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In the last 50 years the bodhrán has changed and developed like no other instrument in Irish music, maybe even like no other instrument at all. What happened before the last  years?


The Bodhrán is a frame drum. Frame drums are found in different forms all over the world. The origins are uncertain, although there is an obvious similarity to the tambourine that is found in the south of continental Europe. It might have come to Ireland through trade routes, but there is no final proof for that. There is also no proof for use as a war drum. I have no idea where that thought came from.

The name „Bodhrán“ comes from the irish word bodhar, meanig deaf, dull or numb. The word Bodharaí stands for a hollow sound, the sound of a drum etc. The English word "to bother" derives from "bodhar", which is not in use anymore in today's Irish.

The earliest proof of the use of the bodhrán goes back to a book of the 15th century. It is a medical transcript in which the sound of a bloated belly is described as the sound of a drum (bhodhrán). In old encyclopedias the word was found in use before 1827. Pictures of the Irish painter Maclise, published around 1850, show a frame drum on which the left hand of the player seems to touch the skin and the right hand seems to move in the typical way. The following three pictures show excerpts from this painting.

  • Bild5

    Daniel Maclise (25 January 1806 – 25 April 1870) was an Irish illustrator and portrait painter, who worked for most of his life in London, England.
    Some pictures, painted around 1850, show frame drums. The player seems to touch the skin from the inside and to stroke the skin from the outside. The following pics show a detailed view of the painting.

  • Bild4

    Daniel Maclise (25 January 1806 – 25 April 1870) was an Irish history, literary and portrait painter, and illustrator, who worked for most of his life in London, England.
    Some of pictures, which were produced around 1850 show a frame drum. The player seems to touch the skin from the inside and to stroke the skin from the outside. The following pics show a detailed view of the painting.

  • Bild3

    Daniel Maclise (25 January 1806 – 25 April 1870) was an Irish history, literary and portrait painter, and illustrator, who worked for most of his life in London, England.
    Some of pictures, which were produced around 1850 show a frame drum. The player seems to touch the skin from the inside and to stroke the skin from the outside. The following pics show a detailed view of the painting.

I also learned recently that in some areas of Kerry there were bodhrán makers as early as 1920, who made drums not only for local musicians, but also as souvenirs!

  • SonnyFrom Liam Ó Bharáin: Bodhrán: its origin, meaning and history
    "James (Sonny) Davey, from Bunanadden, Ballymote in County Sligo
    , made his first bodhran some time between about 1917, when he was eight years of age, and 1920, when he was 12 (Schiller, 2001; Vallely, 1999). He related to Rina Schiller (2001) how the first bodhran he owned was made by an 'old flute player' and that he went to the crossroads (this would have been to crossroads dances) accompanying him on the bodhran. He first made a bodhran himself for a man who approached him in a hall in Bunanadden 'where we were having a tune'. Davey was apparently accompanying the fiddler Fred Flynn at an event in the hall. James relates that he was shown how to cure goatskin by a Donegal man. He had a workshop organised and was making bodhrans commercially with an emphasis on the tourist trade by 1927. Some of these early bodhrans bore the inscription 'Souvenir of Ireland'. Schiller goes on to relate how he soon gave up the tourist trade to concentrate on making bodhrans in response to a strong demand for his product from musicians in Ireland." (Schiller, 2001; Vallely, 1999).

    James (Sonny) Davey

In order to understand the history of the bodhran, you have to look into the history of traditional irish music. There were times when it fell out of popularity, only to enjoy a revival in the 50s and 60s. At this point a big change from a ritual instrument to a musical instrument took place for the bodhran.

The Ritual Instrument

Before the 1950s, the bodhran was played on St. Stephens Day in a ritual known as "Hunting the Wren". Wren boys accompanied the following ceremony with whistles and bodhran-like drums.

  • WB01Wren Boys, Ireland 1947.
    Ultimately, the origin may be a Samhain or midwinter sacrifice and/or celebration, as Celtic mythology considered the Wren a symbol of the past year (the European wren is known for its habit of singing even in mid-winter, and sometimes explicitly called "Winter Wren"); Celtic names of the Wren (draouennig, drean, dreathan, dryw etc.) also suggest an association with druidic rituals. The tradition may also have been influenced by Scandinavian settlers during the Viking invasions of the 8th-10th Centuries. Various associated legends exist, such as a Wren being responsible for betraying Irish soldiers who fought the Viking invaders by beating its wings on their shields, in the late first and early second millennia, and for betraying the Christian martyr Saint Stephen, after whom the day is named. This mythological association with treachery is a possible reason why the bird was hunted by Wrenboys on St. Stephen's Day, and/or why a pagan sacrificial tradition was continued in Christian times. Link to a historic movie!

