Associated by many with the revived fortunes of the concertina, Elizabeth Markham was born on December 6, 1885 in Gower, Cooraclare, in south west Clare. Better known to traditional musicians as “Mrs Crotty,” she grew up on a small farm in a home that was full of music. Her mother learned to play the fiddle from a travelling blind fiddler named the Schooner Breen from Kilmacduane. Her sister Maggie played the fiddle and concertina. They played together for local house dances, weddings, christenings and American wakes at a time when few women publicly played Irish music.
In 1914 she married Michael (Miko) Crotty. He was from the next townland and they had gone to school together. He had spent some years in America and on returning home he bought a house in the Square in Kilrush which they ran as a public house. After her marriage she endured huge personal grief with the loss of her first three children. She also lost a son in a drowning tragedy in 1946.
Mrs Crotty was relatively unknown until the early 1950s. She could neither read nor write music in any of the conventional systems, but she could commit a tune to paper by giving each key a number, and using a symbol to denote a press or draw. Her style of playing was relatively unadorned, but it was very rhythmic, due to the fact that her music was played for dancers. Her two most popular tunes were The Wind that Shakes the Barley and The Reel with the Beryl. These tunes brought out the very best in her style of playing, on her 30-key Lachenal concertina.
The two most common music instruments in West Clare during Mrs Crotty’s lifetime were the fiddle and the concertina and it was through the concertina that she became well-known in the 1950s. Her fame spread as a result of some recording sessions which Ciaran Mac Mathuna and Radio Eireann held in her house in the Square. He played her music frequently on his radio programmes. In those years, Crotty’s of the Square in Kilrush was visited regularly by musicians. One could be sure of a welcome, and a few tunes at almost any time of the day or night.
Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann was formed in Mullingar in 1951 and three years later a branch was formed in Co. Clare. Mrs Crotty was elected president of the county board, a position she held until her death. During her time the All-Ireland Fleadh was held in Ennis in 1956 and the first Co. Clare Fleadh was held in Miltown Malbay in 1957. During this period Mrs Crotty suffered from severe angina but she tried very hard not to let it interfere with her musical activities.
On her travels around the country she met and played with many musicians. In Dublin she met Mrs Harrington who played the fiddle, and they became close friends. They were both members of the Pipers Club in Thomas Street and they travelled to fleadhanna together. Mrs Crotty didn’t take part in competitions but she enjoyed listening to the various musicians. In the 1960s the Mrs Crotty Club was named after her by a group of Clare musicians and set dancers in Dublin.
Even though she made no commercial recordings, she did make two private ones, a solo, and a duet with Mrs Harrington. Consequently there is very little of her music on record. However, when R.T.E. produced an LP to commemorate 50 years of Irish radio, they included one of Mrs Crotty’s items from the archives. The tune chosen was Geary’s Reel, which Ciaran Mac Mathuna had recorded from her.
Mrs Crotty died at home on December 27, 1960, as a result of an anginal attack. She is buried in Shanakyle cemetery, about a mile west of Kilrush. Her husband Miko died in 1965. A festival, Eigse Mrs Crotty, held in her memory annually in Kilrush, came to an end in 2009.