Gifted harmonica player always striving for perfection

 

Eddie Clarke: Despite its ready availability and reasonable cost, the harmonica is not an instrument normally associated with Irish traditional music. This is not because of objections by purists, but the considerable skill required to play jigs and reels at the right tempo discouraged many people from taking it up.

One traditional musician who persevered and developed a unique style on the chromatic harmonica was Eddie Clarke, who has died at the age of 59.

Best known for his musical partnership with the Co Clare fiddle player, Joe Ryan, he influenced many of today's leading harmonica players, including Joel Bernstein, Ric Epping, Philippe Gehanne and Mick Kinsella.

His early mentors were Seán Walsh from Donard, Co Wicklow, who he credited with teaching him the reversed slide technique, and Paddy Bán Ó Broin. That he was a gifted musician quickly became apparent, but he was never content to rest on his laurels - perfection was his goal.

He was born in March 1945 in Virginia, Co Cavan, one of the five children of Andrew Clarke and his wife, Molly (née McGovern). He was educated locally and at Ballyfin College, Co Laois.

Following in his father's footsteps, he qualified as a teacher at St Patrick's College, Drumcondra.

He was introduced to the harmonica during a Hohner promotion at school. One of his earliest public performances was with the school "mouth organ band" when it led the parade at the first Cavan fleadh cheoil in 1954.

His interest in Irish music was fostered in the family home - his father was a fiddle player and accordionist who played with a local céilí band - and as a boy he regularly listened to the landmark music programmes, Ceolta Tíre and Job of Journeywork, presented by Ciarán Mac Mathúna on Raidió Éireann. And while he stopped playing harmonica in his teens, he continued his interest in music through Irish dancing classes that equipped him with a strong sense of rhythm.

It was a fellow student teacher, himself a player, who suggested that he should return to the harmonica. And he needed no further persuasion having heard Joe Ryan playing alongside John Kelly, who was a member of Seán Ó Riada's Ceoltóirí Chualann.

Rarely missing the weekend sessions at O'Donoghue's pub, Merrion Row, he was an avid listener and over time built up a repertoire consisting mostly of Clare music learnt from Joe Ryan.

In due course he joined in the music, his particular delight being to play in duet with Joe. Their masterful playing and mutual understanding helped them to win the Oireachtas duet competition in 1972.

During the summer of 1976 he was one of a group of young Irish musicians who participated in the special Bicentennial Festival of American Folklife, sponsored by the Smithsonian Institute. Also on the tour were fiddler Maeve Donnelly and singers Maighréad Ní Dhomhnaill and Seán Corcoran.

While in the United States the group recorded the album Sailing into Walpole's Marsh. Eddie Clarke can be heard in top form in a duet with Maeve Donnelly (The Girl that Broke My Heart/Sailing into Walpole's Marsh) where his dynamic playing is almost accordion-like in its strength.

With Joe Ryan in 1981 he recorded the outstanding Crossroads album. Such is the standard of playing that it is sometimes hard to distinguish strings from reeds, whether on the jigs The Two-and-Sixpenny Girl/The Boys of the Town or the ever popular reel Rakish Paddy. The combination, in one critic's opinion, was "the best fiddle and harmonica pairing ever recorded".

He took time off from teaching in the 1970s to help with the Wood Quay archaeology dig, and later spent some time in Nigeria. Most of his teaching career was spent at Ballygall national school, Finglas.

Due to ill health Eddie Clarke had not played harmonica in recent years, although he continued to attend the Góilín singers' club. Highly regarded and well liked in traditional music circles, he and his music will long be remembered.

His brothers, Ultan, Father Fergus OFM, and Andrew, and sister, Rosemary, survive him.

Eddie Clarke: born March 31st, 1945; died July 6th, 2004