THE credit of recording the first Irish music on banjo goes to James Wheeler. With Edward Herborn accompanying him on the box, they made their first recordings in 1916 and 1917.
Mike Flanagan of the famous Flanagan Brothers played banjo. Born in Waterford in 1898, he started out playing the mandolin. His lively technique can be heard playing The Boys at the Lough, The Shaskeen and The Honeymoon on one 1926 set accompanied only by brother Louis’s guitar. (His banjo now belongs to fiddler Frankie Gavin).
Other banjo players to record in the 1920s were Michael Gaffney from New York and the late Neil Nolan from Maine, who played with Dan Sullivan’s Shamrock Band in Boston.
The banjo’s percussive qualities made it an ideal dance hall instrument for ceili bands in Ireland in the 1950s and ’60s. It featured in top bands like the Aughrim Slopes, the Liverpool Ceili Band and the Kilfenora of the 1990s.
Margaret Barry (1917-90) was the first prominent Irish ballad singer to accompany herself on the five-string banjo which she taught herself. She was followed onto the stage by another Traveller balladeer Pecker Dunne, born c1933.
Two brothers from another Traveller family, Christy and Mickey Dunne, playing banjo and fiddle, and were a regular feature in Irish towns from Cork to Galway in the 1960s and 70s.
During the ballad boom of the early 1960s, Barney McKenna of the Dubliners popularised the banjo as a traditional music instrument.
His solo renditions of slow airs and his duets on jigs and reels with fiddler John Sheehan were as important a part of the Dubliners’ repertoire as the singing of Luke Kelly and Ronnie Drew. Over the years McKenna would play his tenor banjo – on equal terms – with two of the country’s most prominent musicians, Joe Burke, accordion, and Sean Maguire, fiddle. He tuned his banjo GDAE – an octave below the fiddle or mandolin. That tuning is used today by nearly all Irish banjo players.
In the second half of the 1960s Mick Moloney was playing the banjo with The Johnstons who had a No 1 hit in Ireland with The Travelling People. In the 1970s he recorded We Have Met Together, a solo album of banjo and mandolin music. Although he is unlikely to boast about it now, for its time it was an accomplished recording which got much radio airplay in Ireland.
While the banjo featured in the ballad groups, especially those modelled on The Dubliners, it failed to make it into super groups such as Planxty or The Bothy Band. However with the arrival of De Danann and Stockton’s Wing the banjo acquired a new status in the hands of Charlie Piggott and Kieran Hanrahan respectively.(Piggott had to abandon the banjo in favour of the accordion after damaging his thumb in an accident).
In Britain Tony Sullivan (“Sully”) is a popular player who won an All Ireland title. He plays with a thimble.
It was as a banjo player that Seamus Egan of Solas made his name on the Irish-American music circuit. The first Irish banjo he heard was on a recording by Mick Moloney. After returning with his family to Philadelphia from Mayo, he took lessons from the same Mick Moloney. His best banjo work can be heard on recordings he made while playing the Green Fields of America and with Eileen Ivers.
With a strong family background in fiddle playing Gerry ‘Banjo’ O’Connor first came across banjo music in his native Co Tipperary and started out on old John Grey banjo his father bought for him. A creative player he came to prominence with the group Four Men and a Dog in the 1990s. Influenced by Bella Fleck, he has since carved a niche as a solo player. He tunes his instrument CGDA whereas most Irish banjo players tune down to GDAE.
The fiddle player with four Men etc, Cathal Hayden is also a very good banjo player. Other prominent Irish banjo players include John Carty, Tom Cussen, Enda Scahill, Martin Murray, Brian McGrath. Mary Shannon (Sharon’s sister) can be heard on The Woodchoppers’ CD. Among the best exponents of Irish music on the banjo in America is Chris Grotewohl who also plays a tenor.
As well as Margaret Barry, singers Luke Kelly and Tommy Maken accompanied themselves on stylish five-string banjos.
In late 2008, popular Galway banjo player Enda Scahill published his Irish Banjo Tutor.
Time to Time, Gerry O’Connor,
Kieran Hanrahan Plays the Irish Tenor Banjo, Kieran Hanrahan
The Cat that Ate the Candle, John Carty and Brian McGrath. CIC
Strings Attached, Mick Moloney, Green Linnet