Music Research >> The role of the mandolin in Irish traditional music

The role of the mandolin in Irish traditional music

Some of the mandolin players in Irish traditional music since the 1960s and 1970s are regarded amongst the most successful and creative musicians in Irish traditional music but the role and place of the mandolin within the tradition has not yet been explored.  In this dissertation, the introduction of the mandolin to Irish traditional music and the various styles and approaches used by various performers are critically assessed through an examination of historical sources, engagement with available recordings and interviews with mandolin players in Irish traditional music.

In addition to a focus on Irish traditional music, the development of the mandolin in a wider European context and, in particular, its role in other musical traditions is considered to inform an understanding of Irish traditional music within a wider cultural world.  The influence of other musical traditions on the development of mandolin playing styles in Irish traditional music is examined, particularly those of the Balkan region.  Such an understanding will be linked to other aspects of Irish traditional music, including the commercialisation of the genre exemplified by the popularity of the band Planxty and the show Riverdance, both of which draw on both Irish and Balkan rhythms and musical ideas.


 I will specifically focus on the playing of Andy Irvine who is one of the most successful mandolin players within Irish traditional music over the past 50 years. I will focus in the role of the mandolin to accompany Irish traditional songs and also his development of a style suited to the dance music tradition.


While the mandolin, as an instrument, is largely unexplored, it is closely connected to the banjo in the context of Irish traditional music.  The banjo has become a very significant instrument in Irish traditional music in recent years, particularly through the playing of Barney McKenna, Kieran Hanrahan and Gerry O’Connor. Each of these musicians also play the mandolin. I will explore the reasons for the imagination of the mandolin as a ‘second instrument’ and how these musicians have influenced the playing of the mandolin in the wider Irish traditional music world.



The study of Irish traditional music is a core element of Irish ethnomusicological study and informs a wide range of disciplines seeking to analyse and comprehend Irish society, culture and identity.  The study of various contexts for Irish traditional music provides insights into the Irish psyche and informs our knowledge of community, migration and commercial activity.

 In relation to the academic awareness of the mandolin in Irish traditional music, most of the literature I have studied to date focuses on instrumental pedagogy. There is a short mention in Fintan Vallely’s Companion to Irish Music (2011) but this only gives a brief overview that suggests the need for further study. There have been numerous studies compiled on almost all instruments that now feature prominently in Irish traditional music such as the flute, banjo, fiddle, harp and uilleann pipes. 


The research, particularly in the process of transcription and analysis, will be informed by Hanrahan’s recent MA dissertation on the banjo in Irish traditional music (2011) and Scahill’s two tutor books for the Irish tenor banjo (2008, 2011), as well as others that focus on the mandolin.  While mandolin players may use these as guides for learning, my research will highlight important differences in musical style and approach between the banjo and mandolin in Irish traditional music.