The Bodhrán: A Driving Force in Irish Music

by Sharon Hazard for The Wild Geese

When George Millar of the Irish Rovers talks about the music his group has been playing for more than 40 years, he can’t help mentioning the bodhrán, the traditional drum.   Millar, one of the original members of band, knows the value of the driving rhythm the bodhrán adds to the drama of a song.

For the group’s The Pride of Belfast album, Millar wrote a song to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic.  In this song, the bodhrán provides the insistent force that mimics the sound of the ship driving through the frigid waters of the Atlantic Ocean.  The piece seems to gain speed with every beat, just as the ship did as it plowed headlong into the deadly iceberg.  In it, the music builds and the words come alive with every beat of the bodhrán:

Roll-up, Titanic roll.  Pride of the White Star Line.  Full speed ahead, boilers stoked.  And the sinking devastated the Belfast shipyard, Harland and Wolff, and its workers.  To this day they still say with a wry smile, "She was all right when she left.”

He went on to explain that the throbbing sound of the Irish drum takes on many moods.  For instance, if the song is instrumental, it can be hit a bit harder, but for a love song like Sweet Annie, it is tapped more softly, allowing the lyrics to take center stage.  He said, “Add a large lambeg drum, and together they produce an up-tempo sound.

The Ballymena-born musician writes most of the group’s new songs and takes some old traditional ones and modernizes them a “wee bit.”   Some of these classics date back 200-300 years, and did not always feature a bodhrán in their original form.

He credits the late Sean O’Riada, a former member of The Chieftains, with the resurgence of the bodhrán.  In the 1960s while playing with a band called Ceoltoiri Chualann, O’Raida began pulling together traditional Irish songs and orchestrated them to mesh with the pipes and hand-held bodhrán.

The bodhrán, Millar said, “is a pub favorite because of the understated type of music it is capable of producing and its small size that make it totally portable.”  He added, “Many cultures throughout history have had something similar to the bodhrán in the form of a tambourine-like instrument that could be shaken or drummed on.”

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Malachy Kearns of Roundstone Musical Instruments, located outside of Galway – a man who has been crafting bodhráns for nearly thirty years – once told Reuter’s, “There is a deep, haunting sound.  It is a sound that does not go through your head or heart, but straight to into your gut, where your life center is.”

The instrument that creates this mood is a goat-skinned, drum that is played with a two-headed beater called a “cipín,” which means “stick” in Irish.  The word bodhrán – pronounced  “bow-RAWN” (“bow” rhyming with cow) – has an uncertain meaning which may be lost in the mists of time.  Some have suggested the word once denoted “that which deafens,” which might explain the racing and rolling rhythm of Ireland’s oldest instrument.

Kearns’ works-of-art are produced on the grounds of a 16th century monastery in a fishing village in the west of Ireland, where he is known as “Malachy Bodhrán.”

His bodhrán-making process is just as it was centuries ago.  Each drum is made by hand from Irish beech wood with a skin attached by brass tacks and glue.  The skins are treated in hydrated lime and secret ingredients, then soaked for 7 to 10 days in a solution of lime sulfide to soften them and remove the hairs.  Sometimes the skins are buried in manure before being stretched on the wooden hoop.  Finally, each drum is hand-painted.

“The making of bodhráns brings you very close to nature and when played it is very freeing on the soul,” Kearns said.  “The whole involvement is a spiritual experience.”

Today it is featured in Mummers’ plays and harvest festivals.

He described the Irish drum’s origins as being first a “skin tray” – a work implement, used for drawing turf (peat) from the bogs and later used for winnowing chaff from wheat.  As time went on, the leg bone of a sheep or goat was used to strike the one-sided drum and the bodhrán became a popular musical instrument, to the displeasure of Ireland’s then colonial masters.  They saw it as a symbol of rebellion for those who wanted a separate Irish identity.

In his book, Wallup, Kearns wrote a tale of everyday life in the workshop and the “mastery and mystery of bodhán making.”  In his various descriptions of the bodhrán he describes it as the “backbone and heartbeat in traditional music.”


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The instrument had a resurgence in 1959 in Sive, a tragic play by the late John B. Keane . Up-and-coming musical groups were quick to bring it into their repertoire.  Pleader Mercier joined the Grammy-award winning Chieftains in 1966 and brought with him his talented bodhran-playing.  He left the group in 1976, shortly after they went professional.

Anna Colliton, one of America’s leading bodhrán players and instructors, is a member of the Boston-based group The Forge.  She teaches advanced bodhrán at the Irish Arts Center in New York City. In a March 2012 St Patrick’s Day-themed episode of the television series, Gossip Girl, Colliton brought her talents to the screen.  She has taught and performed at festivals across the country, including the Milwaukee Irish Festival, Chicago Celtic Fest and at the O’Flaherty Irish Music Retreat.  She has also played with the all-female group Cherish the Ladies in their latest album, “A Star in the East.”

