The Marvel of Margaret Barry

When I was in my college years, I lived on the fringes of London. It was the 1960s and – among many other cultural stirrings – there was a burgeoning Irish traditional music scene, in and around Camden Town. The Irish community in the capital had been thriving since the 1950s, when London was being rebuilt following the Blitzes of the recent war. Although not a close follower of Irish music at that time I had taken up the squeeze-box, and, curious enough to hover at the edges of The Music, was fortunate to briefly encounter many singers and players who are now considered legends. One of these is Margaret Barry, seen above in her later years and, below, when she was first becoming established as an Irish traditional music performer.

If you ever saw (and heard) Margaret Barry, you would never forget her. Her voice is unlike anyone else’s. She was born in the City of Cork, and has the distinctive accent of that place, whether she is speaking or singing. I find it completely compelling, but I can understand that it’s not to everyone’s taste. Nevertheless, whatever your own views, her story is fascinating – and at the same time a valuable social commentary on aspects of twentieth century Ireland. Margaret was born in 1917 – on New Year’s Day – and died in 1989. She made a living from music – and spanned the spectrum from obscure street performer to lauded professional much in demand on radio and television, performing in venues which included London’s Royal Albert and Festival Halls and New York’s Rockefeller Centre.

The reason I’m writing about Margaret Barry today is that she was the subject of a talk given at this year’s Drimoleague Singing Festival: “…A celebration of the human voice in the heart of West Cork…”, now an established annual event held around the feast day of Cork’s patron saint, St Finnbarr, September 25th. It’s great that Ireland’s special saints – who ‘kept alive civilisation’ during the otherwise Dark Ages in pre-medieval Europe – are still living and celebrated in traditional culture, which encompasses literature, art, music and folk tradition. Yesterday’s talk, in a crowded hall, was presented by Jason Murphy and Lisa O’Neill (pictured above mid-talk, with Lisa – Singer in Residence at this year’s Festival – giving her own extraordinary rendering of one of Margaret Barry’s songs). It’s worth watching the following YouTube video of Lisa singing a version of ‘The Galway Shawl’ to give you an idea of Margaret’s characteristic style as interpreted by Lisa, and sealing her own authority on the perpetuation of The Music:

Because Margaret Barry is a legend, it’s inevitable that the life and exploits of this lady from Cork have become imbued with folklore. This can happen very quickly in Ireland! Jason – a radio documentary maker – and Lisa – who has studied Margaret’s work – set out to shed light on the reality of her life, times and travels. The talk is work in progress – look out for a comprehensive programme coming up on RTE Radio soon. The talk in no way diminished Margaret Barry’s status and renown in the folk music world, but it did question some of the hitherto accepted accounts of her life. For example, when I first became interested in her singing over fifty years ago, I gleaned (mainly from notes on the sleeves of LPs) that she was from travelling stock, and that’s something you’ll still find quoted in practically every contemporary account of her life. According to Lisa and Jason, however, she came from musical families in Peter Street, Cork. Her mother’s father – Bob Thompson – was an accomplished uilleann pipe maker and player who was married to a Spanish Guitarist and singer. Living through hard times, Bob had to temporarily pawn his own uilleann pipes but lost them when a fire broke out in the pawnshop: he did not play again for ten years! Margaret’s parents and uncles were street singers and musicians, her father earning a precarious living playing the violin in silent-era cinemas and with dance bands. 

Another invariably quoted story is that she left home at 16 with nothing but a bicycle and a banjo tied to her back with string as she set off to busk her way through the harsh streets of Ireland. It’s an engaging picture, but probably simplifies a complex situation. Margaret’s mother died when she was only twelve years old, and soon afterwards her father married a girl not very much older than she was. It’s likely that she did decide to go off and fend for herself – and during her lifetime she did travel around Ireland, sometimes in a horse-drawn caravan, but she had also become interested in the musical traditions she experienced around her and took every opportunity to learn songs from every source, to teach herself to play the fiddle and banjo – and also to use her own talents to earn money wherever she could, and to survive. Here’s her own account of those times, recorded by American musicologist Alan Lomax in the 1950s:

Alan Lomax left a valuable collection of information on ethnic musical cultures from America, Africa and Europe, which he and a dedicated team collected over many years. Much of the collection is available online in the archive of the Association for Cultural Equity. Amongst the publications of the Association is a CD of Margaret Barry singing and talking about her life, which can currently be purchased as a download.

