melodeon is one sort of accordion, and the definition varies depending what country you are in. I was in England then, and the term ‘melodeon’ there covers pretty well everything that has a button keyboard, bellows, and produces different notes when you move the bellows in or out; it doesn’t refer to a ‘piano accordion’ where the keyboard has – well – piano keys, and the movement of the bellows in either direction doesn’t make any difference to the notes.

Dermot Byrne and Steve Cooney

Expert Irish button accordionist Dermot Byrne, accompanied by Steve Cooney at a recent Baltimore Fiddle Fair event here in West Cork: Dermot is playing a rarely seen Briggs diatonic instrument

Now I am in Ireland and the term ‘melodeon’ only refers to an instrument with a single row of buttons on the keyboard; anything with more than one row is known as a ‘diatonic button accordion’, and you will probably most often come across the latter when listening to traditional music here, although nothing is ever simple, and there are a number of Irish players (including many really good ones) who play instruments with a single row of buttons.

Sharon Shannon

Sharon Shannon from Corofin, Co Clare has taken Irish button accordion playing to a different level: her concerts often include magical lighting effects and state-of-the-art electronic accompaniments

By chance, that first instrument that I saved up for had only one row, so it would be a ‘melodeon’ in both England and Ireland. I now tend to play mainly instruments with two rows, and I can’t stop calling them ‘melodeons’ even though that’s incongruous to players here.

Kerryman Seamus Begley – noted Irish accordion player and entertainer; in the right hand picture he is joined by concertina maestro Noel Hill at last year’s Corofin Festival, Co Clare

In an earlier post – The Clare Trumpet – I talked about concertinas, and the invention of those instruments by Charles Wheatstone in England, getting on for two hundred years ago. He took out a patent in 1829. In the same year Cyrill Demian – an Armenian organ and piano maker – filed a patent in Vienna for an ‘accordion’ which was exactly the same as today’s melodeon:

…In a box 7 to 9 inches long, 3½ inches wide and 2 inches high, feathers of metal plates are fixed… with bellows… even an amateur of music can play the loveliest and most moving chords of 3, 4 and 5 voices with very little practice… Each claves or key of this instrument allows two different chords to be heard, as many keys are fixed to it, double as many chords can be heard, pulling the bellows a key gives one chord, while pushing the bellows gives the same key a second chord…  many well known arias, melodies and marches, etc. may be performed similar to the harmony of 3, 4 and 5 voices, with satisfaction of all anticipations of delicacy and vastly amazing comfort in increasing and decreasing sound volume… it is easy and comfortable to carry and should be a welcome invention for travellers and parties visiting individuals of both sexes, especially as it can be played without the help of anybody…

martin connolly

Excellent accordion maker and mechanic Martin Connolly of Ennis tests out Robert’s Oakwood 

That’s true: the ‘squeeze box’ is one of those instruments which you have to learn to play just by doing it. Of course, you can get books of instructions – and you can get experienced players to help you get started – but in the end it comes down to instinct – and a lot of practice, preferably out of earshot of anyone else. You can pick up the diatonic system inexpensively by picking out tunes on a mouth-organ – which is a melodeon without the buttons or bellows!

Concertinas / melodeons / button and piano accordions are different instruments but all share certain characteristics including the means of producing a note through a vibrating ‘free reed’ – a small metal leaf held at one end in a frame. A bellows pushes or pulls air through the frame and the reed vibrates, producing a musical note. The size and weight of the frame and leaf governs the pitch of the note. The quality of metal used for the vibrating reed – its density, flexibility  and tempering – determines the overall sound quality of the instrument. The best instruments use hand made reeds.

Outside Rosies

Squeeze boxes in evidence in this recital from young members of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann outside Rosie’s, Ballydehob, during the Trad Festival

Enough of the technicalities! What matters is the music that can be got out of an instrument. I like the push-pull (bisonoric) squeeze boxes because you have to move the bellows so much to get the changing notes. This adds dynamics to the music: movement and rhythm. As so much of traditional music is used for dancing, this is a definite advantage – there is already ‘dancing’ in the music itself.


There are so many really good traditional music players in Ireland: you will know that because of our reports on the festivals we go to. Who are the best players today of melodeons and diatonic accordions? You have to decide that yourself by going out and listening to as many as you can. Or, second best, you can stay at home and use the internet – Youtube is a seemingly endless resource. There’s also The Session, which is a very good site for finding tunes and discussions on music and musicians. I also recommend ITMA – the Irish Traditional Music Archive – an invaluable free resource of information including thousands of sound recordings, videos, images and manuscript collections all related to the music tradition here in Ireland.


If you’re twisting my arm as to who are my melodeon ‘heroes’, I’ll reel off a list of players I would (and do) go out of my way to listen to: Johnny Connolly, Bobby Gardiner, Jackie Daly, Joe Burke, Seamus Begley, Dermot Byrne, Sharon Shannon… However, I seldom have to go far because they all seem to come, sooner or later (and often frequently) to our little corner of the world here in West Cork.


Hail Cecilia!

Ballydehob Trad Fest

Young Traditional Musicians at the Ballydehob Trad Fest

Young Traditional Musicians at the Ballydehob Trad Fest

If you like traditional music, then Ballydehob was the place to be this weekend. Féile Átha Dá Chab, the Ballydehob Traditional Music Festival, had us bouncing on our bar stools, hooting and cheering in our concert seats, and applauding the talent of hoards of youngsters.

