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The MAGIC SOUND of the Wild Goat


The MAGIC SOUND of the Wild Goat

They call him Malachy Bodhrán out in Roundstone in Connemara.

Malachy is a name associated with Irish kings. A bodhrán is a goatskin drum

which first sounded its pagan pulse in the Celtic stonelands long before

there were proper kings.

He is called Malachy Bodhrán because, today,

he is probably the king of the Irish bodhrán makers.

Of Malachy attaching the skin to the rim of a bodhrán.

I come to his craftshop in the hollowed out heart of the seaside village only hours after leaving the Listowel pub of the great Kerry writer John B. Keane. One of Keane's most recent books is The Bodhrán Makers. Both Malachy Bodhrán, who was a Kearns in the previous existence, and Keane, who articulates our pure kind of paganism, agree that the bodhrán is the pulse of Irish music. The music, at its hot-blooded best, is only quarter part civilised anyway. The haunting thrum-thrum of the well-beaten bodhrán, or the throk-throk of the hardwood beater on its beechwood frame, is the glinted and glorious insanity in the eye of a fiddler who has gone, gone, gone, back in time and space and being on the bareback fling of jig. Nothing beats a tattoo to the forced marches of such journeys better than the wild stretched skin of a wild goat. We walk strange twisty small paths towards such places of the spirit. We could call our thrumming drum a Tamboreen! That's what Malachy Bodhrán of Roundstone is all about.

We are in a subculture here. I have come from the crags of the Kingdom, where a wild puck goat annually rules Puck Fair in Killorglin. I am under the Twelve Pins where the herds of curlhorn pucks and nanny goats fearlessly and passionately and nimbly abide in the crags where the echoes of our livings and longings and lustings, however explosive, are merely pared and pured whisperings. On the desk of Malachy Bodhrán there is a letter from the wife of Davy Gunn, best known of the Kerry bodhrán makers. Davy just recently went higher than the highest crags, to heaven; Malachy and Davy shared the lore of their strange trade for years. First catch your goat. Then cure his skin. Then build your bodhrán. And you tell nobody, not even Davy, not even Malachy, what extra special ingredients are added to the hydrated lime with which you start the curing process. That's the secret.

Bodhrán is Bow-Rawn in speech, and maybe if you say the word so fast that it slurs together you also catch some of the free magicality of its thrumming. But it is far better to go into Malachy Bodhrán's workshop, where the spirits of a hundred goats are stretched subtly over the traditional eighteen inch beech and ash and holly hoops, and to talk to the man himself, and to run your fingers or a hardwood beater over the living ghost of a wild goat and hear him mutter. 'There is no sound to match the haunting deep sound of the bodhrán', says Malachy. 'It can make the hair stand up on the back of your head. It can make the blood sing. When I hear one of my bodhráns being played by any of the many traditional musicians who play them, like the Chieftains, or Planxty, or De Danann, I know exactly what they mean when they say the bodhrán is the pulse of Irish music'. When Ireland was involved in the soccer extravaganza of the World Cup recently, he was quietly overjoyed to see the team's world-renowned supporters, a green tide, flourishing his bodhráns on the T.V. images of celebration.

Malachy and his wife, Anne, after a difficult enough start-up period in the crafts village in Roundstone, are now rushed off their feet by the world-wide demand of their highly crafted products. The staff numbers rise to seven during the peak summer season when, quite apart from the purist demand from musicians, home and overseas visitors come seeking the Something Different. Anne is not only a gifted artist but also an expert on heraldry and the family crests of all the Irish clans and septs. Almost hourly, in summer, there are blackly enjoyable pints being drunk in Roundstone by those who have been told to 'come back in about thirty minutes or so'. When they do, they find that Anne has brightly inscribed their family crest on the bodhrán. That goes down well. On this day there is even a double-sided bodhrán for a French University percussion school. Malachy Bodhrán, skilfully gluing and tacking a velvety skin to yet another frame, acknowledges the assistance he received in his beginnings from the expert Peadar Mercier, from the Industrial Development Authority, from Córas Tráchtála, the export board. Most of all though, from Anne of the endless energy, the flying paintbrush, and all the precise heraldic lore. 'She knows most of the clan crests already and, for those she doesn't, she can read the books of heraldry. I couldn't manage without her'.

After curing in the hydrated lime, the goatskins which he receives from three trusted suppliers are soaked for up to ten days in a mixture of lime sulphide, which pliates and purifies. Then, having been carefully stretched for three days on a wooden frame, they are ready for the steamed beech hoops. Originally bodhráns were simply tacked to the frames and this was a weak point when the almost incredibly sensitive skin contracted. Malachy Bodhrán, in addition to the stout brass tacks, now also uses a special secret glue for additional integrity. His bodhráns, he says, with proper treatment, will ring and sing for a lifetime. He has tried all the other skins, from seal to crossbred sheep, but there is nothing to touch the skin of the wild goat. 'No, nothing at all'.

Look, he says, every skin is individual. I look, and it is true. Down the centre of the bodhrán, ghosted as a shadow, is the darker place where the spine of the wild puck once even more wildly danced the measures of life. 'Look, this fellow had a fight, see the marks. See here, this old puck has the mange at one time'. The trackings of a pagan lifetime, purified by curing, are etched there, he says, 'as features, not as flaws'. He has a range of beaters, that fly and flicker in the fingers of the skilled beaters, and when I touch one of the bodhráns with a knobbed teak beater, just once and awkwardly at that, you can hear the throk-throk of nimble hooves on some flank of the Twelve Pins towering high above. 'Put two fiddles and a flute along with that', says Malachy Bodhrán. 'And then listen'.

He is a lovely bodhrán of a man himself He thrums with a perceptible kindness allied to an artist's satisfaction. He travels widely nowadays, especially to craft shows, and has learned much to bring back to the Roundstone bodhrán shop. The bodhráns for the American climate, for example, are stretched less tightly on the frame than those for the more temperate home market. He's a burly thirty-six years old and he says, with pride, that he is probably the world's only exclusively full-time bodhrán maker. The couple have a flame-haired daughter, Roma (15), who is a summertime aide of great substance, a loyal and highly-skilled support staff, and there is a lot of laughter and chaff in the compact craftshop where the skinned ghosts of goats, with a special alchemy, with beech and brass nails and glue, become the pulse of Irish music. Maybe even the primitive enough pulse of the Irish themselves.

I leave Roundstone behind my back, a summer sun setting slowly like a great bodhrán with its own pulses. With strong field glasses, on the side of one of the mountains heading home, I pick out the poised pagan primitive arrogance of a herd of wild goats. There is a great puck in front, almost on the skyline, symbol of a mystical, maybe darker era, before kings like Malachy. Who, great puck, will someday beat subtly on the shadow of your stretched spine? Who will hear the pulse?

Cormac MacConnell is a freelance writer,
living in Galway This article is from the Bord Fáilte Tourist Board
publication "Ireland of the Welcomes"
Mar/April '91

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Roundstone Musical Instruments Ltd.
Malachy Kearns,
IDA Craft Centre,Roundstone,
Co. Galway, Ireland.

Tel:+353 95 35808
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E-Mail: [email protected]