Johnny "Ringo" McDonagh with Brian McGrath.

Peadar Mercier with Paddy Moloney & Seán Potts.

Tommy Hayes and Mathew Noone.

John Joe Kelly solo at Craiceann Bodhrán Festival.

The examples in this table can be more easily viewed in an expanded form here.

Anna Colliton duetting with Cara Wildman.

The Bodhrán: A Literature and Performance Practice Review 

An artistic research process always starts with the choice of specific working materials—which implies knowledge of and a sharp focus on their contingent modes of existence, including their history and their temporal, geographic, and cultural situatedness. 

(Assis and D’Errico, 2019, p. 3) 


Here I review existing literature related to the origins of the bodhrán, its cultural contexts, manner of construction and performance practices. I then focus on current and historical performance practices of individual players who play with a stick, concluding with some observations on how certain approaches to sticking may warrant further exploration.  

The Origins of the Bodhrán 

The bodhrán is a single-headed frame drum (Robinson, 2003, p. 362), consisting of a round wooden hoop of about 40 cm to 50 cm in diameter over which a cured animal skin (usually goat) is stretched to form the drumhead; it is played by hand or with a stick (Ó Danachair, 1955, p. 129; Ó Súilleabháin, 1984, p. 1; Robinson and Brocken, 2003, p. 349). Since the 1950s its popularity has grown rapidly (Ó Súilleabháin et al. 2001) to the point where it is now considered the “iconic form of percussion used in Irish traditional music” (Cunningham and Vallely, 2011, p. 68). It is sometimes speculatively attributed Bronze Age Celtic, Roman or Arabic origins (Ó Súilleabháin, 1974a, p. 4; O’Mahoney, 1999, p. 34; Uí Ógáin, 2002, p. 141; Morrison, 2011, p. 38). Such suppositions are lent a degree of credibility by the ubiquity of similar frame drums across time and geographical distance around the world (Robinson, 2003, pp. 362–363), but they are not supported by any direct evidence (Ó Bharáin, 2008, p. 53).


Popularisation of the use of the word ‘bodhrán’ to refer to a frame drum used in the context of Irish traditional music is often credited to Seán Ó Riada (Cunningham and Vallely, 2011, p. 68), through his inclusion of the instrument in his ground-breaking ensemble Ceoltóirí Chualann, who first came to national prominence in 1961 (Bradley, 2011, p. 121).  The Gaelic word ‘bodhrán’ was first documented in written form in sixteenth century Gaelic translations of the Rosa Anglica manuscript, a fourteenth century English medical reference originally written in Latin (Ó Bharáin, 2007, p. 54; Cunningham and Vallely, 2011, p. 70). Comparing three Gaelic translations of the manuscript, Ó Bharáin observes that the word ‘bodhrán’ was used as a substitute for the word ‘tabur’, in reference to the mediaeval tabor, a double-headed frame drum (Montagu, 2010). Based on this Ó Bharáin concludes that a frame drum named the ‘bodhrán’ existed in Ireland at that time. However, Cunnigham and Vallely cast doubt on the certainty of this conclusion, noting that no usage of the word is found in documentation of musical practices from this period, although they concede that ‘such an absence could be status related’ (Cunningham and Vallely, 2011, p. 70).


What seems more certain is that the word ‘bodhrán’ was used to refer to an agricultural winnowing implement for sifting grain, and that this implement was similar in form to a frame drum (Ó Súilleabháin, 1984, p. 3; Ó Bharáin, 2007, p. 51; Cunningham and Vallely, 2011, pp. 69–71). Cunningham and Vallely indicate that written sources document the usage of winnowing bodhráns as improvised drums as far back as the 1830s, especially in ritual contexts such as Wren Boy processions on St. Stephen’s Day (Cunningham and Vallely, 2011, p. 70). Uí Ógáin shows that in 20th century Ireland a culture of domestic musical instrument construction, and the repurposing of found objects as instruments, “played a very important role” (Uí Ógáin, 2002, p. 128). It is reasonable to assume that this “inherited skill and communal ability to forge instruments from the immediate environment” (Uí Ógáin, 2002, p. 128) had also been a feature in earlier times.  According to oral testimony “Everyday items which happened to be to hand could be used as [musical] instruments” (Uí Ógáin, 2002, pp. 128–129), and Uí Ógáin cites examples of fire-tongs, chair legs, coins, bottles, spoons, and combs being repurposed as musical instruments. 1970s fieldwork with bodhrán makers also highlights such an inherited culture of domestic instrument construction (Ó Súilleabháin, 1974a, pp. 5–7). Considering this, it may be reasonable to regard the winnowing bodhrán as a precursor to the modern purpose-built bodhrán, a frame drum, despite Cunningham and Vallely’s reservations on this matter (Cunningham and Vallely, 2011, p. 70)


