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History of the Bodhran

By Ronan Nolan

THE bodhran evolved in the mid-20th century from the tambourine, which can be heard on some Irish music recordings dating back to the 1920s and viewed in a pre-Famine painting. However, in remote parts of the south-west, the "poor man's tambourine" - made from farm implements and minus the cymbols - was in popular use among mummers, or wren boys.

Sean O Riada was one of the first to stick his neck out, brazenly describing the bodhran as our native drum, adding his view that its history goes back to pre-Christian times. Others, while not denying that it could have had an ancient role, take the view that its introduction as a musical instrument is a more recent phenomenon.

There are many theories:

* That the drum originated in Africa and came to Ireland by way of Spain.

* That it originated in Central Asia and was brought to Ireland by Celtic migrants.

* That it originated in rural Ireland and evolved from a work implement to its present musical status.

* That it was devised by cunning Kerry farmers to push up the price of goatskin.

What we do know for sure is that drums are generally circular and, until recent times, tended to be covered with animal skin. And that their emergence in various cultures at different times need not be related events.
Given our history, the drum would have had a role in Irish warfare. We know that up to a couple of centuries ago, Gaelic chieftains had their own march tunes. But given the destructible nature of wood and animal skin, it is not surprising that none have survived from early Gaelic times.

Photo courtesy of Micheal McCann


The bodhran's circular body bears an uncanny resemblance to the skin tray used for centuries on farms in Celtic countries for separating chaff from grain. It also featured in rural mummers' plays and harvest festivities, adding credence to the theory about its agricultural background.

Sean D Halpenny in his booklet "Secrets of the Bodhran" says that the instrument arrived into the popular area of music in the late 1950s. He adds: "Its close cousin the tambourine was a lot more popular, but its use has nearly died out. The author has been using the tambourine for 20 years and remembers hearing old recordings of percussionists from the west of Ireland using the instrument and some years ago Seamus Tansey, the Sligo flute player, doubled on the tambourine on an LP recording."

Going further back, to a recording from 1927, John Reynolds from Co Leitrim can be heard playing the tambourine as he accompanies flute player Tom Morrison. The jingles may have been supressed by taping, as it sounds uncannily like a bodhran.

On recordings made in New York between 1926 and '29 by the Longford fiddle player Packie Dolan, Neal Smith, who played bones in Dolan's Melody Boys, can be heard playing either bodhran or tambourine, with a distinct percussive sound. In the mid-20th century spoons and bones also provided percussion for Irish dance music while the snare and pedal drums were popular with the ceili bands.

Sean O Riada

The bodhran found its place in the traditional music of recent times largely through the work of Sean O Riada and Ceoltóirí Cualann, in which the late Peadar Mercier played the instrument. One of Mercier's colleagues in Ceoltóirí Cualann was Eamon de Builtéar. They often played together at sessions in the youth hostel in which Mercier worked in north Wicklow.

Eamon de Buitléar told me that the bodhran was played in some parts of Kerry and that following its use in Sive, John B Keane's play staged in Dublin's Abbey Theatre in 1959**, others gradually took up the instrument. Keane had heard it played by mummers from the Listowel hinterland. [According to the stage script, the instrument used was referred to as the tambourine, beaten with a stick]. In 1960 O Riada used the instument for the incidental music in the Abbey's production of Listowel writer Bryan Mac Mahon'sThe Song of the Anvil.

But the earliest evidence of the tambourine in Irish music comes from the watercolour painting "A Shebeen in Listowel," dated c.1842. Now on loan to Listowel Library, the painting by artist Bridget Maria Fitzgerald depicts an interior scene in which a flute player is accompanied by a youth playing the tambourine.

The "poor man's tambourine", which the modern bodhran closely resembles, is seen in a 1947 photo taken by folklorist, the late Kevin Danaher, of three young mummers in west Limerick. Two of the boys are playing the instruments which appear to be made of circular wooden bands used by farmers for separating wheat from chaff, or even used on building sites for removing larger stones from sand.On one of the instruments there can be clearly seen one of two slits in the timber for holding it while sifting.

Taped-up jingles

Ceoltóirí Cualann , under the guidance of Sean O Riada, gained quite a reputation in Ireland before evolving onto the world stage as The Chieftains, with Peadar Mercier playing the bodhran.

But it was to Davy Fallon, an elderly bodhran player and farmer from Castletown-Geogheghan in Co Westmeath, that Paddy Moloney turned to for the first Chieftains' album. Fallon was well into his seventies by then. He used an old-style goatskin bodhran with tambourine jingles around it and Paddy had to persuade him to tape up the jingles so only the drum could be heard. Mercier took over Fallon's role as The Chieftains gained popularity and started to tour.

Today Mercier's place is filled by Kevin Conneff.  In a roundabout way, Conneff was to be an important link in the emergence of the bodhran among the popular folk/traditional groups. He played the instrument on the landmark Prosperous album featuring Christy Moore and released in 1972. Conneff's playing on The Hackler from Grouse Hall made a lasting impression.

Prosperous led to the formation of Planxty and with Christy Moore taking over as bodhran player, the instrument's role in popular folk/tradition was assured. In the Seventies groups such as De Danann (Johnny Ringo McDonagh), The Boys of the Lough (Robbie Morton) and Stockton's Wing (Tommy Hayes) blended the bodhran into their performance as though it was as old as the music itself.

Technique continues to evolve as evident in the playing of Johnjo Kelly of the group Flook, often heard performing with Manchester flute player Mike McGoldrick. Kelly sets his bodhran skin looser than most, enabling him to produce tonal and pitch changes by sliding his left hand down inside the drum to add pressure on the skin, and then loosening it to go back to the original sound.

© Ronan Nolan. 2003


Josh Mittleman's Bodhran site is the best place I have found for bodhran information and links.
Malachy Kearns' also has lots of info -
Bodhran care.

** John B Keane (1928-2002), author and playright, also wrote the emigration ballad Many Young Men of Twenty. The Abbey had previously rejected the script of Sive, but were obliged to stage it after the Listowel Drama Group won the All-Ireland Amateur Drama competition with it. It was another 25 years before the Abbey accepted a script from the author of The Field, Big Maggie and Sharon's Grave. Among John B Keane's many novels is The Bodhran Maker.

According to John B Keane in a 1977 interview, it was originally known as the tambourine, then corrupted to bourine, until somebody called it a bodhran.

Read the Diary of a Bodhran Beginner  


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