Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The History of the Bodhrán.

The word Bodhrán is said to mean Deafening or Thunderous Drum.  The history of the Bodhrán is shrouded in mystery and subject to speculation. Is it an ancient Irish instrument or did it originally arrive on our shores from some far off place?  Some historians believe that its roots in Africa and arrived here from Spain, others believe that it had its origins in Asia and arrived here with the Celts.  There is evidence of the use of an instrument very similar to a Bodhrán that was used in agriculture and this was called a Wight or Wecht in Ulster and a Dallán in the south west of Ireland. This was used by agricultural workers to separate grain seed from the chaff or shells. Grain was poured into the hollow section of the Bodhrán on a breezy day, the light shells were blown away by the wind and the heavy grain was left behind. Sometimes workers would raise the Bodhrán above their heads and jump up and down to agitate the grain. It was said that the Bodhrán hung above the fireplace and in winter after the harvest was finished for the year the farm labourers being short of money and unable to buy musical instruments used whatever they had to hand or could make from bits and pieces. The grain winnower was used as a drum during musical seisúns.
Another use for the Bodhrán was during harvest festivals and by the Wren boys and Mummers to make noise in order to announce their arrival on the scene.

The Bodhrán is a frame drum made from a circle of wood (ash) upon this we have the stretched skin of an animal. Usually that of a goat but you may also find Bodhrán that use the skin of a horse, pony, sheep, or dog. At first glance it reminds you of a sieve similar to that used to sift sand and it is easy to understand the confusion when someone asks the question “did it evolve from a working instrument into a musical instrument or was it the other way round?”  In fact you will still see it used for both purposes in third world countries today.

The majority of these drums are used purely in religious or cultural festivals, and it is only in countries such as Ireland, the Basque country and Spain, where they are an integral part of musical entertainment. And it is only in Ireland that the frame drum has reached a high degree of sophistication. It was first introduced into modern Irish Traditional Music by Seán Ó Riada. He inserted arrangements for the Bodhrán into the music of his group Ceoltóiri Chualann. They later became known as the Chieftains.

The Bodhrán is very similar to another frame drum from Cornwall which was also used for harvesting grain. It is called a Crowdy Crawn (Croder crawn) and is mentioned as early as 1880.  It is a wooden hoop covered with sheepskin and is used in Cornish Traditional Music.  The Crowdy Crawn originated as a tool for gathering and measuring grain in the same way that the Bodhrán evolved from the Dallán.

A frame drum is played by either striking it with your bare hand or with a piece of wood called a tipper, beater, or cipín. Originally tippers may have been fashioned from pieces of bone; however, today they are made from ash, holly, or hickory.  The drum is usually played in a seated position, held vertically on the player's thigh and supported by his or her upper body and arm (usually on the left side, for a right-handed player), with the hand placed on the inside of the skin where it is able to control the tension (and therefore the pitch) by applying varying amounts of pressure and also the amount of surface area being played, with the back of the hand against the crossbar, if present. The drum is struck with the other arm (usually the right) and is played either with the bare hand or with a tipper.  Never play the drum when it is too soft or limp. Keep the drum when not in use in a case in a cool place so that the skin can relax. You can then bring it to playing tension by gentle and expert use of a heat of your choice (I have used gentle heat applied by a small travelling hair dryer).  If the skin is too tight, use a little water on the inside of the skin (not the outside) and give it a few minutes to work. Never use Beer or Guinness - save that for drinking. I also do not recommend tightening the skin with hand pressure - only if there is no other means of heating available. My Bodhrán is tuneable so I no longer have this problem.

Bodhrán players are generally regarded with derision by other musicians and there may be real reasons for this. The Bodhrán is considered by many as an easy instrument to play, especially those who have aspirations of becoming a ‘musician’ without any of the hard work or practice and they will use it as a passport in order to enter a seisúns. Unfortunately they are usually dreadful and should be removed as quickly as possible. However, when played properly the Bodhrán becomes the heartbeat of the music and when played alongside a flute there can be no more beautiful and haunting sound. The Bodhrán is usually used to follow the sound of other musicians and not to lead but there are a couple of songs that can be accompanied solely by the Bodhrán. One of which I have printed below.

The Bodhrán Song
(Brian O'Rourke - MÓC Music)

Oh I am a year old kid
I'm worth scarcely fifteen quid.
I'm the kind of beast you might well look down on
But my value will increase
At the time of my decease
For when I grow up I want to be a bodhrán.

If you kill me for my meat
You won't find me very sweet.
Your palate I'm afraid I'll soon turn sour on.
Ah but if you do me in
For the sake of my thick skin
You'll find I make a tasty little bodhrán.

Now my parents Bill and Nan,
They do not approve my plan
To become a yoke for every yob to pound on
Ah but I would sooner scamper
With a bang than with a whimper
And achieve reincarnation as a bodhrán.

I look forward to the day
When I leave off eating hay
And become a drum to entertain a crowd on
And I'll make my presence felt
With each well-delivered belt
As a fully qualified and licensed bodhrán.

And 'tis when I'm killed and cured
My career will be assured
I'll be a skin you'll see no scum nor scour on
But with studs around my rim
I'll be sound in wind and limb
And I'll make a dandy, handy little bodhrán.

Oh my heart with joy expands
When I dream of far-off lands
And consider all the streets that I will sound on
And I pity my poor ma
Who has never seen a Fleadh
Or indulged in foreign travel as a bodhrán.

For a hornpipe or a reel
A dead donkey has no feel
Or a horse or cow or sheep that has its shroud on
And you can't join in a jig
If you're a former grade A pig
But you can wallop out the lot if you're a bodhrán.

So if e'er you're feeling low
To a session you should go
And bring me there to exercise an hour on.
You can strike a mighty thump
On my belly, back or rump
But I thank you if you'd wait till I'm a bodhrán.

When I dedicate my hide,
I'll enhance the family pride
And tradition is a thing I won't fall down on
For I'll bear a few young bucks
Who'll inherit my good looks
And be proud to know their old one is a bodhrán.

And I don't think I'll much mind
When I've left himself behind
For the critter can no longer turn the power on
For with a celtic ink design
Tattooed on my behind
I can be a very sexy little bodhrán

Now I think you've had enough
Of this rubbishy old guff
So I'll put a sudden end to my wee amhrán
And quite soon my bloody bleat
Will become a steady beat
When I start my new existence as a bodhrán.

So as we say “Sin é” (that’s it). That is my understanding of the history of the Bodhrán. You may agree or disagree but I hope you find it of interest.

 Top image = Bodhrán by Bernie Prendergast.
Bottom image =  A Shebeen near Listowel attributed to Bridget Maria Fitzgerald and dates  c. 1842.


  1. Thanks Antoine, and all the best from the folks in the Irish Roots Cafe house band. - A Kilfenora, Co. Clare OLochlainn, from generations past-Mike O'Laughlin

    1. Thank you Michael,
      Hope you enjpy the blog and all the best to the clan and the Irish Roots Cafe house band.

      Keep smiling.


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