Ruairi Glasheen told David Hennessy about his documentary series delving into the history and evolution of the bodhrán.
Ruairi Glasheen is a percussionist and film maker often focussing his work on the bodhrán and other drums or other countries’ drumming traditions.
The Irish World interviewed Ruairi in 2020 about his series of documentaries about the drumming traditions of India.
Now Ruairi has dived deep into Ireland’s musical history for the origin story of the bodhrán.
He believes it is the first documentary of its kind to research and review the history of the instrument, to attempt to tell the story of its origin.
The series sees him travelling the length and breadth of Ireland meeting iconic makers and players including Rónán Ó Snodaigh (Kila), Johnny Ringo McDonough (De Dannan), Tommy Hayes (Riverdance, Stocktons Wing), Mel Mercier son of the great Peadar Mercier of The Chieftains and Dermot Sheedy of Hermitage Green to name a few.
Imelda May herself also makes a cameo.
The film includes newly discovered, never before seen archive footage of Ireland’s first star bodhrán maker, Charlie Byrne. Charlie made drums for all the top bands of the 70s and 80s such as The Chieftains, Dubliners, De Dannan, and even John Denver.
Ruairi also went to Roundstone, Galway to meet revered maker, Malachy Kearns.
The doc also features Seamus O Kane, probably Ireland’s most respected bodhrán maker who has been using lambeg drum skins on his bodhran since 1975.
I get the feeling that this project has been a long time in the making but tell us where did it start? What made you want to delve into the history of the bodhrán in such a detailed way?
Ruairi says: “I suppose being a percussionist and a bodhrán player, I’ve always been fascinated with the origin story.
“Where did it come from? How did it become such a kind of important part of our heritage, our culture, and an important part but also a loved part, not just by me of course biased as a bodhrán player.
“But we love the bodhrán.
“Irish people everywhere: In the diaspora, on the island of Ireland. We love it and so I was always curious to sort of try and better understand where it came from and how it became so popular.
“I think that was the first kind of pillar of chiselling away, sort of trying to figure out through the myth and through a lot of the folklore around its origin, trying to pin down facts, look at history, look at what else was happening and try to find the truth beneath all of the different sources of information.
“I suppose the research and the curiosity for the film started many, many years ago but the actual production really started in 2021 whilst we were all locked down.
“The beginning of 2021 I sort of said, ‘Right, I’m going to give it a stab and see what I can do with this story’.”
Your journey certainly took you all around the country meeting famed bodhrán makers and players, you got to play an early version of the instrument, what was a particular highlight for you?
“Well, as I said, I’m completely biased to all of this.
“I mean, it was all truly fascinating (to me), but I suppose getting into the National Museum of Ireland and getting access to their archives that aren’t actually on public display, and never have been, and their collection of traditional Irish bodhráns and actually getting to see them up close and examine them, see where they came from, the little cards where people had written, ‘Donated in 1932 by Mrs. Dwyer from Offaly’ or whatever, and trying to kind of pick apart some of that part of the story just after independence.
“It’s very difficult to figure out what was happening with the drum between the years 1920 and 1950- ish, so this was a great insight to what may have been happening there.
“That was a great highlight and interviewing Charlie (Byrne)’s family and getting to see all of the pictures, the photographs, and of course, the archive footage from Jeff Cook, that was really exciting.
“Charlie was a loved maker but very, very secretive and enigmatic so it’s only now really that this information is sort of bubbling through with the film and we have probably what is the only archive footage of Charlie.
“Charlie was all lined up to do the RTE Hands programme in the 1980s which was very popular featuring Irish makers, and he pulled out last minute.
“That probably could have been the thing that sort of cemented him and his craft in terms of audio visual history, but I believe to have found the only video footage of Charlie at work in his studio, so that was really exciting.”
I loved the story of Charlie and how it was his daughter breaking a cupboard door in the house that got him to make her something else to play with and started his journey as this famed bodhrán maker.
You could do a whole programme on Charlie, couldn’t you?
“Absolutely, and that was the temptation really.
