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Ireland, Irish music
THE BODHRÁN MAKER
Eamon is one of the world’s top bodhrán makers and a visit to his studio had been high on my list since I’d heard him playing with his band The Slieve Gullions (named after the mountains he sees from his studio window), and saw some of his carvings.
Holding one of the finished drums awaiting dispatch to a client in Japan, I ask him how he begins the task of making these instruments.
‘First I catch my goat’ said Eamon with a grin, before going on to explain that the wild goats that roam the hills and mountains of the magnificent countryside around Belfast do great damage to trees and fences and are wont to attack people on little provocation. This poses a problem for the authorities.
‘Licences to cull them can be had’ he continued. ‘I spend a lot of my time walking on the mountains looking for the goats because I need to know exactly where they are.’
It’s no easy matter though, stalking a goat on the hills of Antrim, getting the clean shot to the head, skinning the animal and then curing the skin, but it does mean that Eamon controls every part of the process and that the input of art and craft into making the bodhráns is all his. And it’s not just the skin he uses: he makes the cipins (drum sticks) from the bones of the animal as well.
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No one knows for sure, but it is thought that the origins of this instrument lie somewhere in Ireland’s distant past when the people used the only resources available to them to make drums, skins from the wild goats and deer that roamed the land. Although frame drums are found in many cultures, the style of playing the bodhráns is unique. Originally, it is thought, the players would have used their hands to beat out a rhythm but later the bones of the family pig or goat were substituted. Today, the best of these drumsticks, the cipins (pronounced ki-peens) are still made from animal bones.
‘Goatskin is by far and away the best material,’ he said ‘and I cure it by putting it into a sealed barrel of lime for about three weeks by which time all the hairs and any bits of flesh that have adhered to the skin will separate from it. I just rub my hands along it and all the debris comes off.’
‘Personally, I like billygoat skin because it is heavier’ one bodhrán player told me, ‘but some musicians like the skin of a nannygoat which is thinner and more flexible and can give a wider tonal range. In America they use all sorts of skin, calf, elk and buffalo, but nothing is as good as goat. Ultimately, I suppose, it depends on the style of the individual player.’
The majority of the bodhráns made by Eamon are tunable with pegs on the side for adjusting the sound, but many players still use the old system of dampening the skin with Guinness to tighten and loosen the head to maintain a balanced sound.. Water can be used, of course, but as the Guinness is usually flowing when the music is being played, it’s a handy alternative!
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Bodhráns range in size from 16” to 18” but the one used by most professionals because it has a larger area to play on, is the 18”. The wooden surround is usually made from birchwood, expanded and rounded to take the skin which will have been stretched to just the right degree of tautness and attached while very wet.
One of the essentials to playing the bodhrán is to know how to hold the cipins correctly, a skill which Eamon teaches in the workshops he holds locally in Belfast, various places in Europe, and the USA. The double-headed cipins are held as you would a pen and played by turning the wrist and forearms back and forth to produce different tonal levels. Properly played they can notch the performance up to a high level of emotional intensity.
At one of his workshops a group of the world famous Kodo drummers from Japan, who were visiting Ireland at the time, came to take part. Eamon describes the session as leaving both drummers and audience breathless, as they coaxed rhythms from a range of drums that was staggering.
‘Later on I took them to John McKenna’s pub on the Lough for a session and they loved it,’ he said. ‘The McPeake Pipers were there and these Japanese drummers had never heard the Aeolian pipes before and they couldn’t get over the sound.
‘We knew the Japanese liked seafood so we got a lot of cockles, mussels, eels, and dulse (a type of Irish seaweed) for them. The craic was ninety, there was singing in both Irish and Japanese, and they even tried some Irish dancing!’ (Wearing one of his other hats, Eamon also teaches Irish set dancing).
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Although I’d come to discuss with Eamon the making of this instrument, my eyes kept wandering to the carvings on which he was working and, the pieces of driftwood from the shores of the nearby Loughs placed to show off their peculiarities. Completed bodhráns bound for the USA, Europe and Japan sat waiting for the carefully chosen Celtic designs from the Book of Kells to be painted on the skin with water-proof leather dye, pairs of cipins neatly alongside them.
Some of his carvings looked as though carved from ebony, but this was bog-oak, a black carbonised wood that has lain in Ireland’s soil for between seven and nine thousand years, buried nine to ten feet down in the bog.
‘How do you get it out’ I asked. ‘Do you have a digger?’
Eamon laughed. ‘No, I have to dig it out myself with a spade,’ he said. ‘Then it has to dry out for eighteen months before I can start work on it, but I like working with it.’
The bog oak’s harsh blackness is a perfect foil for the figures he carves, quintessentially Irish yet rooted in senses we all share. In the Survivors of Trauma Centre in Belfast where those most damaged by the Troubles come to spend time, two of his carvings, Dagda (a favourite ‘good’ God) and St. Bridget (patron saint of healing) dominate, the black bogwood lending a powerful resonance to the life-size figures. Much of his work goes abroad however, and can be seen in private and public buildings in countries from Luxembourg to the USA. One mansion in San Franscisco was especially built to incorporate seven of his carvings - with a niche for a bodhrán, of course.
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Maguire is immersed in his country’s history, a man rooted in a culture
of Irish music, dance and art. His carvings of ancient Irish heroes, his
music and his bodhrán making are part and parcel of the same artistic
and historic process.
His bodhráns have found
homes with many famous names, not only with famous bands like The
Chieftains, but with Bob Dylan, the Everley Brothers, footballer Jackie
Charlton, Bill Clinton, Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, and
With the bodhráns it’s different however. He makes these to order, paints the name of the client on the side of the drum - in Irish - and adds his own quirky touch, a tuft of goat’s hair.
When you see anyone, anywhere, playing the bodhrán, ask if Eamon Maguire was the maker. Or look for his ‘signature’ a Celtic Cross from the Book of Kells and the Alpha and Omega sign.
I’ll guarantee the sound will be perfect.
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