On the left are photographs taken by Caomhín Ó Danachair, one of which was included in his 1955 article (Ó Danachair, 1955) and which were reproduced by in Ó Súilleabháin’ tutor book (Ó Súilleabháin, 1984). The pictures, taken in 1946, depict an unnamed boy playing on a domestically constructed drum with jingles. Evident in the literature is an overlap between the bodhrán and the tambourine, that common single-headed frame drum with jingles of Middle Eastern origin (Montagu, Blades and Holland, 2001). The tambourine attained cultural prominence in Ireland in the early 1800s, partly because of the popularity of travelling minstrel shows during that period (Cunningham and Vallely, 2011, p. 70). Ó Súilleabháin’s 1970s fieldwork shows that, at least in North Kerry and South Tipperary, this type of frame drum was often referred to as a tambourine, and sometimes had jingles attached to the rim (Ó Súilleabháin, 1974a, pp. 5–7). It seems possible that the international popularity of the tambourine during the 1800s, coupled with an existing ritual tradition of frame drumming and a culture of domestic instrument construction, led to the development of a localised Irish frame drum, which came to be used in the playing of Irish traditional dance music, and is now known as the ‘bodhrán’.

The Contemporary Bodhrán: an Overview 

Harte (Harte, 2020, pp. 5–39) provides a well-referenced overview of developments in bodhrán construction, performance practices and cultural contexts that existed during the twentieth century and continue to this day. Before the 1950s, ritual use of the bodhrán in the outdoor processions, such as those to celebrate St. Stephen’s Day, May Day and St. Brigid’s Day, engendered a loud playing style on domestically constructed bodhráns. A variety of striking methods existed, using the bare hand or a stick to beat the skin. Little or no damping of the skin with the non-striking hand was used, resulting in an open, ringing tone with complex, untuned harmonics. This style of playing can be heard outside of the ritual context in John Reynold’s early 78 rpm recordings (e.g. Columbia 33210-F, 1927, which can be played here on the right. Reynolds credited as tambourine player, accompanying Galway flute player Tom Morrison, recorded in the U.S.A.), showing that bodhrán playing was established in the context of Irish traditional dance music at that time. Reynolds’ playing, although possibly using a hand striking style, is comparable to Peadar Mercier’s stick work with Ceoltóirí Chualann, and later the Chieftains, during the 1960s and 1970s. Harte credits the prominence of these groups with the growing predominance of stick playing styles among younger bodhrán players. Foremost of these in the 1970s, Johnny “Ringo” McDonagh was instrumental in developing techniques for controlling the intonation of rhythms, using manipulation of the skin with the non-striking hand on the back of the drum. These techniques were facilitated by the bodhrán’s now more common seated playing position. These methods of controlling intonation are ubiquitous among today’s players and continue to be developed. The construction of bodhráns gradually became more professionalised during the latter part of the twentieth century, with systems being developed to allow drums to be tuned accurately, and lighter skins being employed to allow more extreme tonal manipulation. Players such as Mel Mercier, Junior Davey, Jim Higgins and the highly influential John Joe Kelly developed and popularised this tonal dimension of bodhrán playing, incorporating influences from popular and world music to create a cosmopolitan style that can now be heard in competitions, on stage, on commercial recordings, and in informal community music sessions (Harte, 2020, pp. 5–39)

Bodhrán Performance Practices 

Bodhrán performance practices prior to the 1960s are not well-documented (Cunningham, 1999, p. 21). Furthermore, Cunningham’s research found that “there remains a significant lack of published and unpublished academic work that deals specifically with the performance styles of bodhrán playing” (Cunningham, 1999, p. 21), and over twenty years later, Harte similarly finds that “despite a number of introductory pedagogical texts, the bodhrán has not been fully explored in an ethnographic sense” (Harte, 2020, p. 2). Harte highlights a shift from hand playing styles to the now more common use of a stick as a beater (Harte 2020, p.23), but his text provides only high-level descriptions of common playing practices on the instrument, with no detailed analysis of the embodied rhythmic structures of bodhrán playing.  


