The history of the harmonica in Ireland

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Extract from a paper by Cathal Johnson (For a copy of full version get in contact with Cathal)

The arrival of the harmonica and melodeon to Ireland in the 19th century changed the nature of Irish music away from indigenous roots, that trace back to the ancient wire strung harp or the reed sounded uilleann pipe. The harmonica is therefore a relative newcomer to Irish music and as with the accordion, it has only recent beginnings compared to these ancient Irish instruments and so is breaking into uncharted territory. The harmonica remains an extremely popular instrument in Ireland especially amongst singer songwriters, folk, country, jazz and blues genres. In an ITDM context, it appeared to have gone to ground due to declining popularity and stigmatization, however a recent revival lead by key players in Ireland, may increase its role in ITDM in the future, as attested in chapter 4.


In Scotland, some early commercial recordings exist that date back to 1910 on an album called Sook and Blaw. The immigration and emigration between Scotland and Ireland has always been high. Therefore, this album can also be considered in an ITDM context.

The album called Folk Music in America features harmonica and Jaws harp, or trump as they call it in Ireland, was recorded in 1928 for Columbia. The Flanagan Brothers, Irish flute players in America, recorded with a harmonica player in the 1920s. A tune called “Around the Old Turf Fire,” in volume 4 of Folk Music in America in Library of Congress’s remains extant. These records travelled to Ireland and had a major impact and influence on styles and trends.


The first solo harmonica player to record Irish music was Larry Kinsella in 1937/8, on The Irish Phonograph for EMI2. On this album, he recorded two hornpipes named Showman’s Fancy and Pretty Maggie Morissey.

Pat Missin, an American harmonica player and historian says:

Harmonicas seem to have been very popular with Irish musicians, but more as a stepping stone to the accordion, rather than as a career instrument. I’ve read a lot of recollections from players talking about how they started with the mouth organ, but recordings of Irish musicians playing harmonica are relatively rare. Obviously the accordion was better suited to playing at dances because of its sheer volume…

It is said amongst traditional players in Connemara and other quarters too, that “every second house had a melodeon and/or harmonica in it.” Children frequently received harmonicas for Christmas and later they might receive melodeon as they progressed as both instruments were relatively cheap and relate to each other and are considered stepping stones in learning the of each instrument. Harmonica popularity reached across many households, where a harmonica or ‘trump’ of some sort was a common feature. The trump, a reed instrument, was played on the Aran Islands of Connemara and County Clare, where in certain areas, it was a customary childhood gift at Christmas. These instruments have an important role in Irish traditional music used they are in playing dance music.

Pat Missin continues:

A harmonica with the name ‘Emerald Isle’ appears on a Hohner poster, although I’ve never seen a physical example of that model. For several years, Hohner had a factory in Ireland that they used for the manufacture of some of their cheaper lines. It was based at Loughrea and was closed in the early 1980s.

This Hohner harmonica factory in Ireland at Loughrea produced harmonicas during the 2nd World War and into the 1960s. A man named Martin Kearney was brought to Germany for a six-month training course, who later managed the harmonica factory until it closed in 1980. The factory in Loughrea produced all sorts of harmonicas for worldwide export.

In considering the theory that the harmonica in Ireland played a considerable role in preserving the music of Ireland, all one has to do is take a look at the German Hohner company’s export figures to Great Britain from 1916 to 1929. Ireland was part of the commercial infrastructure of the United Kingdom until 1922. There are no export figures specific to the island of Ireland for 1916 to 1929. Moreover, during this period, five million harmonicas were sold in England and Ireland per year. Hohner had a whole line of designed harmonicas that were specifically for the Irish market called the “Emerald Isle,” as mentioned above, conveying the value and extent of the Irish market in the early part of the century. In 1930, Hohner sold 25 million harmonicas annually, worldwide.


Many schools throughout Ireland in the 1950s had harmonica and accordion bands as the pictures above and below show. These school bands remained extremely popular until the 1970s. Harmonicas were inexpensive and easy to play and while march down the street in melodic harmony. In this way, the harmonica was widely available for ITDM.

