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 . . .

Danny

My best friend Danny passed away this week. He chose St Swithun’s Day to go – perhaps because there is a message in the saint’s story – and Danny was a goldmine for the stories. St Swithun – whose monastic community was in Winchester, Hampshire – died in 862. On his deathbed Swithun begged that he should be buried outside the north wall of his cathedral where pilgrims would pass over his grave and rain from the eaves would drop upon it. This was done, but a number of monks felt that this was too humble a place for their bishop, so they worked hard for a year and built a large and ornate mausoleum, decorated with gold and fine carvings. On the anniversary of his death – 15 July – preparations were made to move Swithun into it, but a mighty storm blew up. It lasted 40 days and everything was flooded for miles around. The stately tomb was washed away, and Swithun – as he wished – has enjoyed his simple and peaceful resting place ever since.

Danny loved his simple life tucked away in the hills of West Cork. I first met him in 1978, when he visited the folklore shop we had just opened in Devon, close by where he lived then. From that day our paths crossed frequently, and I came to know his wife Gillian and their five daughters. At that time Danny kept goats and made bodhrans from them – those are the circular framed drums that are frequently used to accompany Irish traditional music. Danny’s hand-crafted bodhrans were considered outstanding by players, and now examples of his instruments can be found across the world. This one is in my own collection:

For me, Danny was a fount of knowledge about Ireland, Irish life and Irish music and literature. I have probably also heard every story about his own travels, which seemed to start in his birthplace of Limerick and took him to most exotic places, finishing here in West Cork, with many stops along the way. It’s sad to think that his life here has passed, but I’m sure his soul soars over this lush and beautiful landscape – and will continue to do so forever. Goodbye, Danny – and safe home.

 

Hares in Abundance

exhibition poster

“And now, Sir Hare, good-day to you. God guide you to a how-d’ye-do with me…” (from the Middle English poem – Names of the Hare – translation by Seamus Heaney)

You may know that I am a Hare fanatic. Every day as I travel along through West Cork – driving, cycling or walking – I am scouring the fields and hedgerows in the hope of seeing one of these shy and elusive animals: very occasionally my watchfulness is rewarded. Last year I kept a Hare Diary… on the last day of December I counted up: I had seen only six, and two of these were in other parts of Ireland. Yet, when I first visited Ballybane West – just over the hill from here – back in the early 1990s I saw them on most days; one early morning then I looked out of the window and there was a whole luck of Hares running around the field beyond the house – at least ten of them.

felt hares

A luck of Hares by Christina Jasmin Roser, feltmaker

Where have all the Hares gone? I can’t answer that, but I can tell you that there are a whole lot of Hares in the Heron Gallery, Ahakista at the moment: Annabel Langrish and her husband, Klaus have mounted an excellent exhibition of art and craft works based around images of the Hare.

The exhibition brings together the work of several artists from the West of Ireland: paintings, drawings, feltwork, fabrics, papier mache, jewellery and ceramics. The whole makes a really attractive assemblage, but any one of the works on display – all of which are for sale – would be an elegant addition to your own art collection! I would readily bring them all here to Nead an Iolair but – as we already have numerous images of Hares around the house – Finola has put an embargo on further Hare imports (just for the moment).

Robert talking

Yours Truly was asked to say a few words about Hares at the exhibition opening: a wonderful portait of William the Hare by Sylvia Parkinson looks on

All the works in the Heron Gallery show bring out the magical qualities of this special animal. Mostly it is Lepus Timidus Hibernicus which is depicted: the Irish Hare. This belongs to the Mountain Hare species, related to Arctic Hares. Irish Hares don’t turn white in the winter but they do moult to a paler colour, and sometimes they have white patches then. There are also Brown Hares in Ireland: these were imported from Britain to add to the game stock on landlord estates from medieval times onwards.

Three ceramic Hares by Annabel Langrish, from the exhibition

Although the Irish Hare has been ‘legally protected’ since 1930 – and is listed as a protected species under EU legislation – it can be hunted under license, and Hare coursing is still permitted. This seems anomalous to me: those who support Hare coursing claim that the animals do not suffer. They are captured from the wild, caged (usually for several weeks), and released onto a course where they are chased by muzzled Greyhounds. After this they are put back into the wild. As their name would suggest (Lepidus Timidus), Hares are nervous animals and there can be little doubt that they do suffer stress through the ordeal. Many die before being released. Coursing has been banned in the UK since 2005. There have been moves to have Hares fully protected in Ireland.

The Hare’s Revenge: Dean Wolstenholme’s painting of Greyhounds coursing a Hare (right), while in the medieval woodcut (left) a Hare plays a tabor. The tabor is the forerunner of the Irish bodhran: I am reliably informed that the best skin to use for a bodhran is that of the Greyhound!

bugs_bunny_by_nightwing1975The Hare is a most ancient animal. Fossils have been found dating from Pleistocene times showing that the Hare has not changed or developed in three million years: presumably it is just so perfectly integrated to its environment. It also occupies a prime place in our own mythology. Hare is the archetypal Trickster figure in many cultures – helping to create the world, to bring fire to humans, generally being mischevious and getting into hopeless scrapes, but always coming out on top: just like Warner Brothers’ Bugs Bunny in fact – who is, of course, a Hare! Bugs (my favourite cartoon character) is loosely based on the Br’er Rabbit stories by ‘Uncle Remus’ – collected in the 1870s by Joel Chandler Harris from the oral tradition of the plantation slaves in the Southern United States. Br’er Rabbit (in America Hares are known as Jackrabbits) has his origin as a Trickster figure in African folk tradition.

I have gleaned most of my Hare lore from this much thumbed edition of The Leaping Hare by George Ewart Evans and David Thomson – published by Faber – which I acquired when it first came out in 1972. If you have an evening or three to spare I will happily regale you with tales of Hares gathered from far and wide and recorded in these pages.

pendants

Jewellery by Alison Ibbs

When I lived in Devon, on Dartmoor, I was fortunate to have around me many examples of a symbol known as The Tinners’ Rabbits. Chagford was a Stannary Town – a place where refined tin was assessed, coined, and sold and there was a story that the symbol was a badge of the tin miners. It depicts three Hares (not Rabbits) in a circle: each Hare has two ears, yet there are only three ears in total. A bit of a riddle, perhaps – but one which has been found all over the world, as a project carried out by Chris Chapman reveals. In Chagford’s medieval church (and in several others in Devon and elsewhere) there is a roof boss carved with the image.

There doesn’t seem to be any real evidence to connect the Tinners’ Rabbits symbol to the tin miners – however, there is a surviving superstition in Cornwall and in Ireland that if you meet a Hare while on your way to the mine (or, in some places, when you are going fishing) you turn around and go home!

Some of Annabel’s Hares in the exhibition (left) and (right) our own view of the Hare in the Moon seen from Nead an Iolair last week

Part of the universal folklore of Hares reminds us that it’s the Hare in the Moon we are seeing above us, not the Man in the Moon. And… I know you thought it was an Easter Bunny that brings the chocolate eggs – in fact it’s the Easter Hare! The Saxon spring festival of Ēostre celebrated a hero-Goddess who had a Hare as a companion… Well, that’s one of the many interpretations you will find of this moon-based festival.

Hare eggs and Hare ceramic by Etain Hickey

It’s not Easter now – it’s July – but you can go and see this exhibition on the Sheep’s Head for the rest of this month, and enjoy the beautiful gardens there as well. If, like me, you are a Hare fan, then don’t miss it!

Looking on