I was recently listening to the soundtrack to River Dance. I find that the lack of lyrics in the music makes it useful to listen to while writing. I've listened to the music dozens of times, yet for some reason, I was struck by something new this time: namely, the prevalence and importance of the drums in the music. Perhaps I never picked up on it before because the sound of all those clogs creates an overwhelming impression of percussion. Yet if it weren't for the drums and their undeniable rhythm, none of those Irish dancers would be able to find the beat. So that made me wonder, exactly how much of a tradition do drums have in Ireland?
When it comes to Irish drums, the bodhran pretty much has a corner on the market. Interestingly, this instrument's history is a relatively short one, at least as it compares to those of drums in some other areas of the world. The first definite record of the bodhran's use was only about four hundred years ago, in 1603, when it was used by the Irish during their rebellion against the English. Like the taiko drums of Japan, the bodhran was used as a tool of war, allowing pipers and warriors alike to maintain a proper marching cadence. It must have been effective because for the next four centuries, this instrument remained the property of warfare and noisemakers. It was not used as an instrument of music until modern times.
In the 1960s, there was a resurgence of popularity in traditional Irish music. This trend was largely due to the influence of Sean O Riada, an Irish composer and bandleader whose compositions did a great deal for the international reputation of Irish music. Riada use of the bodhran in his music had the effect of establishing the drum as a legitimate musical instrument. Since then, this drum has gained a reasonable amount of popularity in Scotland and northern Europe, although it remains most common on its home turf of Ireland.
A bodhran is a frame drum, meaning a drum whose diameter is greater than its depth. It can range in diameter from 10 to 26 inches, although most measure 14 to 18 inches across. The depth can be anywhere from 3.5 to 8 inches. The instrument is open on one side and has a drumhead on the other, which is traditionally made from the skin of a goat. However, as with so many modern versions of traditional drums, the drumheads of 21st century bodhrans are often of synthetic materials. Because one side of the drum is open, an artist can place his hand against the inside of the drumhead, which permits him to control the instrument's pitch and timbre.
Bodhrans are usually played in a seated position. The artist holds the drum vertically against his thigh and supports it with his upper body and one hand. The other hand, as mentioned, is placed inside the drum to allow for tension control. These drums may be played with the bare hand, but a traditional drumstick may also be used. The names of this drumstick include "bone," "tipper," "beater," and "cipin." Some artists also utilize brushes, but this is a very recent advent. There are a wide variety of accepted playing styles, and because this is still a relatively "new" instrument, these are constantly evolving.