And down from Bell Harbour Chris Droney he came,
He played on a matchbox – I thought ‘twas the same,
Till someone said,
‘O Robbie, what’s that your saying?
Isn’t that his own small concertina!’
Robbie McMahon, The Fleadh Down in Ennis (1956)
‘So you’re antique dealers then?’ concludes Chris Droney when we tell him about the Vanishing Ireland Project. The nine times All-Ireland Concertina Champion grins kindly above a soft suntan recently bestowed aquiredupon him whilst he played concertina on a brand new ocean liner in the Caribbean. He was out with The Four Courts Céilí Band, entertaining 1,800 passengers with a two-hour set of jigs and polkas every evening. The liner was ten decks high and weighed 57,000 tons. ‘If you walked a deck three times, you walked a mile,’ marvels Chris. ‘There was tennis courts, basketball courts, céilí dancing, rock and roll, a casino … they even had a billiards table!’
It’s a long way from picking potatoes in the pouring rain, which is one of the more regular pastimes Chris endured as young lad in the 1930s. The Droney family have been in North Clare for several centuries and it was from his grandfather, Michael, that Chris inherited his original farm on the southern shore of Galway Bay at the age of twelve. In time, the passing of his own father, Jim, left him heir to Bell Harbour House, a handsome gable-ended house built in 1796.
The house, where the eighty-one-year-old Pioneer and his wife Margaret now live, overlooks a patchwork of fields crisscrossed by lichen-covered dry-stone walls running down to the sea. When Chris was young, these fields were the bedrock of the local economy. ‘We were always out there sowing sugar beet and corn and potatoes. Every one of them was tilled with horses and ploughed. It was hard, hard work. You can’t see one sign of it now. Not one field! It all disappeared in the last twenty years. They went back into cows first but even dairying has gone by the way side so now they just leave them.’
Chris’s remarkable skill as a concertina is partially genetic. His father, uncle and grandfather were all well-known players and he has an inkling that Droney’s have been making rhythmic concertina music since the early 1800s. And it should be noted that Chris’s son Francis and his grandchildren are also highly adept at the so-called ‘matchbox’.
‘Concertinas were very plentiful when I was young. They would have them in every house. There’d be no pub sessions at that time. Just calling to the houses.’ Bell Harbour House was a popular venue for such gatherings, particularly for the late-nights of the annual Wren Dance. 'I started playing when I was eight. I’m seventy-three years playing music now! I’m the same category as Paddy Canny and all those lads.’
‘I remember my father having a concertina when I was very small going to school in the 1920s. He got one from London that was a better one altogether and they got better and better.’ Chris produces his own concertina which he purchased in England in 1960. ‘I went to the factory for a whole day to choose it. I was told leaving home that I was under no circumstances to pass £30. I saw this one and it was top of the range. They wanted £64. I said feck it, it’s only once in a lifetime and I’ll have it. It’s done me ever since and it’ll do someone else after I’ve gone.’
His musical career has been a massive success. Aside from his numerous musical honours, he has played in several well-known céilí bands – he’s been with the Four Courts since 1987 – and performed on stages from Toronto to Tokyo. This modest concertina can be heard to great effect on his third solo album, Down from Bell Harbour, released in early 2006.
Like his forbears, he keeps a small herd of dairy cattle. They inspire him to head out for a walk every day. As a rainbow sprouts from a rain-splashed sky, Chris starts up a simple jig called ‘Merrily Kissed the Quaker’. It brings to mind ancient instincts to whelp loudly, shuffle elbows and skip the feet. He plays the last chords directly at his cattle who, sadly, fail to applaud. ‘Not a bother on them!’ he mutters.