Cunningham’s work provides a good synthesis of earlier research which includes some detail on historic performance practices (Ó Danachair, 1955; Ó Súilleabháin, 1974a, 1974b, 1984). These early sources and Cunningham’s additional work tend to focus primarily on the way a player strikes the drumhead, with the intonation of rhythm and processes of tonal manipulation receiving less attention. Drawing from my own experience as a bodhrán player, I would observe that tonal manipulation is highly instrument-dependent, and in some sense ‘follows’ striking patterns. Techniques of tonal manipulation are entwined with a particular drum’s construction and acoustics: the type of skin used, the diameter of the bodhrán, and the depth of its frame. It is hard to make worthwhile generalisations about such instrument-dependent phenomena, so it seems understandable that current discourse concentrates more fruitfully on striking practices, which are shared more generally between players and across different styles of bodhrán construction. It is also possible that this bias towards striking technique and away from tonal manipulation techniques in bodhrán discourse is simply an indication that striking techniques are more amenable to verbal description and graphic notation; they are easier to hear, see and describe.  

Sticking Terminology: Grip Postures 

To sufficiently narrow the scope as appropriate for this arts practice research project, I will now focus on striking techniques that use a stick. I use the term “grip posture” to describe the manner in which a player holds the stick in relation to the bodhrán. A musical practice such as bodhrán playing involves navigating enumerable and ever-shifting contingencies not limited to this analytical frame of sticking practices and grip postures, and any number of other factors can be used in the construction of a player’s style. A player’s approach to sticking is just one determinant of their style alongside all the other performance techniques employed by them. However, as I observe below, certain grip postures have not been widely employed by the bodhrán playing community, and so warrant further exploration.


Terminology to describe these sticking techniques is not standardised within the literature or the bodhrán-playing community, so here I will attempt to highlight equivalences between the different terms used. Cunningham references five stick-playing styles (originally identified by professional player Tommy Hayes), which share some overlap with Ó Súilleabháin’s description of regional styles (Ó Súilleabháin, 1974b, p. 6): ‘Kerry Style’, ‘West Limerick Style’, ‘Waterford Style’, ‘Tambour Technique’, and ‘a style peculiar to Tommy Hayes’ (Cunningham, 1999, p. 22). A clip of Hayes in performance is given here on the right. Cunningham also identifies a technique occasionally used by John Joe Kelly, which is related to the “matched grip” (Cunningham, 1999, p. 67) used by kit drummers. The video on the left shows Kelly demonstrating this "matched grip fill" technique.


As suggested by Cunningham, the above practice of using regional styles to classify bodhrán playing technique is no longer useful nor accurate: “... styles of bodhrán playing as a consequence tend to be associated with individuals rather than regions.” (Cunningham, 1999, p. 23). Another approach used by Cunningham is to classify striking techniques as “one-ended” or “two-ended”, according to whether one or both ends of the stick are used to strike the drum (Cunningham, 1999, p. 23), which echoes Ó Súilleabháin’s terminology describing “single-ended” and “double-ended” stick styles (Ó Súilleabháin 1984, p.4). The term “double-ended” is also used by Harte, as well as the term “top-end” which denotes the one-ended style which is overwhelmingly popular among today's younger players, who are heavily influenced by the playing of John Joe Kelly (Harte, 2020, p. 35), see here on the left. To me it is clear that terms such as ‘one-ended’ and ‘two-ended’ are not sufficiently fine-grained to be useful in the description of bodhrán sticking techniques: Tambour Technique, and the Kerry, Waterford, and Tommy Hayes styles would all be classified as ‘two-ended’ styles, despite the fact that they all involve different ways of holding the stick, feel different to play, and sound different in execution. A classification system that abstracts away these important differences does more harm than good. 