Marching bands using harmonicas were popular from the 1920s and into the late 1970s. The two photographs shown above and on the next page show children holding harmonicas in school bands, illustrating the popularity of the harmonica in Ireland by the 1950s and 1960s respectively. These two classes of school children probably all had harmonicas at home, as their families could afford to buy them.

One of the best-known players during the time between the 1960s and 1970s was Eddie Clarke.

Pat Missin says:

For my money, Eddie Clarke is the man when it comes to Irish music and the harmonica. Sadly, he died recently, but there has been a great CD set of previously unreleased recordings of his just comes out…Eddie Clarke has a wide repertoire recorded on tape. As many as 50 tunes and 14 songs were selected and digitally re-mastered for release this year, with the main launch taking place on the home town in Virginia, County Cavan8. His seminal recordings made with Joe Ryan also gave a raw roots sound and authentic feel to his music. It is probably fair to say that Eddie Clarke was the finest harmonica player in Irish traditional music. He is respected for his mastery of the chromatic instrument, his endurance, repertoire, style and the genuine roots sound he achieves on it.

To conclude, the harmonica had an influential impact on Irish music in the early part of 19th century. Hohner Harmonicas had a factory producing cheap harmonicas at Loughrea in Galway from the 1940s, exporting all over the world, until it closed down in 1980. School marching bands using accordions and harmonicas were popular in the early, mid and late 19th century. Until recently, many children learned the harmonica as a stepping-stone onto melodeon and then accordion. Eddie Clarke emerged as a leading player during the 1960s. Today however, the harmonica hardly features in Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann competitions and there is a concern that it might be taken off altogether due to lack of interest. This leaves the instrument in a precarious state of under-development in ITDM, this also means there are endless opportunities for any advanced harmonica player to explore this uncharted territory with the advancements of technology and a modern harmonica.



Three types of Irish harmonica playing currently exist. One is called the diatonic “blues harp” because of its clean sounding single note playing mixed with a bluesy vamping technique. The second type is a diatonic tremolo double reed harmonica, which is played using a tongue blocking vamping technique. Finally, the third type of playing is the chromatic harmonica with its slide button on the side, that shifts the pitch up a half a tone, allowing for chromatic scale passage, rolls or triplets, Eddie Clarke used this method. These three styles emerged from the past and became popular in Ireland but fell by the way side in popularity until a recent revival begun by advanced players in the field.

It is fair to say that there are no regional styles of playing harmonica in Ireland; it is very much left to individual performances. A quick search in the Irish Traditional Music Archive in Dublin reveals Andy Irvine to be the most recorded harmonica player in Ireland. Two Summer Schools teaching harmonica take place in Ireland annually. In 1995, a festival in honour of harmonica player Phil Murphy called The Phil Murphy Summer School in Wexford was established and run by his sons John and Pip Murphy who also play harmonica. Harmonica workshops also take place at the festival for Uilleann piper Willy Clancy called Willy Clancy Summer School in Miltown Malbay in County Clare, run by harmonica players Mick Kinsella and Rick Epping.

It is also the case that today in Ireland, the harmonica is in the hands of virtuosic and innovative players. Rick Epping was born in Santa Monica, California in 1949 and was a prominent player and teacher of the harmonica during the folk and blues revivals of the 1960s and 1970s. His band Pumpkinhead was popular in the 1970s in Ireland and England. In 1970, he moved to Ireland in order to immerse himself in traditional Irish music, and won a competition in Comhaltas for diatonic harmonica in 1975. In 2005, Rick Epping relocated from Ashland, Virginia to County Sligo where he founded a workshop for accordions and harmonicas. He teaches every summer in Miltown Malbay at the Willy Clancy Summer School in County Clare, Ireland with another prominent player called Mick Kinsella. For ten years, Rick Epping worked for Hohner as product manager and released under Hohner his own patented a model harmonica called XB40 Extreme Bending.