    The Wren Boys

When Sean O'Riada started to bring traditional irish music on the stage he declared: "The Bodhrán is the national drum". So he opened a pathway for the drum and from there it was used in more and more bands. The bodhrán developed further in quality and shape and even now this development is not finished. Different makers are developing and experimenting with different ideas about the skin, the tuning mechanism, dimensions and the frame, so a great variety can be seen today.

  • Bild2Seán Ó Riada (1 August 1931 - 3 October 1971), was a composer and perhaps the single most influential figure in the revival of Irish traditional music during the 1960s. He became a household figure in Ireland through his participation in Ceoltóirí Chualann, compositions, writings and broadcasts on the topic. Between 1961 and 1969 Ó Riada was leader of a group called Ceoltóirí Chualann. Although they played in concert halls dressed in a black suits with white shirts and black bow ties, they played traditional songs and tunes.  Ó Riada sat in the middle at front playing bodhrán, a hand-held frame-drum. The membership of Ceoltóirí Chualann overlapped with membership of The Chieftains, so it is surprising that the six albums they recorded are not better known.

    Seán Ó Riada

The Musical Instrument

The first bodhrans were rather loud and many of them were of poor quality. One of the first known recordings of a drum and a flute playing ITM is from the year 1927. We don't know which type of drum we hear on this recording, as it may be a tambourine.
In the early days the drum was played either with the hand or a stick, the other hand wouldn't touch the skin to dampen it. Sometimes there were jingles attached to the rim. During the last decades the sound was cleared by removing the jingles and dampening with the opposing hand, which was also used to achieve tonal variations. Over the last 40 years, players like Peadar Mercier, Johnny "Ringo" McDonagh, or John Joe Kelly brought the drum and the playing technique to today's standard.

  • peadarPeadar Mercier (* 1914 in Irland).
    Known as a member of the Chieftains, in 1966 he followed David Fallon as the Chieftains second bodhrán player. He played with them until 1976, when he was repalced by Kevin Conneff. You can hear him on the albums Chieftains 2 to 5. He also recorded with Dolores Keane and the Reel union (There was a maid, 1978 and  on the album „Tin Whistles“ von Paddy Moloney und Sean Potts (1973). His son, Mel Mercier, is also well known as a bodhrán player.

  • Johnny McDonaghFrom Celtic Music Net:
    A true innovator among bodhránai, Johnny invented several groundbreaking techniques that actually extended the musical vocabulary of the instrument, such as the backslide and playing on the rim. McDonagh can also lay claim to being the first to play a bodhrán with a brush, as well as originating the idea for a tunable bodhrán. He also has left a valuable legacy in the annals of recorded Irish music, playing with De Danann and Arcady, and backing up premier solo Irish music acts from Eileen Ivers to Mary Bergin. Born in Galway on the 30th of March 1951. Tommy Hayes, who after all should know about such things, has declared McDonagh the bodhran's finest traditional player. But Johnny has balanced traditional music with extended side trips to other musical styles. McDonagh has gone the Irish music route in his stints with De Danann and Arcady. But he also joined up with Mike Oldfield in 1979 and went on tour all over Europe, resulting in the live double-disc Exposed, offering interesting live performances of Tubular Bells and other Oldfield classics. Johnny recorded nine albums with De Danann from the early ‘70s to the late ‘80s, when he left the group to form Arcady.

  • DSC 7069From Celtic
    John Joe Kelly began percussing at an early age. By the time he was seven, he'd taken to borrowing his older sister Grace's tin whistles, unfortunately using them as drumsticks and denting them in the process. A friend of John Joe's father observed this behavior and bought him a 10-inch bodhrán. Kelly's technique on the bodhran is astounding. He has mastered the fine art of exerting pressure on the inside of the drumhead to bring the pitch of the instrument higher and lower, all the while pounding out series after series of rapid-fire doublets and triplets. John Joe also plays mandolin and banjo.

Development of styles

Peadar Mercier was one of the first players to use the drum in a band's context with the Chieftains after Sean O'Raida. Johnny McDonagh was the first to dampen the sound and change pitch with his left hand. John Joe Kelly brought in rhythms from other music in his melodic playing during the nineties. Of course, other players like Tommy Hayes, Junior Davey, Eamon Murray or Martin O'Neill, and makers like Seamus O'Kane played and still play an important role in the development of all the different styles that exist today.

In the future

This development isn't finished yet and the drum is still evolving. A variety of makers come up with new ideas. Players like Eamon Murray, Stiofan O'Brian, Martin O'Neill, Cormac Byrne or Jim Higgins develop new styles, sometimes in completely different directions. Nothing wrong with that, it only shows the great variety that we find in this wonderful instrument.

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