SUMMERTIMES Wednesday, July 17, 1996

The pulse of Irish music

When Dubliner Malachy Kearns became known as `Malachy Bodhrán' he knew he had truly come home to Roundstone, Co Galway. Patricia O'Reilly met him

"I watched Christy Moore play a bodhrán to a packed Point and there wasn't a sound from the audience," says Malachy Kearns. "Just a man and a bodhrán on stage. I knew then what he meant by its power. I also understood what traditional musicians were talking about when they described the bodhrán as the pulse of Irish music."

Malachy doesn't say that Christy's bodhrán had been made by his own company, Roundstone Musical Instruments (RMI). Nor is he in a hurry to mention that it is his bodhráns that give Riverdance its distinctive percussive sound. "The bodhrán is a humble product and if I stay as humble I'll be all right."

A bulky man with a lived-in face and a philosophical outlook on life, he operates in a low-key way - a plausible mixture of traditional dreamer and commercial visionary.

Raised in Dublin and spending his school holidays with relations in Sligo, he was equally at home with and fascinated by the quiet strength of the country people and the immediacy and tension of city business. One of his teachers at CBS Monkstown told him: "There is a high road and a low road and a lot of haze in between." For some years Malachy Kearns says he lived in that haze.

After taking a B.Com in UCD, he worked with the now defunct Clondalkin Paper Mills and afterwards as purchasing manager with an engineering consultancy firm. After leaving that job he tried to eke a living by selling harps for a friend and he realised a market niche existed for bodhráns.

With his wife Anne and daughter Roma, Malachy moved to Roundstone village in Co Galway to a workshop and house, in the shadow of a bell tower, sited in the grounds of a 16th-century Franciscan monastery, where in the summer seals and dolphins congregate at the outer walls.

"I was at the end of my mental and financial tether," he says. "My only plus factors were Anne and Roma. Gradually I seemed to draw strength from my surroundings. I stopped drinking and was able to get the business off the ground." When he became known within the community as "Malachy Bodhrán" he knew he had truly come home. "Here once you're nicknamed, you're in."

This year RMI celebrates its 20th birthday. The company now includes a mail-order service, an instrument museum, a craftshop, a coffee shop, Malachy's Leaf and a sales outlet, in Clifden. A second Malachy's Leaf opens in Roundstone this month. It has also expanded into the manufacture of wooden flutes, tin whistles and Irish harps. Anne, an artist and also an expert on heraldry, is an integral part of the operation, decorating bodhráns with family crests, designs from the Book of Kells or other Celtic sources.

RMI currently employs 12 fulltime and during the summer six part-timers. Each year it makes an estimated 10,000 bodhráns, in large, small and miniature sizes, 70 per cent of which are exported to the US, Canada, the UK, France and Germany. Also catered for is the growing band of musicians who want tuneable bodhráns. On this Malachy has worked in close co-operation with Donal Lunney, whom he describes as being "the engine room" of traditional music, "always redirecting, but never destroying".

Internationally the bodhrán business is on an upward curve, much of its bullish market due to the international popularity of Irish culture, such as Riverdance. The Kearns believe: "We've to be equally at home in the music, the gift and the souvenir markets." They attend a variety of major world trade shows including the Los Angeles-based The Greatest Show on Planet Earth, generally regarded as a showpiece for world music at its most powerful where they are the only Irish exhibitors.

"I used to slip into worry," explains Malachy, "but now I lean on the more positive aspects of life." His favourite slogan which hangs in a predominant position in his office, reads: "Today is the tomorrow I worried about yesterday." He gave up smoking last year and in June treated himself to a brand new black Volvo. "It's the nature of human beings to move on inside themselves," he remarks quietly.

He assures that he's lazy rather than active. So lazy in fact that he gets out of bed in the morning by promising himself that he'll only work for four hours. Usually he finds that the challenge of what he's doing takes over and the hours slip by. "It's very rewarding to do a job right."

While the business has become computerised and employs graphic artists and calligraphers, the manufacturing process is still grassroots and that's the way Malachy likes it. "The making of bodhráns brings you very close to nature and when played it is very freeing on the soul," he says. "The whole involvement is a spiritual experience."

The first Thursday in each month is skin day, when up to 40 people supply RMI with goatskin. The skins, treated in hydrated lime mixed with secret ingredients, are soaked for seven to ten days in a solution of lime sulphide which softens, de-hairs and dissolves fatty tissue. The skin is stretched before being glued onto the steamed beech hoop and then tacked on to prevent ripping. "Goatskins are unique for their stretching properties, hold their tension for a life time and have a deep haunting tone," says Malachy.

The beech for the frames is bought from local timber yards and is steamed, bended and glued. The workshop houses in the region of £70,000 worth of equipment including moulds for steaming the beech which Malachy designed and manufactured himself.

Origins are obscure

The bodhrán, one of Ireland's oldest products, is a one-sided framed drum, traditionally made from goat-skin and stretched over an 18-inch diameter beech frame. Literally translated from Gaelic it means "deaf" or "haunting". Theories abound about its origins. Some believe it originated in Africa and came to Ireland by way of Spain; others insist it was brought to Ireland from Central Asia by Celtic migrants. That it was devised by canny Kerrymen to push up the price of goatskins isn't to be taken seriously.

The current consensus of opinion is that it originated in Ireland and evolved from a work implement to its present musical status. Though it is argued that given our history, the bodhrán could also have had a role in warfare. Certainly it was used as a tray for drawing turf on the bogs and it bears a great resemblance to the trays used on farms for centuries for separating chaff from grain. It also appeared in mummers' plays and harvest festivals, adding credence to its agricultural background. Its musical popularity started in the late 1950s around the heyday of its close relative, the tambourine, whose use is now more or less defunct. The bodhrán owes its place in the traditional music of today mainly due to the work of the late Sean O'Riada and Ceoltoiri Cualann.