“The more you learn about Charlie, it feels like a John B Keane play and of course John B Keane wrote The Bodhran Makers and you can see why he was so taken by this incredible subculture of bodhrán makers.”
As knowledgeable as you are about the instrument, were their surprises for you along the way? “Well, I think there’s a lot of speculation as to where the tradition started and who was responsible for it, and so on.
“I think probably the most fascinating thing was that the drumming tradition in Ireland is unique.
“It’s relatively new but probably the most interesting aspect was the name change which is credited to Seán Ó Riada in 1960.
“Seán Ó Riada was really the one who took the drumming tradition in Ireland- It was used in the wren hunt and played a little bit in traditional music circles- But the fact that he suddenly decided to change the name from tambourine to bodhrán and that was very interesting to kind of get real clarification on that.
“We had letters from John B Keane to the maker Malachy Kearns that sort of lists that Seán Ó Riada came to see Sive in the Abbey Theatre or was involved in the production as musical director 1959 and then he was really interested in this drum and was sort of like, ‘Right, this is the bodhrán. We’re calling it a bodhrán’.
“And that was very interesting, I think.”
You met with Mel Mercier, son of Peadar Mercier of The Chieftains. The Chieftain played a big part in the story of the bodhrán, didn’t they?
“Absolutely, you could argue that The Chieftains were singularly the main source of getting traditional Irish music mainstream and also bringing it to a global audience.
“Of course, there are many, many others and that was a whole kind of community of musicians but The Chieftains, I think, you could really argue that they were the ones who sort of pushed it up onto that next level.
“And, as you said, the bodhrán being a very important part of the lineup there, played by Peadar Mercier, Ireland’s first professional bodhran player and definitely a crucial character in the story of the instrument because everyone sort of looked to Peadar as to how to play, how to interpret the instrument technically, how to make instruments even as well.
“Peadar made his own his own bodhráns and so he was really important in terms of setting the gold standard for bodhrán players to kind of aspire to and to imitate.”
There’s a good point made in the second episode that the bodhrán is probably a more suitable symbol for Ireland than the traditional harp..
“Absolutely. I really connected with that, that was Malachy Kearns from up in Roundstone.
“There’s something that really got me thinking about that.
“The drum got a lot of stick over the years.
“And is there something, particularly within the diaspora, that people connect with that kind of outsider? The drum is on the outside, it’s not really kind of legitimised within the purest traditional music circles.
“Is there something that we connect with, something that I connect with, that kind of feeling of being on the outside?
“The bodhrán is this loud, proud, brash, almost tribal instrument and I wonder if there’s something in that that makes us like it even more?”
It’s Malachy’s wife Gifty, who comes from a completely different country, that says, ‘The rhythm’s in my blood’.
That just shows that it is not unique to Ireland and that other nationalities can connect to it as well.
“Gifty Kearns loves music and the indigenous music from where she comes from, but she plays the Irish bodhrán and she’s so proud to play the bodhrán in her own way, like we all do.”
We haven’t yet mentioned Imelda May, who makes a cameo. What was it like to get her involved? And how did you enjoy chatting with her about it? “It was absolutely brilliant and it was kind of a slightly chaotic story as to how we managed to include Imelda in this story.
“We were actually filming on St Stephen’s Green and then me and my tiny crew of two people- me and my brilliant DOP Michelle Tofi, who was my collaborator on the film, see another crew of about 25 people and we’re like, ‘Oh, I wonder who that is’.
“We look over and I see Imelda May and were like, ‘Oh my god, we have to try. We have to try and get Imelda May’.
“So I was kind of like, ‘HI everyone, how we doing?’
“And they’re like, ‘Get him away’.
“I say, ‘Imelda, you play the bodhrán. We’re doing a bodhrán documentary, can we get a few words?’
“And everyone’s like, ‘Nuh- uh- uh’.
“And Imelda just goes, ‘Yeah, I will’.
“And she walked over and she was so generous and answered a few questions, and was just so lovely and interesting.
“And it really tells you about bodhrán players and the stewardship within the bodhrán community.