Margaret succeeded in her chosen life of itinerant song performer and always said that she had enjoyed it, regardless of the often hard times. She certainly achieved notoriety and featured in programmes on TG4 and RTE in her lifetime. She had a long-term relationship and musical partnership with the Sligo musician Michael Gorman, whose fiddle playing features on many of the recordings made of her. It seems appropriate to include here this 1965 recording of Margaret accompanied by Michael, singing ‘Still I Love Him’:

The talk we heard in Drimoleague on Saturday was a tour-de-force by Lisa and Jason, reviving my own interest in Margaret Barry, the ‘street singer’ from Cork (also known as ‘Queen of the Gypsies’, a title she was happy enough to embrace, whatever the true circumstances of her ancestry). To finish this post, here’s one of her songs for which she is, perhaps, best known: ‘She Moved Through the Fair’. Margaret was once asked if this tune had come to her from her traveller background: she is said to have replied that she had learned it from a recording of Count John McCormack…

The Finola Window

You will all know about Finola’s interest in stained glass, and in particular her admiration of the work of artist George Walsh: she wrote an article about him in the Irish Arts Review this year. So I hatched a plan, together with George, to give her a window of her very own! Here it is, just installed in our house, Nead an Iolair. Not so long ago, Finola wrote another Irish Arts Review piece about Ireland’s newest stained glass window, and there’s a Roaringwater Journal post about it here. I think it’s safe to say – as of today – we have in our house Ireland’s new ‘newest stained glass window’! It’s an artwork with a story – several stories, in fact. I’ll tell you some of them.

This is George Walsh. He apprenticed in the world of stained glass under his father – also George – who apprenticed under Harry Clarke, so he has an eminent lineage. He worked with his father in the United States and Ireland, and eventually set up his own Dublin studio, where he has been prolific. Finola is currently visiting and cataloguing every one of his publicly accessible projects which can be seen on the island of Ireland: it takes us to some far-off and fascinating places. To date her list includes 61 buildings which have George Walsh windows, and it’s certainly not complete.  While most of George’s work can be found in churches, he has also produced a secular opus and our window has now added to that. George says that he enjoyed this commission because it was very different from so much of his work, but I guess that he always enjoys his work – you can tell by the exuberance, dynamism and sumptuous colouring of his pieces.

The Finola Window tells the story of our Finola, but is also about a famous Finola (or Fionnghuala – fair-shouldered) in Irish mythology: she is the heroine of The Children of Lir, one of Ireland’s most well-known ancient wonder-tales. Fionnghuala (above, being transformed into a swan) is the eldest of the four children of King Lir – the others are Aodh and twins Fiachra and Conn. Their mother, Aobh, died when they were young and the King remarried. Unfortunately, this is where the story turns into a wicked stepmother tale, as the King’s new wife, Aoife, becomes jealous of the children, and casts a magic spell on them. I hope you are keeping up with these names! Our Finola – a stepmother herself – has always been sensitive about negative portrayals of that position, so I asked George to play down the role of Aoife and in fact he has left her out of the window altogether. I’ll just let you know, however, that she received full punishment for her malice by being turned into a Demon of the Air – and she still hangs around on dark, haunted nights. Watch out!

All four children were turned into swans by Aoife, and their fate was to spend three hundred years on Loch Dairbhreach (a lake in Co Westmeath), followed by three hundred years on Sruth na Maoilé (the stormy Straits of Moyle between Ireland and Scotland), and a further three hundred on Inis Gluairé (an Atlantic island in Erris, Co Mayo). The swans kept their human voices and they spent much of their exile singing beautiful songs which became all the traditional music of Ireland.

George has skilfully woven into this window many elements of our Finola’s life: in the details above you can see Newgrange – where Finola dug as a student; Irish rock art – which was Finola’s main area of study as an archaeologist; my hands playing my concertina (all the musical notes are descending from the swans); eagles flying over Nead an Iolair; the Scholar and his Cat Pangur Bán (the Irish medieval poem is one of Finola’s favourites); St Brendan’s voyage (Finola is  a great teller of the tales of Irish Saints) and – of course (at my specific request) a golden hare! George Walsh has always been a master of detail, something we have particularly admired in his work. We feel he has excelled himself here. These images are some of the resources given to George while he was making the window:

Image gallery for George – top: Finola’s 1973 drawing of a piece of Kerry rock art; centre – the flight of the eagles over Nead an Iolair; lower – my hands playing music from the swans through my concertina!