To more easily reference the range of sticking styles that encompass documented bodhrán sticking techniques, and what each style entails, I think it is more useful to classify them according to their well-known exemplars, with direct reference to audio-visual documentation of those players in action. This approach has been suggested by Cunningham more recently: 


Bodhrán performance cannot easily be categorised into different regional styles; it is more easily defined by referring to the manner of performance peculiar to an individual, or to a group of players. 

(Cunningham and Vallely, 2011, p. 72) 


Here in Table 1, I offer a translation of the six stick-playing styles described by Cunningham, to concretely reference audio-visual documentation of the well-known players who exemplify them. I also include Stevie McNamara’s style, which doesn’t conform to any of the other categories.

As described by Cunningham (Cunningham, 1999, pp. 21-23,67) and as borne out by the audio visual examples given in Table 1, these playing styles are differentiated by the way a player grips the stick: what I term the ‘grip posture’. Rather than attempt a verbal description of the complex three-dimensional bodily configurations involved in the execution of each grip posture, I believe it is more useful to refer to the audio-visual examples, and verbally distinguish each by their exemplar’s name. To underline the inadequacy of the concept of regional bodhrán styles I have included each player’s place of origin.


Cunningham’s Categorisations 

My Categorisation by Exemplar 

Examples of Style 

Kerry Style (two-ended) 

Mercier, after Peadar Mercier of Dublin. Ubiquitous. 

West Limerick Style (one-ended) 

O'Donoghue, after Séamus O' Donoghue of Roscommon (rare) 

Waterford Style (two-ended) 

Mel Mercier, after Mel Mercier of Dublin. Very similar to Peadar Mercier style but with use of loop to attach stick to the middle finger. Rare)  

Tambour Technique (two-ended) 

Ó Riada, after Seán Ó Riada of Cork. Also used by Éamonn de Buitléar, a musical collaborator of Ó Riada. Rare. 

a style peculiar to Tommy Hayes (two-ended) 

Hayes, after Tommy Hayes of Limerick. Rare. 

Matched grip fill technique (one-ended) 

John Joe Kelly fill, after John Joe Kelly of Manchester. Well-known technique but not currently the basis of a style in its own right. 


McNamara, after Stevie McNamara of Clare. 

Table 1: Categorisation of bodhrán performance styles 


Sticking Practices and Grip Postures

Using this grip posture analysis of the sticking practices of bodhrán players allows me to make some observations about how it influences the construction of their styles.


Firstly, I would observe that all current professional players (bar Tommy Hayes, discussed in the next section), and the majority of players in general, use grip postures that are closely related to that of Peadar Mercier. I would characterise the Mercier grip posture as a way of gripping the stick where the dominant playing end of the stick is pointed in towards the player’s body in the manner of Peadar Mercier. These include: Johnny “Ringo” McDonagh, Colm Murphy, Mel Mercier, Jim Higgins, Frank Torpey, Mossie Griffin, Donncha Gough, Damien Quinn, Cathy Jordan, Ronán Ó Snodaigh, John Joe Kelly, Junior Davey, Eamonn Murray, Colm Phelan, Aimee Farrell Courtney, Robbie Walsh, Anna Colliton, Niamh Fennell, Nicolle Fig, and Cara Wildman. Online video footage, including the extensive YouTube video archive of the Craiceann bodhrán festival, provides evidence to support this observation. Examination of the video examples on this page of Peadar Mercier, Johnny McDonagh, John Joe Kelly, Anna Colliton and Cara Wildman should enable the reader to recognise the similarities shared between these players’ grip postures, and what constitutes my category of the Mercier grip posture.


Secondly, even though the players listed above use similar grip postures, there is enough scope for variation within this posture to allow them to create their own distinctive styles of striking. There are also many other performance techniques at a bodhrán player’s disposal,  besides adjustments to grip posture, to allow them to construct a distinctive style. Within the broad category of the Mercier grip posture there is a world of variation and expression possible, as is evidenced by the diversity of styles apparent among players whose grip posture has broad similarities with that of Peadar Mercier. Take the clip on the left showing Anna Coliton and Cara Wildman duetting for example. Although their grip postures are broadly similar to that of Peadar Mercier, the overall effect of their playing is markedly different from his.


