The Irish (or Celtic) frame drum known as a bodhran has a long and somewhat mystical history. It’s unclear where this hand held wooden framed drum originated. How it got to Ireland is also still open to speculation – but it’s clear that one version or other of the bodhran appears to have been present on the island for many centuries. Some believe that as the Celts wandered from Asia, they brought this drum along, and it made its way through Europe to what is now Ireland. Still others feel that this now popular percussion instrument has its origins in Africa and that the Celts first brought it with them on their journey through Spain.
Today’s bodhrans use circular wooden frames which have animal skins (typically goat) or synthetic materials stretched over them on one end. This lightweight percussion instrument is played by holding it on one arm, with the hand inside and able to touch the skin in order to control the tone. Traditionally, players strike the drumhead with a relatively short, single- or double-headed stick known as a tipper. The most common playing style utilizes a two-headed tipper and is known as the Kerry style. With this method of playing, one end of the tipper is used to maintain a rhythmic beat, while the other end generates various rolls and tonal embellishments. The bodhran may also be played with the knuckles, fingers, or the palm of the hand, and these will produce different ranges of tone as well as volume.
Oddly enough, the bodhran may not have been originally intended for use solely as a percussion instrument. With its wooden frame and animal skin cover on one end, it appears to have served as an agricultural implement that was used during the harvest to separate grain from its husks chaff by tossing the grain in the air. The Irish refer to such farming tools as dallans, and they were used extensively in the past. Nonetheless, the bodhran may also have been used as a crude “noisemaker” during the important harvest festivals that took place in villages all over the countryside.
Whatever its origins and initial uses, the bodhran had been largely confined to the southwestern part of Ireland until the 1960s. Then, its presence was extended beyond those borders by Sean O’Riada – and specifically for playing traditional Irish/Celtic music. Many, in fact, consider O’Riada as the patriarch of the resurgence of Irish music, who brought attention to more modern forms of traditional Irish music, as well. O’Raida even went so far as to proclaim the bodhran the “native drum” of the Celts, and he claimed that it was already used as a musical instrument well over two thousand years ago. Although such assertions are unlikely to be substantiated (or disproved), the mystical air that envelopes the culture of the Celts and their music has certainly led, in part, to the enchantment with the Bodhran among both professional as well as amateur players. Growing numbers of musicians and musical groups worldwide are incorporating this instrument into their performances – and their audiences absolutely adore it!
To experience today’s bodhran in action, check out the sounds of players such as Donnchadh Gough, Johnny “Ringo” McDonagh, John Joe Kelly, Kevin Conneff (of the Chieftains), and many others.
See Bodhrans for sale at Daly Music!