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The History of the Bodhrán

Much of the history of bodhráns is pure speculation. Some believe it has been in use for centuries in Ireland, brought to Eire by migrating Celts following one of two routes--from origins in Asia through Europe, or from origins in Africa via Spain.

Despite any lingering controversy surrounding its origins, how was the bodhran first used? Almost certainly not for any musical purpose, at least in its early days. Some theories hold that crude fife-and-bodhran corps accompanied military forces into fierce battles, providing stirring march music that motivated the troops. During harvest times, the bodhran likely saw considerable agricultural duty. A harvesting tool made of animal skin pulled over a wooden frame--called a "dalloch" by the Scots and a "dallan" by the Irish--was employed as a sifter for winnowing edible grains from chaff.

Another use for the bodhran was as a noisemaker during harvest festivals and rural mummers' plays. On St. Stephen's Day, when wren boys take to the streets to hunt the wren and collect money for village celebrations, they have traditionally beat on the bodhran or on slitted wooden discs called "sand riddles" (used by construction crews to sift rocks out of sand).

For centuries, the bodhran was an uncommon sight outside southwestern Ireland; in the 1960s, it was introduced to modern traditional music by Seán Ó Riada, credited by many as the father of the Irish music renaissance. Without much historical evidence behind his claims, Sean O Raida declared the bodhran to be the native drum of the Celts, with a musical history that predated Christianity. O Raida inserted arrangements for bodhran into the music for his group Ceoltóirí Chualann, which evolved later into the world-famous Chieftains. He also recruited a bodhran player, Ronnie McShane, into the group to play the bodhran parts. Davy Fallon (then in his seventies) and Peadar Mercier also rose to musical fame playing the bodhran on early recordings of the Chieftains.

In the decades since Sean O Raida first introduced the instrument, the bodhran has become a fixture in the Celtic music scene. It is the percussion instrument of first resort on Celtic recordings, and many virtuosos have achieved fame and a fan base beating on a bodhran, including Johnny 'Ringo' McDonagh, Tommy Hayes, Robin Morton, Christy Moore, John Joe Kelley, Frank Torpey, and Colm Murphy. The bodhran has become accepted as a true Irish traditional instrument, securing its place as a featured instrument in the annual All-Ireland Championships musicianship competition.