Musical Instruments

The Autoharp in Irish Traditional Music— Part 1

My interests in the autoharp and Irish traditional music (ITM) should be apparent from the topics of the most recent dozen or so posts on this blog. I’ve approached them separately as a musicologist specializing in the history of musical instruments. This post marks a shift toward their intersection in performance from the perspective of a musician who started on the autoharp seventy years ago and found his way more deeply into Celtic music a decade later via the Highland bagpipes. I’ve since become comfortably conversant with the Irish idiom on the tin whistle and would like to be able to say the same with regard to the autoharp.

Irish dance tunes and airs figure prominently in its repertoire. However, the instrument does not conversely have an established position among those that are normally associated with ITM in its home country. Some instruments that are now fixtures in that context became so more recently than might be imagined. Tenor banjos and guitars are now regularly encountered in such things as trad sessions at Irish pubs but both had been more or less in the periphery until the 1960s, when alternate ways of tuning them became popular.

Barney McKenna is credited with having lowered the tenor banjo a fourth to place it an octave under the fiddle and mandolin, and the DADGAD guitar tuning came into widespread use. Perhaps the best known foreign arrival during that decade is the Greek bouzouki, which was also retuned in the process. Andy Irvine discusses its naturalization in this video. He names Johnny Moynihan as the primary agent, who summarizes his own perception of the upshot here.

I find it intriguing to speculate about what might result in the autoharp traversing the same path. Tracking what can be seen as tentative steps in that direction, the instrument was filmed at a fleadh (traditional music festival) at what again appears to have been some time in the 1960s, in a performance of The Mountains Of Pomeroy. A brief clip is included in a documentary produced by the Irish-language television channel TG4, seen here.

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