I was privileged to see some of the work in progress in George’s studio earlier in the year. He showed me how he uses ‘flashed glass’ where a thin layer of coloured glass is melted on to clear glass. Acid etching is used to take off the coloured surface leaving a design. You can see where the etched piece (below) is being prepared to fit in the ‘jigsaw puzzle’ of glass shapes that will be joined by leading to form the final window.

Above – George’s ‘cartoon’ design sketch together with his explanation of the subject matter: these now hang close to the completed window in our house

The culmination of the Children of Lir story comes when St Patrick’s bell is first heard on the shores of Ireland (detail below), and Fionnghuala and her brothers are released from the spell. As they regain human form their bodies are aged and they have time only to receive baptism into Christianity before they crumble to dust.

Decorative borders, details and motifs abound in George’s windows and ours is no exception. It’s a bit like the marginalia in a medieval illuminated manuscript: your eye is constantly drawn to all the minutiae. We will never tire of looking at it. The panel is mounted in a west facing window in our study: when the sun comes around to that side in the evenings the whole room becomes alive with flowing colour.

Thank you, George, for so wonderfully fulfilling my vision of a window especially for Finola. I couldn’t imagine anything more fitting and she is – of course – over the moon! Here we are in George’s studio on the day of the ‘reveal’.

Irish Immersion!

We traversed the Dingle Peninsula on the way to our week-long ‘Irish Immersion’ course. Our route included the Conor Pass (above) – possibly Ireland’s highest mountain pass with a summit of 456m: not to be missed, as the views from it are spectacular in all directions. Do be careful, though, as it’s included in the list of ‘the World’s most dangerous roads’. That’s because in places it is only a winding single track, with the way almost tunnelled out of steep rock faces: don’t try it in a bus!

Once over the pass, however, it’s plain sailing and sunshine all the way down to Dingle itself, a busy waterside town (which sells the best ice-creams!),  where we stayed while we were on our course. Here’s the view from Coastline House, our very well-appointed B + B:

So why would I want to learn the Irish language? And how easy is it? The answer to the second question is: it’s fiendishly difficult – especially for an ear that’s been attuned to English for a lifetime! But – here I am in my eighth decade, an Irish citizen and a permanent resident of West Cork – so what would be more natural (and good for the ageing brain) than being able to communicate in the native tongue? Finola, of course, learnt Irish right through her schooldays (it’s been compulsory since the founding of the Irish State) and can hold her own in conversation, but she wants to improve her knowledge and took a course at a higher level: I was in the raw beginners’ class, together with our good friends Amanda and Peter Clarke, with whom we enjoyed great craic in our free time.

The western part of the Dingle Peninsula is a Gaeltacht area: that means it is a place where Irish is the dominant language; all street signs, traffic signs etc are in Irish only; anyone in shops, businesses etc is likely to speak in Irish, and there are a number of schools where teaching is all in Irish. Our courses were based in Baile an Fheirtéaraigh (in English it would be known as Ballyferriter) – to the west of Dingle town (which is, in Irish, An Daingean). You can tell from many of the photographs in this post how stunningly beautiful the landscape is in this part of Ireland. The upper picture above shows the very fine school building of Coláistí Chorca Dhuibhne, which hosts all the Irish classes. The ones for adults are run by the Oidhreacht Chorca Dhuibhneyou can find all the details here if you’ve a mind to give it a try yourself.

It’s a different world in the Gaeltacht areas: can you guess what the sign above is saying?

