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We had never heard of the Celtic drum or, Irish frame drum, called the bodhran (officially bodhrán), until we met Eddie MacCormaic. Our Ireland Kerry tour included a bodhran lesson with MacCormaic during our stay in Cahersiveen, Co. Kerry.

Eddie MacCormaic plays a bodhran
Eddie MacCormaic plays a bodhran
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Eddie MacCormaic usually plays the bodhran at Irish traditional music evenings at An Bonnan Bui (The Yellow Bittern) pub on West Main Street in Cahersiveen. For our bodhran class, we met him at the Shebeen Bar & Restaurant on New Market Street.

Irish drum

As we gathered around wooden tables in a back room, MacCormaic distributed bodhrans and sat down with a pint of Guinness in front of him.

"A bodhran (pronounced bough-rawn) is the same one-sided drum that North American Indians use, but Irish musicians play it a different way," he said. "A bodhran player places his hand inside the Irish drum to create different sounds."

How to play a bodhran

MacCormaic impressed us with a variety of sounds as he moved the heel of his hand and his fingers in different locations inside the goatskin drum. "The important hand is not the hand with the stick. It's the hand inside the bodhran," he explained.

Bodhran-playing lesson at Shebeen Bar
Bodhran-playing lesson at Shebeen Bar
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

What does bodhran music sound like? Some people claim it sounds like an Irish heartbeat. Others say that it's more like a sack of potatoes tumbling down the stairs. Anyone who has heard Riverdance music will recall the haunting sound of bodhrans.

What is a bodhran?

We examined our musical instruments and noted several types of bodhrans. Some of the Celtic hand drums were large (20 inches / 50 cm). Other traditional Irish drums were smaller (15 inches / 38 cm).

The construction of the bodhran drums also varied. Although they all had bent wood frames and goatskin playing surfaces, attached with glue and tacks, some had crossbars of wood or metal inside. The bodhran loops also varied in width (two-to-six inches / five-to-15 cm).

"Some have double goatskins, so they are smooth, inside and out," said MacCormaic. "Decorative bodhrans have designs on them, so you can hang them on walls, but the pattern wears off as you play the drum. You'll pay more for bodhrans with designs."

How much does a bodhran cost?

You can pay as little as 30 to 40 €, but to buy a good bodhran, you'll pay 350 to 400 €, according to MacCormaic.

"Tunable bodhrans, which use screws or tuning knobs, are more expensive," he explained. "The goatskins on cheap bodhrans need to be heated with hair dryers or rubbing."

Bodhran sticks
Bodhran sticks
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Bodhran tippers

Bodhran sticks, also called tippers, cipins (in Gaelic, cip'n), beaters and bones, are usually made from wood. Bodhran tippers come in many sizes, shapes, weights and designs. Players often prefer one tipper over another, based on the size of their hands.

"You usually get a free tipper when you buy a bodhran," noted MacCormaic. "If you get a long tipper, then buy a short one and vice versa."

Eddie MacCormaic asked each of us to select a stick. Most were Kerry-style tippers with two heads. "If you are right-handed, hold the stick like you're holding a pen and you're going to write on your chest with it. Keep your wrist loose."

Bodhran lesson

Learning to play the bodhran is not as easy as it looks. "Hold the drum vertically on your left knee," said MacCormaic, as he taught us Kerry-style bodhran playing. (Left-handers did the reverse.)

Bodhran-playing instructions in Cahersiveen pub
Bodhran-playing instructions in Cahersiveen pub
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

"Hit the bodhran on the way up and then on the way down. Now go up and down." As everyone followed his instructions, the room resonated like a marching army.

"Faster! Go down and up along the full length, then hit the bodhran with the other end of the stick." Someone's stick flew across the table and hit another bodhran student on the other side. "You just have to keep practicing," advised our bodhran tutor.

The more we tried to play the bodhran, the more we admired Eddie MacCormaic's bodhran-playing skills. He turned on a CD player and played along with Irish music from West Clare. At times, his hand moved so quickly, it blurred.

Bodhran techniques

Our bodhran class played along with recorded Irish jigs and reels. "It doesn't have to be Irish music," noted MacCormaic as he switched to a CD of African music played with Irish instruments, including bodhrans.

Learning how to play bodhrans
Learning how to play bodhrans
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

"Irish music changes from village to village. If you travel 10 miles, you'll find a different tune. There's not a right way or a wrong way to play a tune."

MacCormaic gave us a variety of tips for bodhran playing techniques that create special sound effects. "If you want a soft sound, wrap a cloth around the stick.

"The only problem with using rubber bands to hold the cloth is that they fly off and end up in someone's pint of Guinness! A farmer once advised me to use the bands that are used for castrating sheep instead, because they last for 12 years!

"I also raided my wife's kitchen for basting brushes, which give a much softer bodhran sound than a wooden tipper. Bodhran players sometimes use split sticks for a rattling sound, and chopsticks or meat skewers, wrapped together at one end, to create unique bodhran percussion music."

Playing the bodhran

Our bodhran lesson ended with instruction on bodhran etiquette, when playing in a band with other musicians. "The bodhran can set the pace, with the fiddle, flute and harp coming in afterward," explained MacCormaic.

"At other times, the bodhran player can join in with the musicians, or all the musicians can start playing at the same time. Bodhran players have to react to the speed of the other musicians. You don't have to play a bodhran loudly for the music to stir passion."

Bodhran class in County Kerry
Bodhran class in County Kerry
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Learning to play the bodhran with Eddie MacCormaic was fun, challenging and informative. The next time we visit Cahersiveen, Co. Kerry, we plan to listen to MacCormaic play at An Bonnan Bui. Our bodhran lessons gave us a greater appreciation for the skills needed to play the Irish drum.


Tourism Ireland: www.discoverireland.com

More things to see and do in Ireland:

Irish Breakfasts at Ireland B&Bs

Southwest Ireland - Dowsing for Water and Earth Energy

Irish Folk Tours Dublin - Food, Folklore and Fairies

Sheepdog Trials and Training Border Collies - Kells Ireland

Puck Fair Festival - Killorglin Co. Kerry Ireland