“She really did not have to talk to us on that day and she was so lovely and generous and brilliant, insightful in the little bit of time we had to speak.
“So that was the story with getting Imelda May.”
Ruairi has just released his fourth and final episode of this series charting the history and focusing on how playing styles have evolved.
Ruairi balanced the shooting and the editing of the series with his other work.
Ruairi is London-based and teaches the bodhrán at the London Irish Centre.
“I absolutely love working with the London Irish Centre on their community programme and of course, they are a warm and welcoming home for us to come and have bodhrán workshops at the centre and it’s absolutely fantastic to work with them.”
Ruairi pitched the series to platforms such as RTE and TG4 but decided to go with YouTube where some episodes have nearly 80,000 views.
“The beauty of doing it as an independent film is that really my focus is kind of more on the historical side, so the players that were kind of there when everything was happening, particularly in the 70s.”
Some of the videos have 60- 70,000 views, you must be pleased..
“The beauty of YouTube is that that will be there presumably hopefully for a long time.
“I think YouTube is almost 20 years old so I hope that in terms of research on the tradition and Irish music that that’s one tiny little kind of bookmark in that sort of historical log and certainly visually, it’s an aural tradition, is something we watch, and we listen, to absorb, so to see it and to hear the players that kind of shaped the tradition.
“You know, I hope that young players and players will kind of see and feel an almost education looking at these guys who were there when this was all kind of bubbling.
“That’s certainly my hope.”
Seems to me going independent has really been to the project’s benefit.
For instance if another outlet had picked it up, they might green light it in theory but then not actually move forward, as happens..
“Or it’s a 40 minute one piece that kind of dips a toe into the topic but doesn’t really kind of dive headfirst into it and really explore it and kind of thrash out all the kind of different avenues.
“I think you can do that in an online space where you can stretch it, you can do loads of episodes, and really get into the nitty gritties of the different characters and aspects of the story.
“But I guess the thing with the YouTube platform is it’s global, more or less almost all over the world.
“And it’s completely democratic, anyone anywhere can watch it for free and learn about this really, to me, interesting topic of the bodhran and how it came to be such a prominent part of our culture, from wherever they are in the world.
“And it’s there 24/7.”
As mentioned earlier, you have made several documentaries about the bodhrán and about drumming traditions in other countries like India and Iran. It’s a broad question but what does the bodhran mean to you? And has it changed along the way? Could you have imagined when you first picked up a bodhran how instrumental, no pun intended (or maybe it was), it would be to your life?
“Yeah, I mean, it’s so unusual, really, isn’t it?
“I mean, looking at how the drum itself, the more I’ve learned about the history and the kind of how one thing led to another.
“I started playing in the mid 90s when I was a smalley and even since that point, how much everything has changed so much in style and everything.
“But, you know, there’s something very personal.
“When you hold a bodhran, it’s almost like cradling.
“Earlier this year, I was teaching Lorraine Kelly how to play bodhran on her show around St. Patrick’s Day and she’s like, ‘Oh you cradle it like a wee puppy’.
“And Gifty talked about that, it’s almost like holding a baby and there is something very cozy and comforting about it.
“It is a very, very unique instrument to play in that sense whereas very often when you’re playing a musical instrument, you are here and the instrument is in front of you, you have a sort of gap between you and the instrument.
“So there is something very, very personal about playing the instrument.
“You know, we’re all built different shapes and sizes, different drums, different makers, everyone has their own voice and their own kind of way of playing so I think it’s a very individualised kind of practice.
“And I think I connect with that a lot.
“You can really just be yourself when you’re playing your instrument, playing the bodhran.”
How did Lorraine take to the bodhrán, Ruairi?
“Oh, she was brilliant..
“She was absolutely brilliant and really enthusiastic about it which was great. It was a lot of fun just to kind of bring the bodhrán to a more mainstream audience.
“I think as Irish people and as musicians, we can be really proud of this drum and our bodhrán heritage, even if it’s relatively new depending on when you think it started.
“I think it’s unique and it’s Irish, and we should be proud of it.”
For more information about Ruairi, click here.