The Mandolin in Irish Music in the beginning: Andy Irvine and Sweeney’s Men 

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.”

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 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.


​“All the Rage: Mandolin Orchestra Music from 1897-1924,” The Nashville Mandolin Ensemble

What music did mandolin ensembles of more than a century ago perform? Whatever was popular at the time; waltzes, fox trots, mazurkas, marches, rag, classical, folk. 
The Nashville Mandolin Ensemble took a time trip to the golden era of mandolin orchestras with a sampling of music unfamiliar to most modern listeners by composers all but forgotten to this day. The title song of this album was composed by Charles Brunover (1877-1948), a Wisconsin-born mandolinist, guitarist, teacher, and composer.(1)  It is a march with the possible connotation of it being a football fight song. 

A waltz bearing the name of the ensemble that started the stringed instrument craze, “Estudiantina,” was credited to Emile Waldteufel (1835-1912), a French-born classical composer of Jewish Alsacian heritage. (2)  It was actually composed by Paul Lacome, but arranged by Waldteufel for orchestra. 

The only female composer represented on this album is Kate Dolby, whose birth date is unknown but died in 1944.  She had only one song to her credit, a galop called “The Flying Wedge,” which was originally composed for banjo in 1917.(3)

H.F. Odell*, who was profiled here previously, composed the track “Laughing Eyes,” and arranged two other tracks for mandolin ensemble; “My Heart at Thy Sweet Voice,” composed by Camille Saint-Seans (1835-1921) and “Gallantry,” by Albert W. Ketelbey (1875-1959), an English-born composer of light orchestral music who also worked in vaudeville. (4)

These are just six of the notable tracks off this album, released in 1998. Paul Martin Zonn was the conductor for this recording. The Nashville Mandolin Ensemble released six albums between between 1995 and 2006, then disbanded in 2009 when its most notable player, Butch Baldassari, succumbed to brain cancer.
*In correction to the previous article, H.F. Odell was Herbert Forrest Odell, not Henry Forrest Odell.  The article also misidentified Odell as the composer of the Saint-Seans and Ketelbey compositions when he arranged them for mandolin orchestra. 


(2) Griffiths, Paul. The Penguin Companion to Classical Music. Penguin UK, 2004


(4) McKanna, Tom. “Ketelby, Albert William. “ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online edition).

A Sampling of Christmas Mandolin Music 

​In the search for recordings of instrumental Christmas music with mandolin, one has to discern what is unique about the plethora of renditions of the most familiar, over-played traditional carols. Also, depending on one’s preference, what makes one rendition better than the other. 

Two recordings of mandolin and guitar duos feature most of the same repertoire but have distinctive styles. One, “Italian Christmas” by the Natale Italian Mandolin Duo, released in 2014, is an album of 18 songs, only four the tracks Italian, the rest the usual Christmas fare (Deck the Halls, Good King Wenceslaus, et al.)  Nevertheless, it is good, crisp and simply arranged, in the Neapolitan mandolin playing style. Another, “A Mandolin Christmas” by Karen Mal (mandolin) and Will Taylor (guitar), encompasses contemporary folk and acoustic with some very light jazz guitar. For solo mandolin, and no other instrumentation, “A Mandolin for Christmas” by Evan J. Marshall, all the traditional Christmas repertoire played in the Neapolitan mandolin style.

A country acoustic offering is “Evergreen; Mandolin Music for Christmas” by Butch Baldassari. The traditional Christmas repertoire, once again, but with acoustic guitar, dobro, and fiddle. Baldassari has previously performed and recorded with the Nashville Mandolin Ensemble, who released their own Christmas album, “Gifts,” in 1996.

An Italian Renaissance offering is “Mandolins for Christmas” by Ugo Orlandi, Alessandro Bono, and Quintetto A Plettro, et al. The album features compositions of minor Italian composers from the 17th to 20th century, as well as non-seasonal music.  The album also features “Planxty O’Carolan; Irish Suite for Flute, Percussion and Mandolin Orchestra.” The suite is in seven movements, and in spite of the title, not all of it is by O’Carolan (the movements include adaptations of Irish Washerwoman Jig and Down by the Sally Gardens).  The final track is a cleverly arranged medley of the familiar holiday favorites, including “Silent Night” and “White Christmas.” (1)

These and other albums can be found on Spotify (if you type in Christmas mandolin in the search engine) and YouTube. 

Merry Christmas, and happy listening. 
(1) David Vernier,