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
Sonny Canavan from near
Listowel in Co Kerry, told Cathal O'Shannon in a 1971
Teilifís Eireann interview that he had made about 200
bodhran's in the preceeding 20 years.
Read transcript of the Sonny
Buitléar says that the bodhran was played in some parts of
Kerry and that following its use in Sive, one of
John B Keane's earliest plays to be staged in Dublin's Abbey Theatre,
others gradually took up the instrument.'
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
* That it originated in Central Asia and was brought to Ireland by
* 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
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
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
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
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
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's The 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.
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' http://www.bodhran.com
also has lots of info.
** 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.
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