The most hallowed and dog-eared collections of Irish traditional tunes are those compiled by Bantry-born, longtime Chicago resident Francis O'Neill (1848-1936) and published between 1903 and 1924. They are referred to, specifically or collectively, as "the book" or "the bible."
Estimable collections amassed by Breandan Breathnach, Frank Roche, George Petrie, William Ryan, Aloys Fleischmann, and others added to the ever-growing canon.
Books of tunes wholly or largely written by individual musicians, such as Cavan's Ed Reavy and Tipperary's Sean Ryan, brought a sui generis slant to the expansion of the repertoire.
Published respectively in 2009 and 2010, "The Definitive Collection of the Music of Paddy O'Brien 1922-1991" and Liz Carroll's "Collected" are recent, bright reminders of the exquisite music composed by each and further, vital augmentations of the global tunebook shared in sessions. (Note of disclosure: I wrote a short essay, "Paddy O'Brien and Posterity," for the former collection.)
In 2001, Boston College Sullivan Artist-in-Residence Seamus Connolly, one of the finest Irish fiddlers in history, published "Forget Me Not: A Collection of 50 Memorable Traditional Irish Tunes" with his former, talented apprentice, Laurel Martin. The book's enclosed pair of CD's featured such guest musicians as button accordionist Joe Derrane, flutist Jimmy Noonan, and guitarist and mandolinist John McGann, who did the musical transcriptions. Currently Seamus Connolly is working on a monumental new publishing project that involves hundreds of tunes and dozens of musicians playing them for eventual CD's.
Over the years I have received many more tunebooks as well as tutors. They include those carefully put together by flutist June McCormack, harper Michael Rooney, pianist and fiddler Charlie Lennon, flutist Cyril Maguire, pianist Geraldine Cotter, button accordionist Brendan Begley with Niamh Ni Bhaoill, pianist and fiddler Josephine Keegan, harper Kathleen Loughnane, button accordionist Damien Connolly, banjoist Enda Scahill, uilleann piper Cillian Vallely of Lunasa, and flutist Marcus Hernon. ("The Grouse in the Heather" by Hernon features 25 of his own compositions, all named for various birds photographed or sketched inside.)
Joe Burke and Mairtin O'Connor, both Galway natives, are among Ireland's greatest button accordionists, and each has recently published a tunebook, "Joe Burke Traditional Irish Music Collection" and "Inside the Box / Outside the Box." They belong in the home library of every musician, especially box players.
From Kilnadeema, Loughrea, East Galway, where he still resides, Joe Burke is a living legend with several outstanding albums and partnerships to his credit. Two of his most famous musical alliances each featured a supreme fiddler: Belfast-born Sean McGuire and New York-born Andy McGann. Originally released on Burke's own Shaskeen label, "Joe Burke, Andy McGann, and Felix Dolan Play a Tribute to Michael Coleman" (1966) and "Traditional Music of Ireland" (1973), a solo recording Burke made with Charlie Lennon on piano, are indisputable classics. (Note of disclosure: I wrote four lengthy essays for the 1994 CD reissue of the 1966 Burke, McGann, and Dolan LP.)
The same taste brought by Burke to his playing is evident in his tunebook. It contains 104 transcribed tunes, three CD's, and a host of priceless photos reproduced from his own collection. Most of the tunes are traditional and unattributed, such as "Bonnie Kate," "The Geese in the Bog," "The Cuckoo," and the reel most closely identified with Burke, "The Bucks of Oranmore." Supplementing them are tunes written by Paddy O'Brien, Ed Reavy, Finbar Dwyer, Martin Mulhaire, Martin Wynne, Paddy Fahy, Paddy Kelly, and Sean Ryan, plus a reel composed by Burke himself ("The Morning Mist") and a double jig composed by his wife, Anne Conroy-Burke ("Currants for Cakes and Raisins for Everything").
Though Joe Burke provides no explanatory or descriptive anecdote for each tune he chose, his photographic selection offers a powerful visual narrative of his life and music. Especially notable are shots of the New York Ceili Band (Paddy Reynolds, Andy McGann, and Larry Redican on fiddles, Jack Coen on flute, and Billy Greenall on piano, with Burke on box) at the Waldorf Astoria in 1965 and a group of five players also in New York that same year: Charlie Mulvihill on button accordion,Katherine Brennan and Andy McGann on fiddles, and Charlie Mulvihill, Dave Collins, and Burke on button accordions.
In his short introduction, Joe Burke writes: "Old tunes are great, but it's hard to get parts for them" and "Don't play too fast." How can you not like a tunebook with lines like that?
Raised in Barna and now living in Annaghdown, Galway, Mairtin O'Connor was the original button accordionist in "Riverdance" but first gained notice with the folk-rock band Midnight Well in the mid-1970s. The album that put him on the world map of Irish accordionists, however, was his 1979 solo debut, "The Connachtman's Rambles." Since then he has made four other solo albums, "Perpetual Motion" (1990), "Chatterbox" (1993), "The Road West" (2001), and "Rain of Light" (2003), and he has recorded or toured with De Dannan, Dolores Keane's Reel Union, the Boys of the Lough, and Skylark. O'Connor has also formed trios with Desi Wilkinson and Brendan O'Regan, and with Cathal Hayden and Seamie O'Dowd, as well as a quartet with Desi Wilkinson, Frank Hall, and Lena Ullman.
But often overlooked are O'Connor's compositions, invariably well structured and melodically appealing. "Inside the Box / Outside the Box" should help to rectify the oversight. The book comprises 60 of his tunes, along with photos, sketches, stories, and anecdotes frequently etched in humor.
In the note for his three slip jigs collectively called "Out to Sea," O'Connor described a Canadian hall where he performed with Reel Union in 1981 as "so crammed with people that you had no room even to turn a sweet in your mouth." In an anecdote untied to a tune, he recalled De Dannan's collaboration with klezmer musician Andy Statman in the U.S. and the late publicist Charlie Comer's suggestion that "the project be billed as the Leprecohens."
Another, more serious anecdote explains the inspiration for the strange title of Skylark's 1996 album, "Raining Bicycles." After Skylark performed at a subterranean venue in Leipzig, Germany, they were warned not to travel through a courtyard where some neo-Nazi skinheads were hurling down bicycles from above.
In his note for "Shop Street," a hornpipe dedicated to Joe Derrane, O'Connor acknowledges the "great excitement" generated by the Boston button accordionist's visit to the Galway Arts Festival in July 1995, and describes his playing as "impeccable" and Derrane himself as "such a gentleman of music." This graciousness from one esteemed box player to another provides a clear glimpse into the character of O'Connor, perhaps the closest in musical temperament and adventurousness to Derrane.
"Inside the Box / Outside the Box" by Mairtin O'Connor and "Joe Burke Traditional Irish Music Collection" are superb tunebooks that seem destined for heavy dog-earing by Irish traditional musicians everywhere. O'Connor's book is available in the U.S. at www.elderly.com, and Burke's book is available stateside from Ossian USA, 603-783-4383, www.ossianusa.com, email@example.com.