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?’”
Figuring it out
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 it take?
“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 Mileoidean Scaoilte, Johnny Connolly 2004, CICD157.
An tOileán Aerach, Johnny Connolly, 1991
Driobal na Fáinleoige, Johnny Connolly with Charlie Lennon and Steve Cooney, 1998