Mick Kinsella is from Dublin, Ireland and has Wexford roots. He is equally adept at Irish traditional music as he is in traditional Blues style. He has mastered and integrates overblow into his style as described in the next section and in Chapter 1, Section 2. He uses an Eddie Clarke approach in his stylistic playing, using a B/C harmonica similar to B/C accordions. He has recorded his own album with the Slightly Bewildered String Band and has recorded with the band Altan as well as many other artists.

Many old-style musicians played a different harmonica such as the Tombo model, which was a tremolo diatonic chord harmonica. Techniques such as jaw flicks, which was pioneered by Phil Murphy or Noel Battle’s unique style are popular in Ireland too. Another important style is Eddie Clarke’s chromatic method, which will always remain an important feature in the role of harmonica in Irish ITDM.

Noel Battle is a tremolo melody player with an accompanying vamping rhythm. He has won the Fleadh Ceoil 12 times. American player Mark Graham is a great exponent of clean diatonic harp style on Kevin Burke’s album Open House10. Moreover, Noel Battle from Ireland represents an old style of playing on his tremolo harmonicas in his album, Music from the Reeds.

Two favourite tunes of harmonica players are Crowley’s Reel and The Maids of Mitchelstown, which are on albums of Eddie Clarke’s Unheard and Mark Graham’s Open House with Kevin Bourke. These two tunes are included Brendan Power’s two tutorial books. A good harmonica player will attempt the most difficult of tunes in the ITDM repertoire. There will always be a certain adaptation to suit individual style and nature of the instrument itself, but it is possible to play Irish traditional music with ease. Brendan Power says:

At present, it has a very minor role, because not many players have mastered it. Its role will grow as players get very good.

Andy Irvine founded the band Sweeny’s Men with Johnny Moynihan. Later Andy Irvine would help form other definitive bands in Irish traditional music such as Planxty and Patrick Street. He was also a singer for De Dannan for a short period. He uses diatonic harmonicas in a rack while singing and playing mandolin or bouzouki. He has the highest number of recordings of harmonica in Ireland. He also plays a few polkas in the album by Patrick Street for Green Linnet. Together with Paul Brady, he has recorded a few jigs and hornpipes also for Green Linnet.

There are chromatic harmonica players in traditional music in Ireland and elsewhere with no competitive outlet within organizations such as Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann. Indeed, harmonicas do not get attention in some quarters “due to ignorance.”

In an Irish music context the role of the harmonica plays a minor part, however there are many reasons for this. Firstly, there is a shortage of teachers to teach it properly. There is also a lack of players, who realize a harmonica’s full potential as an instrument.

In addition, Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann (CCÉ) recognize diatonic harmonica in Fleadh Cheoil Na hÉireann championships but not chromatic. This lack of inclusion of the chromatic is strange in that traditional players have always used the chromatic. The diatonic and chromatic harmonicas equate to the push, pull system and are direct “cousins” to the melodeon and accordion respectively. A single row melodeon equates to a 10 hole diatonic harmonica, just as a double row accordion does to a chromatic harmonica. Indeed the word harmonica in German means “hand held melodeon.”

Because CCÉ does not recognize the role of the chromatic harmonica it thus discourages teaching and learning the harmonica and respect for its playing. Young people influenced by this are thereby discouraged to play traditional Irish music on the chromatic and so there are few young players.

So why does CCÉ not recognize the chromatic harmonica for playing of ITDM? This is a source of bewilderment for players like John and Phil Murphy, and Brendan Power: “Yes and ‘I don’t know’ Ask them!” Is Brendan Power’s response to this question.

The lack of presents in popular music competitions inevitably affects the harmonica’s role. There are all kinds people interested to learn how to play Irish music on the chromatic and diatonic harmonicas. Due to the passion and commitment from Rick Epping and Mick Kinsella’s teaching in Miltown Malbay and the Murphy’s teaching workshops in Wexford, this passion is starting to be rekindled. It is very important to promote all harmonica playing and examine ways that players of all ages can be encouraged.

