An Bodhrán

by Cliff McGann

originally published in Celtic Heritage Magazine, Sept 96.

editted and re-published by Josh Mittleman


One of the most increasingly visible musical instruments in Celtic music is the Irish frame drum called the bodhrán. It is the instrument that when asked how it should be played Uillean piper Seumas Ennis replied "with a pen knife." His ambivalent attitude is one that is even more common today as many think that the bodhrán offers easy access into Celtic music and that simply isn't the case. The bodhrán like any instrument takes time to master and as one's instrument of choice shouldn't be entered into lightly. Bodhrán can be translated literally as 'deafener' or 'deafening' from the Irish word bodhar meaning deaf. While many attempt to claim the antiquity of the bodhrán as a musical instrument it has only been in the last thirty-five years, since its introduction into mainstream traditional music by Irish musical innovator Sean Ó Riada, that it has achieved acceptance within the tradition as a musical instrument. While the bodhrán itself was very much part of the tradition, as an agricultural instrument used in the process of winnowing grain and as a drum associated with the wren boys, its widespread musical use is much more recent.

Frame drums are common in many cultures and while the bodhrán itself isn't a unique instrument the style of playing it, with a wooden stick called a cipín, is. While there are exponents of an older style of bodhrán playing, in which the hand is used instead of a beater, the majority of players today use some type of cipín or tipper as it also known. When properly played the bodhrán contributes sympathetic rhythmic support that can take a performance up to a higher level. The key here is played well and as a relatively new musical instrument you won't find as many virtuoso bodhrán players as say fiddlers but they do exist. Johnny 'Ringo' McDonagh, best known for his work with Irish group De Dannan, is one of the finest exponents of the irish bodhrán. His bodhrán playing, which is unnasuming and unpretentious yet powerfull, set the standard for many players and you won't find any better than on Mary Bergin's Shanachie recording FeadÓga Stáin.

As the bodhrán becomes more widelly accepted other long time exponents of the instrument are taking their place at the forefront of the tradition. Colm Murphy, who replaced McDonagh in De Dannan, is one of these people. His solo debut An Bodhrán, available from Gael-Linn Records, 22 CearnÓg Mhuirfean, Baile Átha Cliath 2 Ireland, is a wonderfull example of the potential of the instrument in the hands of someone who has dedicated his life to its study. As an accompanying instrument a solo bodhrán album requires musicians to accompany and An bodhrán boasts some of Ireland's best fiddlers, pipers, and accordion players. Murphy's understated approach to the bodhrán belies his prowess on the instrument. The beauty of his playing becomes more and more evident with each listen as the intricacies of his style begin to reveal themself.

Mance Grady, honored by the Rhode Island State Council on the arts with the title Master Bodhrán Player, is justified in recieving that title as his thirty years as a Celtic percussionist attests. Grady is also a fine bodhrán maker and his bodhrán's can be heard on a wide variety of recordings including his solo debut. His debut features his often mind bogling bodhrán accompaniment to some the best traditional instrumentalists in the New England area including flute player Jimmy Noonan, accordionist Noel Scott and European Harmonica champion Chris Turner. This is a wonderfull debut and clearly illustrates the beneficial role that percussion can have in Celtic music when in the hands of a master. Mance Grady's debut is available from Grady Management, 94 Angell Road, Cumberland RI 02864.

More often than not the bodhrán is used within a group setting to punctuate the rythm of the main melody players. Cork City based Nomos have strong Cape Breton connections and in bodhrán player Frank Torpey posses one of the finest exponents of that instrument in traditional music today. Fiddler Liz Doherty, from Donegal, is completing her Ph D in traditional music with a thesis on Cape Breton music so tunes by composers Jerry Holland, Johnny Wilmot and Dougie MacDonald can be found alongside traditional Irish material. Doherty's fiddle and Niall Vallely's concertina take center stage with accompaniment from Gerry McKee on mandocello and John Spillane's guitar and bass. Nomos's I Won't Be Afraid Any More is available from Green Linnet Records, 43 Beaver Brook Rd., Danbury Ct. 06810,

Together for six years Illinois based Baal Tinne play traditional Irish music which combines jazz, rock, classical, and new-age influence into a fresh but familair take on Irish music. At the heart of Baal Tinne is flute player and County Tipperary native Noel Rice. Rice, who has played with some of Ireland's greatest musicians on both sides of the Atlantic, makes music a family affair and his daughter Cathleen (fiddle) and son Kevin (bodhrán) are both members of Baal Tinne. Baal Tinne's latest CD, The Haunting, combines fiddle, flute and bodhrán with the rich textures weaved by guitarist Matt Sundtrom and pianist Paul Cienniwa. Kevin Rice's bodhrán playing is expressive and innovative and more importantly complimentary helping to add intesity to Baal Tinne's unique arrangements. The Haunting is available from Baal Tinne, 2540 Happy Hollow Rd., Glenview, IL 60025.