You ought to know, also, that the Gaeltacht area here is known as Corca Dhuibhne, which translates literally as ‘the seed or tribe of Duibhne’ and derives from the clan who anciently lived in this part of County Kerry. Try saying ‘Corca Dhuibhne‘ . . . How did you get on? This is what I should have heard:

Above – streetscapes in the lively village of Baile an Fheirtéaraigh (Ballyferriter). Note the signage in the upper picture. The lower picture will be self-explanatory to Star Wars fans: the film series is set “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….” – Fadó Fadó is the Irish way of beginning a fairy-tale, meaning literally “long long ago….”. And – just to confuse you (and me) – Ar an mBualtín means “in Ballyferriter”! I know – I just told you that the town is Baile an Fheirtéaraigh in Irish, but the townland is known as an mBuiltín, which is in fact another way of describing a “booley” which, you will no doubt remember from my post here, is the place where cattle are taken up to the hill pastures in the summer. So, all things Irish are often not straightforward. Just to explain a connection: parts of the latest Star Wars episodes have been filmed on the promontories above Ballyferriter – a great ‘selling point’ for the local tourism industry!

Green roads lead to the hillside pastures which dominate the Dingle Peninsula

Our course was taxing, and I have the greatest admiration for our múinteoir (teacher), Caitríona Ní Chathail – a wonderful lady of infinite patience, and great enthusiasm for the language which she shared with us throughout the six days. We were allowed some treats – Caitríona took us out on a walk and introduced to us some of the history of the area (kindly, she spoke bilingually); on one evening we were given a talk on archaeology by Isabel Bennet, the very knowledgable curator of the museum in Baile an Fheirtéaraighand on the final evening we combined our various talents to give a concert to all the students, Oíche Airneáin – literally a “night of visiting”, and we each had to introduce ourselves in Irish!

Upper – Caitríona’s history walk around the locality; lower – my contribution to the Oíche Airneáin was some tunes played with Christy Martin on hammered dulcimer. Christy, a fellow student, is a professional travelling musician from California

How do I feel after the course? Exhilarated by the experience of having concentrated for a week on one fundamental aspect of Irish culture, but daunted by the very long path upon which I have embarked – and uncertain as to how to make sure to build on that grounding. One thing that impressed me above all is the obvious passion that the people of Baile an Fheirtéaraigh and Coláistí Chorca Dhuibhne have for their particular Gaeltacht: Caitríona made sure that we realised that the Irish which she taught us is specific to Corca Dhuibhne: each of the Gaeltacht areas has its own dialect, although – whichever version of Irish you learn – you will be understood by speakers from the other areas.

Traditions and stories are abundant in the Corca Dhuibhne Gaeltacht: upper picture – the Wren is hunted on the Peninsula at Stephen’s Day (26 December), and I caught a glimpse of some ‘straws’ hanging behind a door: part of the costumes worn by one of four ‘Wran’ groups who keep the tradition alive in Dingle. Lower picture – two of many gullauns (standing stones) dating from ancient times and which remain in the landscape of the Peninsula: the backdrop is Mount Brandon, named after the 5th century saint – Brendan – who discovered America long before Christopher Columbus!

I was pleased to be presented with a certificate by Caitríona at the end of the course! We all had one, and mine will serve as a reminder of the intensive week. Hopefully, it will also serve as an incentive to delve further into the mysteries of Gaeilge. I am already determined to revisit the wonders of Corca Dhuibhne as soon as possible!

Abhainn na Seangán – River of the Ants!

What’s in a name? In Ireland – quite a lot, usually, although the meaning often takes some searching out. Perusing Ordnance Survey Ireland sheet 85 on a late February afternoon when the sun miraculously appeared and lit up a countryside ripe for exploration, my eye was drawn to a river running through the hills to the east of Bantry: Owennashingaun. How could you overlook such a name? And how could you not be intrigued by the Irish place-name which must have preceded it before the surveyors put their anglicisation to it: Abhainn na Seangán? Even better was the discovery of the meaning of this name: River of the Ants!

Our byway heading into the hills

With high expectations we set out, with Finola at the ready with her camera. As with all West Cork locations, Abhainn na Seangán is but a few paces from Nead an Iolair, as the crow flies. Pausing only to pick up our friend Gill in Ballybane West along the way, we were soon heading north for the foothills of Mullaghmesha (Irish: Mullach Méise – Summit of the Altar).

Turning north at the Cullomane Crossroads on the R586 we almost immediately crossed the Owennashingaun River (I’ll use the Anglicised version as that is what usually appears on the map). Here it’s just a gentle, straight watercourse which follows the main road until it picks up the Ahanaclaurshee Stream (Irish: River of the Harp) and then becomes the Ilen River, which flows on through Skibbereen and eventually reaches the sea at Baltimore.

