The History and Evolution of the Irish Bodhran
At the beginning of every lecture I try to keep it light and engage with all the students. To get the students attention I’ve come up with a fun approach. I start by saying “The facts you are about to hear are all lies!” It definitely grabs their attention immediately and I have 150 faces looking at me blankly!
My statement is of course not true. However, I’ve spent many years researching the bodhrán and honestly I’ve learned that there is no definitive history of the bodhran in Ireland. We can only rely on word of mouth (more like Chinese whispers), handed down through the years by the many generations.
The information and stories we hear are all narrated to us by our parents and grandparents. In other words, the history of the bodhrán is only hearsay. We have little concrete information.
Theories of the Origin of the Bodhrán
If you research the history of the bodhran online, you will come across several quite varied opinions of the drum’s roots. Many claim it is an ancient druidic drum. Below are some of the theories which exist.
A trade route for the bodhrán could be traced back to over several millennia ago. The trade route may have been in Persia. This is supposedly where the drum frame originated.
The reason people believe the drum originated from Persia is due to its use for the act of winnowing, or separating seeds. This seems the most likely source, as this is what provided the basic drum for most of the other frame drumming cultures.
North African Bendir
More recently, it’s believed that the bodhran may have come from North Africa. Frame drums are very popular in this region and are usually played by hand. This North African instrument, called the bendir was played in Ancient Egypt. As Ireland traded with Mediterranean countries, this makes it a likely theory.
This theory is based on use of the bodhran as a tool for dyeing wool. It’s believed that the rim could have been made of bent willow with the skin stretched and tied over the circular willow, then punctured to allow the dye to pass through. The popular colours for dyeing would have been purple (from the flower of the heather), green (from vegetables) and orange (from carrots). Purple and green are known as the Celtic colours.
Ceremonial War Drum
Interestingly, the bodhran was also used in battle as a war drum. This was to raise the temper of the fighting men against the enemy.
The bodhran was first mentioned in folklore. this comes from our grandparents and they probably heard it from their grandparents and this was with regards to The Wren. The Wren is said to have been a pagan ritual, so we presume the bodhrán was used around the 18th century, however it may have been introduced centuries before that, there’s no evidence of how far back it goes.
John B Keane wrote a book called the The Bodhrán Makers, it’s a good novel, however it’s not a history book! After years of research, it’s remarkable that there’s still no written history in existence and at this stage most likely there never will be.
The Wren Tradition
We know that the bodhrán has been in existence for many years, it’s now as popular as ever, but what made it so popular those many years ago?
After doing much research, I found the basis of what made the bodhrán so popular and ironically it was used as a beat played to the music on the day of The Wren, also known as Saint Stephen’s Day, which takes place December 26th.
So what was The Wren? It was when a group of men dressed up in straw hats and skirts, they blackened their faces with soot and entertained their local population by going from house to house playing traditional music and dancing in payment for food, money or drink and of course the craic which came with it! They were known as wrenboys, mummers or strawboys. This pagan tradition dates back a millennium, this means if the bodhrán was used, it goes as far back as then.
Legend has it that St Stephen was betrayed by a chattering wren while hiding from his enemies. The wren like St Stephen would be hunted down and stoned to death.
Another legend holds that during the Viking raids of the sixth century, Irish soldiers were betrayed by a wren as they were sneaking up on a Viking camp in the dead of night. The wren began eating crumbs left on a bodhrán drum head and the rat-a-tat-tat of his beak on the drumhead woke the drummer who sounded the alarm. The Irish were subsequently defeated and the wren blamed.
So if The Wren was celebrated as early as the first millennium it is possible that the bodhrán was also around at that time.
The Wren Lyrics
The wren the wren the king of all birds,
On Stephens Day was caught in the furze,
Although he is little his family is great,
I pray you lady you give us a treat.
My box would speak if it had only a tongue,
And two or three shillings would do it no wrong,
Sing holly sing ivy-sing ivy sing holly,
A drop just to drink would drown melancholy.
And if you draw it of the best,
I hope in heaven your soul will rest,
But if you draw it of the small,
It won’t agree with these wrenboys at all.
First Recordings of the Bodhrán
The bodhrán was first recorded in the 1920’s, it was recorded on a 78 record. It became popular in the fifties and sixties with the renewal in popularity of traditional Irish music and this gave life to the bodhrán makers of the sixties, such as Sonny Davey from Sligo, Charlie Byrne from Tipperary, Paddy Clancy from Limerick and many more.
Bodhrán-making became a cottage industry. In 1978, I joined the fraternity known as The Bodhrán Makers. An bodhrán was promoted by Seán O’Riada in his arrangements for Ceoltóirí Chualann, who later became The Chieftains, and was preferred by Seán to the snare drum used in the céilí bands.
The word bodhrán could also mean deafner, possibly as the wren boys used it to make a lot of noise. According to John B the wren boys sometimes added flattened pennies to the sides to make a jingle and hence the name bourine, short for tambourine.
The Much Maligned Bodhrán Player
The bodhran is regarded by some with derision, or at best suspicion. There are reasons behind this attitude, though I would obviously disagree myself.
The bodhrán seems easy to play. To the non-musician who wants to be thought of as a musician, the bodhrán would appear to be an easily acquired passport into a select company. Or it may be that he perceives the music as an entertainment with which everyone may, or should, join in. Whatever the motivation, the results are sometimes dreadful; a piano accordion, for example, accompanied by a battering of four or five aspiring bodhrán players, all producing personal variations on what they think is the beat is hardly likely to be music.
On the other hand the bodhrán can give a good lift to a session or to solo playing. The combination of the Irish flute and bodhrán is a well-tried one and many flute players like a good bodhrán accompaniment.
Wood and Goatskin
The bodhrán frame is made from a variety of different timbers, the most popular being plywood. The use of crossbars gives added strength to the frame. Goatskin is mainly used, but I have heard of people using a variety of animal skins. Goats are not killed for their skins. The skin is a byproduct. The skins that are used today come from a variety of countries mainly Ireland, North Africa, India and Pakistan.
To finish off, a researcher friend of mine was researching the word bodhrán and believes that it comes from the Irish word bodhraigh, which means anger or aggravate. Relate this to winnowing, the separating of the wheat from the chaff. As the wheat bounced against the skin, the wheat is agitated and the chaff separates. So the agricultural tool used to perform this operation could well be called a bodhrán.
So there you have it. A brief history of the bodhran. Though much information is speculation, this, in my professional opinion, is the most likely history of the bodhran.
If you’re taken with this legendary Irish instrument and want to try it yourself, have a read of my Expert Guide to Buying a Bodhran. It will teach you everything you need to know to about the mechanics of this seemingly simple instrument.