“It’s fairly easy to rise to a level of basic competence, unlike the flute or fiddle where specific notes have to be hit,” Colliton said, adding, “It is relatively inexpensive, unlike the melody instruments.  A top-of-the-line bodhrán costs $400 to $600, but cheaper ones can be purchased for as little as $100.”  Also, unlike traditional instruments, you have to find a maker.  Her bodhráns come from Texas-based Albert Alfonso.

“Before the 1960s, the bodhrán was simply a folk instrument, but now has made its way into contemporary music,” said Colliton.  She also stressed, “Etiquette is a big part of playing, whether in a pub or in someone’s home. Even an informal gathering definitely requires the rules of observance.  A tune can be ruined if a player just bangs, and a damper will be put on a potentially good time.”  Often, the drummer will wait until the beat has been established, then come in as support.

In Allison Krauss’ rendition of Molly Bon, the bodhrán can be heard, but only to enhance the sad mood of the song.  The bodhrán player keeps the basic rhythm with the lower end of the stick and adds ornamentation with the upper end.  In the hands of a skilled player it can be a subtle and exciting instrument.  Colliton noted, “The skin is struck in a variety of ways, even using the heel of the hand and fingers, the hand supporting the instrument is tucked in behind the cross-piece and adds to the varying color and intensity of the song.”

This instrument is a relative newcomer to traditional Irish music as many felt it had no place there.  Although it has a long history as a noisemaker in warfare and religious festivals, the drum was not readily accepted into modern performance ensembles until the advent of Sean O’Riada and his take on how the bodhrán could be incorporated into his arrangements.  Along with O’Riada other trailblazers include Mel Mercier, Tommy Hayes, Christy Moore and Johnny “Ringo” McDonagh.

Today, the bodhrán is found in most traditional Irish bands and is appearing more often in Scottish music, modern folk music, Celtic-fusion and even classical music.  Internationally, the bodhrán is on an upward curve, due to the popularity of Irish culture.

In the last 10 years, the “top-end,” style of playing has become popular.  This style makes use of a full range of pitches with tonal variations and syncopation that expands the sound.

Riverdance has also added to the appreciation of the bodhrán. The instrument’s distinctive percussive sound pulses through the dancers and makes audiences tap their feet and clap their hands.

In addition, the bodhrán has become an ethnic symbol.  Many famous people, such as “Titanic” director, James Cameron, have them in their homes and offices.  Cameron has twice visited Malachy Kearns at his Roundstone Musical Instruments Headquarters.

“There’s a certain statement when an American has a bodhrán displayed,” Kearns said.  “It says, 'I am Irish and proud of it!'”  WG


Above photo of Roundstone, Co. Galway. (Photo credit: marianone via Flickr creative commons license)


Views: 4114

Tags: Arts, Bodhrán, Galway, Traditional Music

Comment by Ryan O'Rourke on December 10, 2013 at 12:51pm

I totally agree, "Blood." I've had the opportunity to get to know Johnny while living here in Galway.  Always considered him the finest example of what a bodhrán player should be -- a COMPLEMENT to the music, not a detractor from it.  I'm not a fan of all the fancy modern stylings and bodhrán solos.  What the heck is a bodhrán solo?????

Comment by Ryan O'Rourke on December 10, 2013 at 1:37pm

I think Johnny only does those solos because people want him to do them.  It's certainly not his favourite thing to do.

Comment by R. Eoghan Sutton on December 15, 2013 at 9:44am

I have played for many years and had the chance to spend time with many players. I have learned from most of them . Two have influenced me most, John McDonach and Jr. Davey. John hears the music in a unique way and always adds just enough to make it complete. I know he hates to do solos. He teaches with music he relates everything to the tune and how the drum fits. I base my playing on what I learned from John with enough spice from have my own style. True drummers are rarely noticed ,but are all ways missed. Remember if you play please have good manners and add to the music do not kill it!

Comment by Ryan O'Rourke on December 15, 2013 at 10:22am

True drummers are rarely noticed ,but are all ways missed.

That's perfectly stated, Eoghan.

Comment by Kelly O'Rourke on March 15, 2014 at 4:37am

Well said, Gents.  I also love this guy (Donnacha Gough).  Physically, he has a much more aggressive style than Johnny, but the sound is still really complementary to the music.  I've always thought that if Chris Farley played bodhrán, it would look something like this...

Comment by Rose Maurer on March 18, 2014 at 11:12am

Wonderful energy shown by the musicians, which energises the music (if it needs it!). Thank you Kelly - I feel quite physically exhausted yet inwardly invigorated.


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