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A terrible beauty is bodh-rán … the invention of the fabulous Irish drum

7 February, 2016
Féile na Tána, festival, Carlingford
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Carlingford, Louth, Ireland

ibodhran 0800 bodhranIn 2016 the dogs of the street know what a ‘bodhrán’ is. It is played in hundreds of sessions nightly all over Ireland, flaunted by the major Irish Traditional bands, and is used as a noise-maker at not only GAA but also soccer and rugby matches and even at international cricket where Ireland is involved. Every major Irish politician has posed with one, and every kind of product has been advertised on them. Yet the revolutionaires who went out a century ago in 1916 would never have heard it or seen it. So where does this magnificient, seductive percussion instrument come from? Fintan Vallely here cheerfully challenges myth, imagination and wishful thinking in the currently accepted history of that unique Irish drum. He explores the perceptions of Irish drum culture, looks scientifically at the evidence of the drum’s antecedents,  and the meaning of the word bodhrán itself. His interim conclusions are that the famous Irish drum has no ancient artistic past: it was universally known in the late 1800s and early 1900s as what it was – a ‘tambourine’, and the actual ‘bodhrán’ was only a common agricultural and household utensil, and often a sieve. So indeed,, the history of the bodhrán that we have is riddled with holes. Yet the bodhrán IS around, and being brilliantly played, as solid and sought-after an art and presence as the harp or the pipes. But we borrowed the rhythms from dancers’ feet, the device itself from Black & White Minstrels, The Salvation Army or regimental bands, and we synthesized the modern playing style from the sounds of Ulster Lambeggers, Indian tabla tippers and Scottish pipe-band snare drummers.

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