Glens, farms and distant highlands on our road heading for Mullaghmesha

We skirted two smallish peaks – Sprat Hill and Knocknaveagh (Irish:Cnoc na bhFiach, wonderfully ‘The Hill of the Ravens’) – before reaching the townland of Tralibane, an important Irish landmark as it was here that Captain Francis O’Neill was born in 1838. He travelled the world and had a colourful life of many adventures before being elevated to the role of Chief Superintendent of Police in Chicago in 1901. O’Neill came from a musical family in his West Cork childhood and is best known today as one of the most successful collectors of Irish Traditional Music. Here is a post I wrote about The Chief back in 2014.

From Tralibane we travelled north-east on deserted boreens, through a soft, green landscape of glens and standing stones (see the header picture), gradually rising towards more distant highlands, until we encountered again the ‘River of the Ants’. The source of Abhainn na Seangán is on the slopes of Mullaghmesha, whose peak is at 495 metres: we didn’t make it up there to look for the altar: a destination for another day. The name of the river remains enigmatic: I searched the excellent resource www.logainm.ie and found an archive record there dating from 1840 which gives the translation as: ‘river of the pismires’. I then had to look up ‘pismires’, which is evidently from early English:

1350 – 1400: Middle English pissemyre, equivalent to pisse to urinate + obsolete mire ant, perhaps Scandinavian (compare Danish mire, Swedish myra) cognate with Dutch mier; pejorative name from stench of formic acid proper to ants

There was nothing untoward with the smell of the river as we followed it – and we didn’t see any ants! So the mystery remains. Surely there must be a story embedded in local knowledge or folklore which could enlighten us?

Upper – sweeping views began to open up as the road climbed towards Castle Donovan; centre – the iconic ruined castle, which was taken into the care of the State in 2000 and has since received major stabilisation and renovation; lower – a splendid piece of signage at Castle Donovan – every possible disaster has been foreseen!

The ruin of Castle Donovan is as fine as any in West Cork, and is fortunate to be in permanent State care. Set on a plateau with the mountain rising behind it, it is an impressive focal point in the landscape, which can be seen for miles around. We passed by the castle and headed up on a rough, winding way: looking back, the silhouette of the tower house stands out with benign West Cork rolling pasture as a prepossessing backdrop.

The road very quickly becomes a true mountain pass, and an early evening haze seemed to hang over everything as we skirted the east side of Mullaghmesha. We hardly saw a soul on our whole journey, but we were eyed warily by sheep who plainly considered us intruders on their territory.

On the north side of the mountain we entered the Mealagh Valley, and were reminded of our recent adventures travelling through the Yellow Gap. Finding our way down to the lowlands again, we took our last look at the River of the Ants at Dromore, and bid it a fond farewell. In spite of its unfathomable name, it had taken us on a grand exploration. Give it a try for yourselves!

Upper, the distinctive church at Dromore, with its pencil-thin ’round tower’ and, above, our last view of Owennashingaun

Surfing the Archives

There’s really valuable history to be found on the internet! Here’s an example… the very first post we published after we moved to Nead an Iolair a whole lot of years ago mentioned a concert we attended in Abbeystrewry Church, Skibbereen which honoured a Rector of that church who was also Professor of Irish in Trinity College Dublin: Canon James Goodman, who lived from 1828 to 1896. He was also an uilleann piper and collector of traditional music. I wrote about him in more detail the following year, Some of you may remember a story I often tell about the Canon’s grave in Creagh Burial Ground, on the way to Baltimore. It was his wish that his pipes be buried with him, and so they were. Finola and I would visit the atmospheric site at Creagh and listen out for the haunting tones of the Canon’s pipes playing away there.

