Concertina Journey

Cormac Begley

Concertina Journey

Concertina player Cormac Begley’s creative journey has been one to watch, and his new solo album is an assertive next step, writes Toner Quinn.

With so much commentary on traditional music giving the impression of homogeneity – a music that carries heritage, ancestry, regional styles and community values in one go – it is worth emphasising that all creative journeys in this genre are actually unique. Where musicians end up may be reminiscent of one or other artist; how they got there is not.

Concertina player Cormac Begley’s creative journey has been one to watch. As a student of psychology in Galway in 2008 he founded the concert series Tunes in the Church. In 2015, he established Airt, a residential school for musicians and artists in his family home of West Kerry. 

Along the way, he has released a concertina duet album with Jack Talty; won the Seán Ó Riada Gold Medal for performance; played with the dance show Rian; toured with the experimental cellist Rushad Eggleston; and most recently performed with Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh at Other Voices.

Yet it is difficult to discuss Cormac Begley’s music without mentioning his father, Brendan, his ‘first teacher’ as Cormac says on the sleevenotes of this self-titled, debut solo album. Brendan’s music is characterised by an almost anarchic, howling impatience. He is always pushing, looking for an emotional and communal breakthrough with his audience.

There are several moments on this new album by Cormac when his father’s style and rhythm come immediately to mind, for example in Cormac’s playing of his own tune ‘Polka John’, and in the fervour of the same track as he speeds up when moving into the ‘Camino Polka’ (which Brendan composed). It’s there, too, in the ‘Frenzy Polca’, also written by Brendan.

At the same time, from the very first track, ‘The Yellow Tinker’/‘Ríl Mhór Bhaile an Chalaidh’, and on ‘Paddy Canny’s Pigeon on the Gate’/‘The Dairy Maid’, you’ll hear the unique rhythmic style for which Cormac has become known, an almost staccato approach to playing tunes, making particular use of the bellows sounds. On ‘The Fermoy Lasses’, this rhythmic emphasis becomes absolutely thumping, like a club dance floor.

Listening back to Cormac Begley’s 2011 duet album with Jack Talty, Na Fir Bolg, it’s interesting how the overall style falls much more in line with Talty’s rather than Begley’s. This album is much more assertive stylistically.

In one sense, Begley is similar to Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, pushing at the aesthetics of traditional music but on concertina rather than fiddle. Like Ó Raghallaigh too, Begley uses the full acoustic potential of his instrument. He bends notes, outrageously, mischievously, harmonica-like – ‘The Fermoy Lasses’ is a spectacular example.

The repertoire is personal, always connected to individuals and moments from his musical path, and there’s immediately attractive tunes that any musician would want to learn, such as ’The Streamstown Jig’ and ‘Donncha Ó Loinsigh’s’.

This independently released recording (with support from the Arts Council) has thirteen tracks, all entirely solo, and played on nine different concertinas, from bass to treble. None of the tracks are longer than five minutes and most are around the two- or three- minute mark.  The jig, ‘An Cat is a Mháthair’ (for which Begley composed the second part) is just one minute and forty seconds long. Many tracks leave you very soon after they peak, which leaves you curious, about where else they might go.

But there’s a confidence to this. The album makes for a particularly focused and compact artistic statement, right down to the stylish concertina-shaped artwork that accompanies the recording.

Irish traditional music can be an unsure land, where solo albums try to include all of the musical styles that an artist may have engaged in. Cormac Begley, sure of his solo voice, having absorbed what he needs and walking a clear creative path, is having none of it.

For more, listen below or visit

Published on 2 May 2017

Toner Quinn is Editor of the Journal of Music.

comments powered by Disqus