The Bodhrán

Our good friend Danny – who sadly passed away in 2017 – was a bodhrán maker. There are still shelves of his instruments in his West Cork house (above) and he is well remembered by all the musicians who commissioned instruments from him – including the percussionist of the New York Metropolitan Opera Orchestra!

Danny McCormack – bodhrán builder – at Lovistone Barton in 1991

I first met Danny in the 1970s when we both lived in North Devon: a very ‘Irish’ part of the West Country in the UK. I was a frequent visitor to Lovistone Barton, a remote old farmhouse at the end of a long trackway, which Danny and Gill then occupied with their five daughters, surrounded by chickens, geese, goats, dogs and cats. There was always a warm welcome and chat to be had and over the years I became familiar with every stage in the production of the bodhrán.

The starting point is, of course, the goat. I hasten to reassure you all that Danny’s goats led good, full and productive free-ranging lives and, only when they were over, did their skins become candidates for Irish drums. I watched the process of curing, treating and de-hairing the hides, which were then scraped smooth before being cut to suitable sizes. I observed the rims for the single-sided drums being steamed and bent – the skin stretching, decorating and final finishing. I’m sorry that I never thought at the time to photographically document the whole sequence of bodhrán construction, something I would certainly do today. This video by contemporary maker Paraic McNeela summarises it very well:

Two details (above) from a painting by Cork-born artist Daniel Maclise (1806 – 1870): Snap-Apple Night, based on a Hallowe’en party in Blarney in 1833. The left-hand panel shows the musicians – pipes, fiddle and flute – and, above them, a glimpse of a rather demonic drum player, enlarged in the right-hand panel. Danny was fascinated by this portrayal of the instrument, to all intents and purposes looking like any other bodhrán, except that it is shown with jingles, like a tambourine. It has been suggested that the words Tambourine and Bodhrán are related but, other than this comprehensive Comhaltas essay, I have yet to read any definitive historical research that convincingly justifies an etymology for the term.

Danny made me a ‘bodhrán-tambourine’, based on the Maclise painting, and it’s now hanging in our music room in Nead an Iolair (above). For the jingles, Danny took a number of old penny coins and beat them out, giving them a slightly domed shape as well. When tapped or shaken they sound really good, and extend the possibilities of the instrument by adding a metallic, percussive sound. But I doubt that purist bodhrán players approve, although I have seen and heard other instruments made in this fashion.

As to the playing of the instrument in general, there are as many varying techniques as there are players (or so it seems) – and there is also great debate about whether the bodhrán is acceptable in Irish traditional music anyway! Personally, I think that a sensitive bodhrán player is an asset to any group of musicians – although that can apply to the exponents of all instruments! The duo in the video above give an impressive demonstration of possibilities and variations in style (well worth a watch), while many of the big Irish groups frequently include the bodhrán. Have a look at these two videos: the first is the legendary Chieftains opening the World Bodhrán Championships in Milltown, Kerry, a few years ago, and the second is an excellent example of the instrument used in an unusual context – accompanying song. In both cases the performer is Kevin Conneff:

If you want to get a feel for the full gamut of attitudes to bodhráns and their players, this discussion on The Session is salutary: there are rants galore! For me – as a squeeze box player – I am happy to have a bodhrán player contributing to our gatherings. As demonstrated in the examples above, ‘good’ players who have mastered their craft are well worth listening to . . .

14 thoughts

  1. Lovely article Robert which evoked wonderful memories.
    I particularly remember dad trying to get the rims perfectly circular. There were a few wonky prototypes!
    The sound and tone of the drum seemed always to get better with age.

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  2. Robert, 3 great videos re the Bodhrun. Question, is the festival still going on? I saw one post that one of the founders was jailed and the festival is now defunct? Is that true? Patrick O’Farrell

    Liked by 1 person

    • Patrick – I believe you are right. The festival had its heyday from 2007 onwards, based around Milltown and Killorglin. Certainly now defunct, I think – and there were problems with funding. The music was great, though!

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  3. For an Hampshire based anglophone could you give us a ‘definitive’ answer to the question: how do you pronounce it? A former colleague, music journalist Colin Irwin in his book ‘In Search Of The Craic’ suggested it was to rhyme with a female pig and the first name of Connery – the first James Bond.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It seems I’ve got to come up with something for this. So: first syllable rhymes with ‘sow’ – as in ‘bow-wow’, as you say, but second is more akin to baby deer – ‘fawn’. Not too far away from Séan, but Finola insists there are subtleties to it…

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  4. Robert, This stirred many, many memories of Danny making his Bodhrans. The girls and I were lulled to sleep by the tap tapping late at night as he attached the skin to its frame on the kitchen table. The next day he would complain of his ‘Bodhran thumb’. Enthusiasts visited us from all over England, some staying the night with us .

    Liked by 1 person

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