Header picture – a bronze statue at the entrance to Abbeystrewery Church in Skibbereen shows Canon Goodman playing his uilleann pipes. Above – Creagh Burial Ground and the Canon’s grave

I’m sorry to disappoint, but there’s an update to the story about the Canon and his buried pipes. I have been surfing the archives of Ireland’s principle media outlet, Raidió Teilifís Éireann, and it’s a wonderful resource! When you click on the links, you may find that some of the material is preceded by short advertisements: sorry, they are built in to the archive site – to help fund it no doubt. That’s a worthwhile cause, anyway. Now, have a look at this:

Mícheál Ó Riabhaigh being interviewed on RTE in 1966. He became the owner of Canon Goodman’s pipes and they have since passed to his son, Eoin O Riabhaig, player and pipemaker from Cork city

. . . When Canon Goodman died he wished for his pipes to be buried with him and his good friend Alderman Phair made sure that this happened. However, Alderman Phair thought it a pity that such a set of pipes would just lie in a grave so just days after Goodman’s burial the pipes were taken out of his grave. The pipes remained in Alderman Phair’s possession for six or seven years before being passed on to Mícheál Ó Riabhaigh. The pipes were made by master craftsman Willie Taylor . . . (from the RTE Archive notes 1966)

Before leaving that subject behind for today, here’s a YouTube video of Mícheál playing the Canon’s Taylor pipes; it dates from 1963:

Remembering my recent post on the Irish drum, or Bodhran, I was delighted to find some ‘old footage’ on the RTE Archives on the instrument:

This link is also footage from 1966:

. . . Sonny Canavan tells Ted Nealon about taking part in the Wren Boy activities and as Captain not being able to have a drink.  79 year old John (Jack) Duggan talks about his plans to go out with the Wren Boys this forthcoming Saint Stephen’s Day. Jack has been involved with the Wren Boys since he was twelve and played the concertina.  John is also a bodhrán maker and describes in detail how to go about it using a sieve from a barrel for the rim and the skin of a goat . . . (from the RTE Archive notes 1966)

Sonny Canavan is interviewed again in 1977 (above):

. . . Sonny Canavan raises goats to provide the skin for his instruments and he gave this particular man a goat so he too could make a bodhrán. The man explains that after he shot and skinned the goat, the skin was buried for nine days it was then dug up and putting in on the bodhrán rim . . . (from the RTE Archive notes 1977)

And this piece is of additional interest because it shows Listowel playwright and writer John B Keane visiting Sonny to talk about bodhráns. J B Keane wrote The Bodhran Makers, which was published in 1986. The writer died in 2002.

Here’s another RTE piece showing concertina maestro Noel Hill, from Clare. I wrote about that instrument in The Clare Trumpet.

. . . Iarla Ó Lionáird introduces Noel Hill who plays a concertina made in the 1860′s. Noel Hill describes this concertina as having a special tone and an unusual key. From Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann in Monkstown, Co. Dublin, Noel Hill performs two reels, ‘The Wind that Shakes the Barley’ and ‘Trip to Durrow’. . . (from the RTE Archive notes 1988)

We have never written about traditional Irish dancing – there’s a good subject! A post for another day, perhaps: it’s certainly thriving in Ireland. It enjoyed a great revival of popularity with the River Dance shows, but that was professional and polished (and impressive!) – but I like to see the raw version: people young and old dancing for personal enjoyment and entertainment in their kitchens or at the scoriachts. So, to finish for today (although I haven’t even scratched the surface of what’s on offer in the RTE archives), here are two pieces: The Fastest Reel in the West, from 1972, and Door Dancing, from 1981.

. . . Gay Byrne introduces John Conneely from Knock, Kilshamuck, Co. Mayo, who performs a reel in his own unique style to the music of ‘George White’s Favourite’ performed by John Cleary. The remarkable thing about this is that John had previously been hospitalised for months following a fall on a building site in England which left him with a broken back. Ciaran MacMathuna who is sitting in the audience describes John’s unique dance as “the fastest reel in the west”. . . (from the RTE Archive notes 1972)

. . . In Ireland long ago it was customary when groups of people worked together, as a ‘Meitheal’ to dig potatoes or save hay, that they would gather after a day’s work to relax and have a dance. These gatherings took place in traditional Irish cottages with mud floors and flagstones. A door was taken off its hinges to provide a flat surface for dancing. Solo set dancers were asked to dance on the doors as the skill of the dancer is best shown by how well they can produce the variety of steps within the narrow confines of the dance surface. In order to gauge the best dancer amongst a group of solo dancers, they placed four glasses on the corners of the door to help determine the most skilled dancer. The person to spill the least amount of water was the winner of the competition . . . (from the RTE Archive notes 1981)

Tailpiece – from the RTE Stills Library – The Oranmore Céilí Band, 1985:

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 . . .