Malachy Kearns,
(Roundstone, 1996)

We drove wildly through the rough terrain of Connemara, dodging cattle on the road and resisting the lure of endless tempting diversions and detours while en route to the rocky coast and the small fishing village of Roundstone. We barreled through the quaint streets (noting a pleasant-looking pub in passing, a place we'd doubtless pause on the way back) 'til we reached the ruins of a 16th century monastery, now the home of Roundstone Musical Instruments and Malachy Kearns.

Kearns may well be Ireland's premier bodhran-maker (and is, he claims, the country's only full-timer at the job) and I had vowed to leave Ireland with one of his drums in my possession. We needn't have feared or hurried quite so much; the shop (devoted as much to gifts, souvenirs and CDs as to the bodhrans they were famous for) was open a full hour later than we thought. So I took my time, testing drums of various woods and diameters and depths before settling on a slightly oval 18-incher which felt right in my hands. I flew home to the States with that drum clutched on my lap (since it wouldn't fit in the overhead and I wouldn't trust it to the airline baggage handlers).

I was surprised recently when a fellow drummer loaned me a slightly battered copy of Wallup!, in which Kearns (going by the tongue-in-cheek nickname of Malachy Bodhran) "chats about the humour and lore of bodhran making." It is, he confesses openly on a few occasions, a blatant marketing tool for his business. Not that he needs the exposure -- his drums are used widely on the world stage, from Riverdance to performances by the Chieftains, De Danann and Christy Moore.

Kearns is not a writer, as he freely admits on several occasions in the book. So he didn't even attempt to write the text for it; instead, he sat working or playing in his shop, chattering away into a nearby tape recorder, which was later transcribed and edited by someone named Mary. It certainly could have used a proofreader along the way, but Wallup! manages to preserve an endearing conversational style which almost fools the reader into thinking he's just had a lovely chat with Kearns over a pint or four of Guinness at the aforementioned pub.

In Wallup!, you'll learn of Kearns' nigh-mystical respect for the goats who give up their skins (and, of course, lives) for his craft. You'll learn how he first discovered the bodhran and, while he won't tell you the "secret ingredients" which go into its production, he will reveal that bodhran-makers of days past acquired some of their ingredients from the family chamber pot! (The ingredients vary widely between makers, he notes, and most remain tight-lipped about the specifics. However, he does promise that no chamber pots are involved in his own manufacturing process.) He also discusses the basics of bodhran-making, provides some tips on playing and talks about session etiquette.

Would-be drummers won't learn much about the art here, nor will wannabe drum-makers. But anyone with an interest in the drum, its history and its place in Irish society will find this a fascinating read.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

Visit Malachy's online workshop in Roundstone!