Brendan power states some views on its role in ITDM now and the future:

I can’t see it becoming a mainstream instrument like the fiddle, flute or box. It’s harder to play Irish style on the harmonica than they (can), and there aren’t many good teachers. It isn’t a loud instrument for sessions, so that’s a drawback too. However, it adds a nice colour when you do hear it played well, so it will remain in that category for the foreseeable future I think.

Standard Richter configuration tuned in the harmonica does not suit ITDM ideally. There are few people around to teach it properly either. Acoustically, it cannot compete with other louder instruments in sessions. Nevertheless, when played well, the harmonica has a timbre that adds colour as you might hear in Brendan Power’s arrangements on his album, New Irish Harmonica.

Therefore, the harmonica has a minor role due to lack of teachers, lack of players who have mastered the harmonica, CCÉ catering only for diatonic and not chromatic players and because of acoustic quality of other instruments used in ITDM. These are challenges for the future of this instrument. Unless there are sufficient enough good players to take an interest in chromatic playing and lobby for its inclusion, harmonica playing will decline.


Styles of harmonica playing are the personal preference of individual musicians. Advanced players custom tunes their harmonicas to suit their requirements. It is similar to the piping tradition in that it ultimately comes down to the player knowing the instrument and having knowledge of making reeds. One might say South Wexford has a regional style emanating from Phil Murphy Summer School and John and Pip Murphy.

Distinctive styles are being developed by advanced players who have mastered playing the harmonica’s full range of notes and its expressive quality and who custom tune their harmonicas for specific requirements. The picture below shows where to file reeds in order to tune them up or down. More details on the techniques mentioned below are covered in the next chapter too.

One world leading diatonic harmonica player, Howard Levy, integrated into his playing style six notes or hidden notes within the reed configuration accessed by using a technique known as ‘overblow’. In a way that no one had previously tried, he utilised these extra notes to create his style. The overblow technique takes a long time to master and execute control but once learned properly it can be very effective in Irish music, particularly in descriptive pieces or programmatic music such as the Fox Chase.

The availability of technology, for loop pedals with reverb and distortion open up many more possibilities into innovative playing and creative effect. The ‘purist’ might not agree with such technology, however, these effects can be used effectively, tastefully and in keeping with the traditional sound. Expanding technological use in Irish traditional music is becoming more prevalent and these factors lead to innovation in playing.

First position major, also known as straight harp, is used in country music or cowboy music and is most common for beginners. In this position, one can also bend the high registered notes in the technique, known as blow bending, to a great effect. A difficult technique to master, intermediate players should be able to achieve the blow bend and draw bends comfortably. Piedmont blues harp player Phil Wiggins, for example only bends the lower notes on the draw as explained in the use of second position. This first position is the most popular in Irish music.

Second position dominant gives the mixolydian mode as the natural scale, also known as “cross-harp”; as such, it is useful for Irish tunes. Banish Misfortune and Tatter Jack Walsh are two such tunes in this mode, which can create a bluesy effect. This technique is best known through Afro-American traditional blues music and the Chicago Blues genres. This method allows the bending of notes while drawing on the low registered notes to achieve a bluesy effect, by hitting the seventh “blue” note in a Blues scale. Many players used this technique as it became increasingly popular as Blues and Jazz music developed. This is the most dominant playing position in modern popular music for harmonica playing.

In third position Dorian, one can play tunes in minor keys. In Irish music it is used in songs, laments and some modal tunes the suit, such as Cooley’s reel. The fourth position minor is the relative minor of the key.

The chart on the previous page is from Brendan Power’s website on common tunings available, note the pointer highlighting “Paddy Richter” tuning.

The Murphy family from Wexford uses a technique known as the ‘jaw flick’, a phrase coined by Brendan Power. The jaw flick is an easy and efficient way of playing cuts on the harmonica for ornamentation and decoration by flicking your jaw to the right and left for cuts and triplets.

