The origins of the bodhran are both mystic and mundane. For every origin story of druid ritual inventing it there is an equally likely theory of farm tools turned into instruments. Several origins refer to peat carriers and grain shifters being flipped over and drummed upon similar to the origins of the cajon. Beyond ritual and entertainment purposes, the bodhran served as a drum of war, evoked below in O’Sullivan’s March by The Cheiftains.
Besides martial sounds, the Bodhran blended into the holiday tradition of Wrenboys on the Feast of St. Stephen, the day after Christmas. Y oung boys and bachelors, dressed in straw and as motley jesters would march from house to house performing and asking for coins. Beating on their bodhrans to announce their arrival and singing songs of “the wren, the wren the king of all birds” the coins they would gather would go to charity, to a winter “Wrenball” or because they were young men, into their own pockets. Combining ancient pagan traditions with the Christmas festivities they brought the bodhran into modernity.
In the 1960’s the bodhran moved into modernity with virtuosos developing new techniques and bringing the bodhran to international prominence. Traditional Irish music advocate Sean O Riada declared the bodhran the national drum of Ireland opening the floodgates to a new generation of patriotic percussionists. Players like Peadar Mercier brought the bodhran from county fairs to concert halls showcasing new techniques on this ancient drum. Johnny McDonaugh, featured below, introduced several new dampening techniques to increase the dynamic range of the bodhran.
The bodhran’s evolution is far from over, it has become an icon of Ireland nurtured by bodhran competitions across the isle. Techniques continue to evolve with jazz brushes, hand techniques, and even multiple beater techniques being developed. Below, percussionist Steve Holloway integrates his bodhran with his drum kit.
From fabled tradition to modern techniques the bodhran’s beat has evolved but stays true to its Celtic heart.