However, if we think of the style of any individual player, it seems clear to me that an exploration of grip postures other than the well-known Mercier posture could allow that player's expressive palette to be broadened. Baily’s concept of “motor structure” is helpful here to explain the relationship between how a bodhrán player holds the stick, and the resultant “motor grammar” of their playing:      


The way of playing a particular genre of music is characterised by certain patterns of movement that are specific to that style. These motor patterns, which in a sense "lie behind" the music, may be said to constitute the motor structure of that style. [...] Fundamental to the motor structure of a style are certain basic postures and hand positions. A given spatial layout may suggest quite different lines of musical development, each spatially logical in its own way. Basic postures and hand positions may set the parameters of what will develop as a motor grammar.  

(Baily and Driver, 1992, p. 63)  


Where Baily and Driver apply their concept of ‘motor grammar’ to the style analysis of entire genres, I believe it can be a useful concept to understand the construction of an individual’s style within a genre. Breaking out of the Mercier grip posture to explore other postures (such the O’Donoghue, Ó Riada, and Hayes postures as listed above) might allow a player to develop the “spatial logic” and motor grammar of their playing in new ways. Switching between grip postures might provide a useful way of integrating these new spatial logics into their playing.


Ó Súilleabháin sometimes took the view that the orthodox grip posture (i.e. what I term the Mercier posture) is in fact a defining feature of bodhrán playing: 


This hand-position, used in all styles, is the secret to correct and effective bodhrán-playing. It is the physical reason why playing the bodhrán is not the same as playing the medieval tabor, the Eskimo carribou-drum or the Turkish tar (all of which are frame drums of similar construction to the bodhrán). 

(Ó Súilleabháin, 1984, p. 6) 


However, given the variety of styles that have been employed by bodhrán players in the community (as referenced in Table 1), this view of bodhrán performance practice could be seen as unnecessarily restrictive. It does seem that these alternative grip postures haven’t been widely explored, and so it is an area of bodhrán technique that is ripe for development. As a starting point, the Séamus O’ Donoghue, Sean Ó Riada, Tommy Hayes and Stevie McNamara styles listed in Table 1 all warrant further exploration, as do their combinations in performance. 

Conclusion: Navigating Grip Postures 

Tommy Hayes’ playing shows that an alternative approach to sticking and grip posture can be used to develop a personal voice at the highest level of musicianship. Hayes' idiosyncratic way of holding the stick (Cunningham, 1999, p. 22; Bodhran, Bones & Spoons [DVD], 2011), imbues his playing with a very distinctive feel. Although the syntax of the rhythms generated using Hayes’ technique are similar to their equivalent manifestations in the Peadar Mercier style, the overall effect is substantively different. Another clip of Hayes is given on the left, this time performing with sarod player Mathew Noone. Such differences are described as “participatory discrepancies” by Charles Keil (Keil, 1987), and they amount to a widening of the palette of expression on bodhrán. A combination of factors including the particular areas of the skin struck by the stick (and its angle of attack), and the characteristic swing engendered the Hayes’ hand posture result in an expressive “semiconscious or unconscious slightly out of syncness” that gives power to his music (Keil, 1987, p. 275).  Cunningham finds that such “sub-syntactical” processes of groove are “often more important than the syntax itself” and it “is possible for one bodhrán player to articulate precisely the same rhythm as another, yet each player can simultaneously achieve a total different ‘feel’ for the rhythm” (Cunningham, 1999, p. 33). This highlights the importance of these subtle participatory discrepancies in bodhrán playing, a class of which, I believe, can be effectively navigated through the exploration of different grip postures, using a creative process I term “grip switching”. This arts practice research project is an attempt to develop a facility in switching effectively between the grip postures listed in Table 1, in the moment of performance, to create a dynamic juxtaposition of textures in my bodhrán playing. Seemingly in contradiction to the statement quoted in previous section (Ó Súilleabháin, 1984, p. 6), and in reference to the various regional styles he had identified, Ó Súilleabháin concludes an earlier article with this observation: 


Certainly any modern player who can master all styles equally well will have taken the first steps towards developing Bodhran [sic] playing from a potential into a real art. 


(Ó Súilleabháin, 1974b, p. 10)

Tommy Hayes in performance with Fergal Scahill. Note his idiosyncratic grip posture.

Devon multi-instrumentalist and singer Louis Bingham demonstrating his own idiosyncratic grip posture.

Ó Riada grip posture (Tambour Technique) as played by Éamon de Buitléar.