Finale of the Four Men and a Dog Concert

Finale of the Four Men and a Dog Concert

The Festival kicked off with an outstanding concert by Four Men and a Dog. Playing, singing, telling stories, and with the unique wit of Gino Lupari (an Italian bodhran player with an Irish accent) they entertained us for over three hours in the village hall. They invited two talented local girls to play with them, and with Mairead and Maria Carey on their flutes, we were on our feet for an intense finale that left us exhilarated.

Sunday afternoon session at Levis's

Sunday afternoon session at Levis’s

Once the concert is over, where do you go? To the pubs, of course, where there were sessions going on till all hours. We were in Levis’s, but we could have been in any one of half a dozen pubs, all with great music.


Maureen Culleton/Learning how to twirl

Maureen Culleton/Learning the steps

Our friends from Devon, Chris and Gill, who are staying with us, bravely signed up for the set dancing workshop next day, along with sixteen others. They are tango dancers and in great shape, but by noon they were exhausted and had a whole new respect for this form of dancing. Maureen Culleton, highly experienced and very encouraging, introduced some new dances to the locals and put everyone through their paces. The day culminated in a Céilí (pronounced kaylee) where the set dancers danced into the wee hours to the music of the Striolán Ceilí Band from Kerry. People around here love set dancing and are very good at it. It’s an activity that brings together all ages in country villages. Here’s a good example of set dancing, with the Striolán Ceilí Band playing in the background.

In Rosie's

In Rosie’s

Robert and I aren’t set dancers so we took to the pubs (amazing how much time a couple of non-drinkers can spend in pubs!) for the sessions that were going on in most of them. Members of Four Men and a Dog were in Rosie’s, playing with local musicians. Getting to see them in such an intimate setting was great.

The Kilcoen Kids

The Kilcoe Kids

Today, Sunday, the sun came out and the streets of Ballydehob filled up with young musicians competing in the Street Seisiún Competition. Seisiún, pronounced seshoon is the Irish word for session. And a session, in case I haven’t explained this before for our non-Irish readers, is the word used for a bunch of traditional musicians getting together to make music. The younger children, of course, stole our hearts, singing, dancing and playing music on the streets. The teens were remarkably accomplished: many of them have been studying in the Comhaltas system for years.

Dancing in the streets

Dancing in the streets

As I type, people are wandering from pub to pub on the session trail in Ballydehob. When you love something, you just don’t want it to stop! Fortunately, in this part of Ireland, the music is alive and well – and in good hands for the future.


The future is assured!

The future is assured!

Well done, Ballydehob, on another fantastic traditional music festival!

Danno enjoying a private concert

Danno enjoying a private concert




Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann [Finola tells me that this is how you say it: kole tuss kyole tory air run – the literal translation is the Society of Musicians of Ireland] is an organisation founded in 1951 to ‘preserve and promote Irish traditional music and culture’. Its activities are very much in evidence – not just in Ireland, but anywhere in the world where Irish people have settled. They were evident in Skibbereen last week, when CCE featured some of its top class performers in music, dance, song and storytelling on a whistle-stop tour around the whole island of Ireland. We were fortunate that their venue in the south west was on the doorstep here.

tour poster

It was a most inhospitable October night: gales and floods were rife across Ireland and Britain. Yet the Skibb Town Hall was full to capacity, and the concert was well worth braving the elements for. The whole programme was polished and professionally produced: not a wrong note was played, nor a dance step placed out of kilter. It was a most memorable, satisfying and entertaining treat for the senses.

This was a showcase for the principal work that CCE has been carrying out for over sixty years: training people young and older in the crafts of playing and dancing in the traditional style. Once this would have happened naturally – through families and generations handing on the skills and the tunes. The fact that a CCE was needed and is now so established suggests that there was a danger of The Tradition dying out, or at least becoming diluted or rarified. This may or may not have been the case – for decades and all over the world collectors of folk culture have been convinced that they are recording the dying remnants of customs and lore, but perhaps there are always undercurrents of renewal which happen naturally: many of the most skilled exponents of The Music today learn their craft in the ‘old’ way – at the hearthside from parents, uncles, aunts and cousins. In our electronic age, however, lifestyles are radically changing and the formalised classes and competitions which CCE runs, and which are within easy reach of every community, can only be for the good. The latent talents shine through in performances such as those at Skibbereen. I taught myself to play the melodeon and concertina at the age of fifteen (and I’m still learning): now I’m watching far younger people perform with skills which outshine any I might have at this stage of my life, and who are storing up great potential for their own futures.

The showcase of Comhaltas talent at Skibbereen: the dancer on the left is Fernando Marcos from the Buenos Aries Branch of CCE!

The showcase of Comhaltas talent at Skibbereen: the dancer on the left is Fernando Marcos from the Buenos Aries Branch of CCE!

As I drove back to Nead an Iolair through the lashing rain squalls I pondered our own weekly music sessions in the pubs of Ballydehob. They are rough affairs: plenty of wrong notes, certainly, and arguments on tuning, timing, song names and ornamentation; very little polish… And, while we play mainly Irish traditional music, very few of us are Irish. Nonetheless we do (mostly) enjoy the experiences, and the sessions maintain a life of their own. However you do it, it’s great to keep The Music going…

Friday night session at Levis's, Ballydehob

friday night

Keeping The Music going – session style