Another technique employed is valves, which is used to achieve a certain type of bend called a single reed bend. They do however, prevent double reed bends. Moreover, you have a choice of which reed to cover for single reed bends and which ones to leave uncovered for double reed bends, as further discussed in the next chapter.

Current developments in harmonica techniques can be used in traditional Irish music. Bends and blow bends are techniques that are already in use by such players as Tom Byrne. Some new notes accessed through overblow, as integrated by Howard Levy have yet to be fully assimilated into the Irish tradition. However, Irish player Mick Kinsella does use overblow technique in his playing.

Circular breathing, a technique used by jazz virtuosos Toots Thiemanns and Howard Levy, can also be used to great effect. The tongue and throat push and draw air in and out through puckered lips over the reed in the chamber hole of the harmonica, thus leaving the lungs to breath freely. This is described as ‘piston tongue.’ Achieving this careful control of pressure to sound the reed can give you enough time to inhale as you push air out slowly with your throat and tongue.

As well as music theory, young students wishing to play harmonica need to be aware of the mechanics and ideally learn at a workstation how to repair, maintain, and to experiment with tuning and reed configuration. This is where art, skill and creativity come into play in defining style and individuality. Much the same as uilleann pipers, who ultimately must learn to make reed replacements for their pipes, as well as know the mechanics and nature of their instrument, so must harmonica players learn the same with regard to the reeds of the harmonica. This could be a way forward to produce more and better players.

From investigations, I deduce that there are technological transformations taking place within the harmonica’s inherent free reed nature and system that are of notable interest. For example, discoveries of reeds that are sympathetic to each other led to Rick Epping’s XB40 patented design. This makes it easier to play Irish music. Rick Epping’s XB40 “Extreme Bending” model design for Hohner is a wonderful invention that was not designed specifically for Irish music but rather the standard Richter tuning. The XB40 contribution has made an impact in other genres and style, but its ability has yet to come to full fruition in Irish music, perhaps it will in a generation or two. Rick Epping himself has made a great impact and contribution to Irish Traditional Music.

Mark Graham from Seattle, Washington in America, has bluegrass style and influence. Mick Kinsella based in County Clare, has style elements of jazz and is influenced by elements of Eddie Clarke’s style. Rick Epping, originally from Santa Monica, California in America, but now based in Sligo, Ireland, has a blues element infused in different ways into his individual style and all based on personal tunings and personal custom requirements.

Eddie Clarke, from Cavan, in the 1960s adopted a very authentic roots style of playing on the chromatic harmonica. The chromatic’s slide button on the side pressed in causes a D major keyed harmonica to shift into playing in E flat. On the other hand, A flat on a G keyed harmonica, depending on the key of the harmonica. Reversing the slide button altogether is another technique mechanically employed by taking out the slide and putting it back in upside down or reversed. This allowed Eddie Clarke to accurately play fiddle rolls note for note with a flick of the wrist pressing or releasing the button depending on the technique employed. He plays with the button pressed in, releasing for rolls and triplets, physically reverses the slide to give a similar effect but by flicking and pressing the button causing snappy triplets or rolls. Eddie Clarke’s technique and chomp rhythm accompaniment is evident in his album with fiddler Joe Ryan and his recent album launched by his brother Andrew Clarke. Harmonica players Mick Kinsella and Sean Walsh from Wexford have elements of Eddie Clarke’s style on the chromatic harmonica.


In this chapter, I discussed history of the harmonica in Ireland and its role in ITDM. From my investigations, I can deduce that to prosper, the harmonica needs more players, teachers, material resources and CCÉ to accept chromatic harmonicas for competition.

Nevertheless, new players and new technology have left the pathway open for discovery. Up and coming harmonica players have a better understanding through new expertise and innovations.

If you would like a full copy of “The History of the Harmonica in Ireland” get in touch with Cathal at or through his website address.