THE harmonica, more popularly known as the mouth organ, got left behind
in the Irish music revival of the late 1950s. In the session it lacked
volume and created something of a rattling effect. However, it gained a
new profile in 1994 when the mastery of Brendan Power gave the
instrument a new prominence with the release of his New Irish
In Irish music the diatonic harmonica is usually called the mouth organ
and the chromatic is referred to as the harmonica. The diatonic is
suitable for jigs and reels, although among the newer players, Mick
Kinsella prefers to play reels on the chromatic. The tremolo
is now widely used as well, having been popularised by the Murphy
family of Wexford.
While not widely used in the Irish music session, the instrument has
been growing in prominence since the mid-1990s.
Eddie Clarke, originally from Virginia, Co Cavan, plays the
harmonica in a highly ornamented style. In 1981 he released an album Crossroads
with Clare fiddle player Joe Ryan. And Noel
Battle from Mullingar is a seven-times All-Ireland champion
on the harmonica.
But, not for the first time, an instrument's advance in Irish music
happened abroad - this time in New Zealand.
Brendan Power hails from Nelson and moved to London in 1992. His
stylistic innovations and impressive ability on the harmonica attracted
renewed interest in the instrument with the launch of New
The Murphys of Co Wexford - John and
Pip and their late father Phil,
are strong exponents of the harmonica in Irish traditional music.
Meanwhile Mick Kinsella has been playing harmonica since about 1985. He
rose to prominence in 2000 with the launch of his eclectic CD On
the Fiddle. With a background on drums with showbands, he was
influenced by Dublin blues player Don Baker and
then Rick Epping and Eddie Clarke.
Like Brendan Power he is also a very good player of other musical
styles. He played with Brendan Power and Rick Epping on the "Triple
Harp Bypass" tour. He has also taught at the harmonica school run by
Waltons in Dublin.
Although born in New Waterford, Cape Breton, Tommy
Basker (1923-99) played Irish harmonica, as did his father.
He played in Boston with accordionist Joe Derrane. He used the throat
more than the tongue to create embellishments.
Folk singer Andy Irvine
has always used the harmonica for accompaniment, worn about his neck
Dylan-style. His harmonica can be heard to great effect on Christy
Moore's early Prosperous album, but also
with Sweeney's Men
and on his later solo releases.
Other players of note are Austin Berry, Rory O
Leoracháin, Joel Bernstein and Tom
For a technical understanding of the mouth organ and harmonica in Irish
traditional music, read harmonica player Rick Epping's excellent
- website of the National Harmonica League
and American Fiddle Tunes for Harmonica, by Glen Weiser.
Front Hall. Good source in New York for books and
for the Preservation and Advancement of the Harmonica
Mouth Organ. Book and CD or tape from the reliable "Sully" of
Kinsella interview: Lots more technical stuff about playing
Irish music on the harmonica.
Harmonica Discography. Broad selection of harmonica music CDs.
Adler The Free Reed interview
Davidson. Traditional Scottish mouth organ player.
New Irish Harmonium, Brendan Power. Green
Blow In, Brendan Power, Hummingbird, 1996
Crossroads, Eddie Clarke and Joe Ryan, Green
The Trip to Cullenstown, Phil, Pip and John
Up Close, Kevin Burke with the Murphy Family,
Pigtown Fling, Randal Bays and Joel Bernstein,
Foxglove Records, 1996.
On the Fiddle, Mick Kinsella, 2000
The Tin Sandwich, Tommy Basker, 1994