Fretted stringed instruments were slowly introduced to traditional Irish music throughout the 20th century, the banjo in the 1920’s and the guitar in the 1930’s. The mandolin, and about the same time the bouzouki, were introduced in the 1960’s, when traditional folk music of the British Isles became popular. Irish fiddle tunes were easily adaptable to the mandolin as both instruments were tuned and strung the same.
Andy Irvine was one of the first musicians to incorporate the mandolin in traditional Irish music. Born in 1942 in London, England to an Irish mother and Scottish father, Irvine was at first a child actor on stage, films and television (he had a scene in “Room at the Top” that was left on the cutting room floor). At 16, he began studying classical guitar (he had a guitar given to him by Peter Sellers, with whom he worked on stage), then became interested in skiffle music and the music of Woody Guthrie. Guthrie was still alive then, though barely, as he was in the hospital incapacitated by Hodgkin’s disease. Irvine’s devotion to Guthrie’s music led him to adopt the instruments Guthrie played, including guitar, harmonica, and mandolin.
In 1966, Irvine teamed with Johnny Moynihan (who played Greek bouzouki) and Joe Dolan to form Sweeney’s Men. The name was taken from the character of King Sweeney in Flann O’Brien’s comic novel “At Swim Two Birds.” Sweeney, an anti-religious pagan, is cursed for “throwing a pushy cleric’s bell into the water.” Sweeney’s Men initially toured with Irish showbands, and released a single with “Old Maid in the Garret” on the A side. Joe Dolan left the group in 1967 to go to Israel to take part in the Six Day War, “arriving there on the seventh day.” Dolan was replaced by Terry Woods, who played twelve-string guitar. Their first eponymous album was released in 1968. The album was all traditional music, including “Willy O’Winsbury,” “Reynard the Fox,” “The House Carpenter,” and “Tom Dooley,” the latter with all the explicit references the Kingston Trio left out in their version. Irvine left Sweeney’s Men after the first album to go travelling with his girlfriend to the Balkans. Sweeney’s Men, with just Moynihan and Woods, released a second album, this one featuring some original material by Woods along with traditional tunes. Sweeney’s Men shortly after that disbanded.
Irvine continued to perform both as a soloist and with bands such as Planxty, the Silly Sisters (June Tabor and Maddy Prior), Patrick Street, Mozaik, and as a duo with Paul Brady. In 2012 (as part of his 70th birthday concert tour) and 2015, Irvine reunited with Sweeney’s Men. Irvine is currently booked through June 2017 to play Ireland and parts of Europe.
O’Toole, Leagues (2006). “The Humours of Planxty.” Ireland: Hodder Headline
Dundalk Institute of Technology, “The role of the mandolin in Irish traditional music.” www.dkit.ie
The Springfield Mandolin Orchestra is always looking for new members. If you play mandolin, or any other instrument in the mandolin family, and can read music, you are welcome to join. Please visit the Web site http://mandolinorchestra.org for more information.
The Springfield Mandolin Orchestra is a 501(c) 3 non-profit dedicated to providing educational performances and events throughout the Metro Springfield area.