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Learn & Sing

The Hammered Dulcimer in Ireland

by Paul McDermott

This is a series of articles about the production of my latest radio documentary “No Journeys End — the story of Michael O’Shea”.

Part 1 — Michael O’Shea, The Making of… (is here)

Part 2 — Alto Studios — Robert Emmet House (is here)

Part 3 — Danny McCarthy and the Vox Cabaret (is here)

Update (August 2019) — the finished documentary is below:

No Journeys End — the story of Michael O’Shea. Produced by Paul McDermott

Introduction

I’m currently in production on my next radio documentary. Its subject is the Irish musician Michael O’Shea and will be broadcast in late August 2019 on RTÉ Lyric FM.

Part Four— The Hammered Dulcimer in Ireland

Michael O’Shea —The Hammered Dulcimer —Irish Traditional Music Archive — John Rea — Rick Epping — Pumpkinhead —and Cairdeas na bhFidiléirí

As part of the research process for my Michael O’Shea documentary I spent an afternoon in the company of Brian Doyle, Field Recording Officer at the Irish Traditional Music Archive. I had explained to Brian what I was after and he had pulled out a number of books and other published materials from the archive’s collection that had a mention of the hammered dulcimer.

Irish Traditional Music Archive, Merrion Sq, Dublin. Photograph by Paul McDermott.

The hammered dulcimer has had a long association with the Glens of Antrim and the music of John Rea, regarded as the king of Irish traditional dulcimer players, and Brian was unsure why that was: “It’s weird that the centre of the dulcimer world in Ireland seems to have been the Glens of Antrim.”

John Rea — Traditional Music on the Hammered Dulcimer (Topic Records: 1979). Image from Discogs.

“Its incredible how an instrument from Iran ended up here, was it just total serendipity that someone from Antrim brought one back from wherever and started playing it? A lot of these things are down to individuals, someone in an area started playing on an unusual instrument, the fact that it was homemade might have contributed to its popularity because if you wanted one, well you just went and made one. It certainly seems to have taken root up there, and it’s still played up there in the Glens of Antrim.” Brian talked me through a number of books in the Archive’s collection that mentioned the hammered dulcimer including a few issues of Treoir, the Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann [Gathering of Musicians of Ireland] monthly magazine.

Before we headed up to the reading room Brian showed me a a hammered dulcimer that Caoimhín Mac Aoidh donated to the Archive a couple of years ago. The instrument’s journey to the Archive was a fascinating story of coincidence.

Caoimhín Mac Aoidh and Rab Cherry run an organisation based in Donegal called Cairdeas na bhFidiléirí (friendship of fiddle players) that promotes Donegal fiddling. According to Brian, “Caoimhín was at a wedding in Connemara and saw this instrument in an antique shop. He immediately saw it for what it was, he bought it and donated it to us.”

Hammer Dulcimer donated by Caoimhín Mac Aoidh to the Irish Traditional Music Archive. Photograph from ITMA.

A couple of years later Brian interviewed Rick Epping a harmonica player based in Sligo. Rick was a member of the 70s folk group Pumpkinhead. The band were formed in Sligo in the early 70s by two American couples: Thom Moore and his wife Kathy Moore, and another couple Rick and Sandi Epping. Pumpkinhead released one album on Mulligan Records in 1975. Brian describes Pumpkinhead as, “a seminal group in traditional music, way ahead of their time, they were fantastic.”

Pumpkinhead (Mulligan Records, 1975) Photograph from 45worlds.

Pumpkinhead released one album in 1975 on Donal Lunny’s Mulligan Records before splitting up. Their album is probably best remembered for its cover versions of Neil Young’s ‘Are You Ready for the Country’, Van Morrison’s ‘Comfort You’ and Mississippi John Hurt’s ‘Richland Woman Blues’ but its mix of rousing Appalachian folk and Irish traditional tunes, as well as a number of great original songs has ensured that it has long been a much sought after grail among record collectors of folk music.

Pumpkinhead (1974): Thom Moore, Kathy Moore,Rick Epping, and Sandi Epping. Photograph from RTÉ Archives.

While Brian was chatting to Rick he told him of Caoimhín’s dulcimer donation to the Archive, “Rick said, oh I used to have one of them. I took a photograph of it and sent it to him and it’s the same machine. He bought it in an antique shop in Carraig-on-Shannon and when he was going back to the States he sold off a lot of stuff and he had sold the dulcimer to somebody in Galway and we think that it sort of lived in Galway for a while before eventually ending up in an antique shop in Galway before Caoimhín Mac Aoidh bought it—serendipity, it was brilliant.”

A beautiful performance and interview with the members of Pumpkinhead filmed by RTÉ for the programme Tangents in 1974 can be viewed at RTÉ Archives. Thom Moore of Pumpkinhead went on to have a long and distinguished career as a singer/song-writer and sadly passed away on 17 March 2018.

So there it is the story of one dulcimer’s journey to the Irish Traditional Music Archive.

To be continued…

© Paul McDermott 2019, All Rights Reserved.

This is a series of articles about the production of my latest radio documentary “No Journeys End — the story of Michael O’Shea”.

Part 1 — Michael O’Shea, The Making of… (is here)

Part 2 — Alto Studios — Robert Emmet House (is here)

Part 3 — Danny McCarthy and the Vox Cabaret (is here)

Further Listening

Lights! Camel! Action! — the story of Stump. Produced by Paul McDermott for UCC 98.3FM.
Get That Monster Off the Stage: the story of Finbarr Donnelly and his bands Nun Attax, Five Go Down To the Sea? and Beethoven. Produced by Paul McDermott.
No Journeys End — the story of Michael O’Shea. Produced by Paul McDermott
Iron Fist in Velvet Glove — the story of Microdisney, produced by Paul McDermott.

© Paul McDermott 2019, All Rights Reserved

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Paul McDermott

Paul McDermott

educator — broadcaster — documentary producer — writer