Baltimore, Maryland based Celtic Thunder have been together since 1977 and was originally formed by flute and whistle player Linda Hickman and brothers Jesse and Terry Winch. Jesse is one of Celtic music's best percussionists and his bodhrán playing is top notch. Their latest release Hard New York Days, available from Kells Music, 64 New Hyde Park Rd., Garden City, NY 11530-3909, illustrates the groups continued evolution. Terry Wick continues to solidify his position as a quality composer and Regan Wick adds creative piano textures and some breathtaking step dancing. Throw Laura Murphy's rich vocals and Hickman's flute and whistle into the mix and you have one potent concoction. Jesse's bodhrán solo, which closes the album, clearly illustrates the command that he holds on the instrument.

Few have a lineage like Mel Mercier when it comes to the bodhrán. Mel's father Peadar was one of the earliest exponents of the instrument and an original member of the Chieftain's. [Ed. The original bodhránist for the Chieftains was David Fallon. Mercier replaced him in 1969.] Mel Mercier's Bodhrán & Bones, available from Interworld Music, RFD 3 Box 395A, Brattleboro, Vermont 05301 (802) 257-5519, is a wonderful video tutor on the role of percussion within Irish traditional music. Mercier begins by discussing the jig rhythm, one of the most common in Irish traditional music, and slowly introduces left hand techniques, the roll, and rim playing while continuing to build upon his initial lesson. All examples are played slowly, slow motion is utilized on more difficult techniques, and musical examples follow with Mercier accompanying Seumas Egan on the flute. Mercier's section on the bones, quite simply two cows ribs which are utilized to provide rhythmic framing for the melody player, is fascinating and the only tutor on the instrument to my knowledge available. On screen musical notation and a twenty page booklet which is included with the video makes this a well rounded learning package and one highly recomended to both the beggining and intermediate bodhrán player.

If one was seriously interested in learning to play the bodhrán Ossian Publications has the most extensive catalogue and is your one stop shopping spot for bodhrán learning materials. Behind the majority of Ossian's bodhrán material is Belfast native Steaphan Hannigan. Hannigan, a multi-instrumentalist and traditional music lecturer, has written The Bodhrán Book (OMB 71) which is the definitive book on the bodhrán and is accompanied by a demo tape containing musical examples of the lessons within the book. As good as the book is it is no replacement for having someone demonstrate the intracacies of the instrument to you firsthand. With that not always possible Ossian have released two video tutors that will provide you with everything you need to put you well on your way to becoming a very competent bodhrán player.

The Introductory Video (OSV 1) deals mainly with accompanying jigs and reels which are the two most common musical forms you will encounter in traditional Celtic music. Hannigan takes little for granted and provides the begginer with all the tools they will need to master the instrument. In discussing how to accompany jigs and reels close ups and split screen views are utilized making it much easier for the student to get an idea of exactly what Hannigan is doing. One of the hardest techniques to master on the bodhrán is the triplet yet with Hannigan's example I am sure most will be able to pick it up in no time (I did!). One of the most important aspects of bodhrán playing is that of dynamics. Most dynamics in bodhrán playing are provided by utilizing the left hand to alter the skin tension. The section on left hand techniques is very valuable to a player of any level as is his section on rim playing. There is enough to keep you busy on this video for quite a while and is well worth the investment.

The Advanced Bodhrán Video (OSV 2) deals with some of the more uncommon traditional music rythm's such as the slip jig, slide, polka, march, and mazurka. Hannigan is part of a new breed of bodhrán players utilizing many different world beat rhythms in his playing style and he shares many of them on this advanced video. Check out how well Irish tunes meld with rap, African, and other eastern European rhythms. His care and maintenance section is very beneficial and contains information every bodhrán player should be aware off. With a little practice and guidance from a master like Hannigan the bodhrán should become like putty in your hands. All the bodhrán publications from Ossian are highly recomended and can be obtained directly from Ossian Publications Ltd., P.O. Box 84, Cork, Ireland.

If you are interested in obtaining a bodhrán ask around or check The Bodhrán Page on the world wide web. There are bodhrán makers like Neil O'Grady and Paddy Mackey in Newfoundland as well as Malachy Kearns and Charlie Byrne in Ireland who specialize in bodhráns and make high quality instruments at a reasonable price for an instrument that will last a lifetime if properly made. Happy beating!!



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Josh Mittleman

Last updated 30 Mar 1999