In praise of Ulster’s heartbeat – the Lambeg drum

 

I don’t think anything better defines the Twelfth for me than the sight and the sound of a well-played Lambeg drum. Pun intended, but the oul Lambeg is hard to beat.

I’ll be honest, though. The first time I heard a Lambeg as a child – at a Twelfth parade in Moira if I recall correctly – I must have jumped so high out of my skin that I could have touched the top of arch.

But gradually, as a few more went by, I became accustomed to the sound and started to enjoy the ferocious thunder of this mighty instrument, appreciating the different tone and timbre of each as it rattled past.

Despite that shock and awe introduction to the big drum, I’m now fully at peace with the Lámh Bheag (one theory on the name is that it comes from that expression, the Irish for little hand, possibly because even the largest hand looks tiny beside the drum).

Every time I hear a Lambeg nowadays, this little verse from The Bold Orange Heroes of Comber, races into my mind:

As we marched up and down.

On the road to Portadown

Our drums they did rattle like the thunder.

What makes the Lambeg special is not its sheer size but the way its rhythms can conjure up a sense of place and pride. Different areas have different beats, unique to that locale. Tandragee time, for example, is not the same as Ballymoney time.

And little places like Markethill and Broomhedge are its citadels, the bastions of drumming which have preserved an art that is regaining popularity, a rhythmic alternative to the blood and thunder flute bands which dominate many parades.

Even the Lambeg’s Lilliputian companion, the fife, is making a comeback, its shrill tone a perfect counterpart to the big drum’s bombast.

I know that many nationalists are not at ease with the concept of Orange culture, and frown upon aspects of it, but I have often encountered a regard – even fondness – for the Lambeg and its players from quite a few on the greener side of the house.

That used to surprise me, but perhaps it shouldn’t, as there is something about the drum that stirs up feelings and passions within us all. Not negative feelings or passions, but something that drills down to our very core. Something primitive, even.

In the hands of an amateur, it becomes an instrument of torture and an ill-timed thump can burst an expensive head, but then Lambegs are temperamental, and a careful drummer will check the weather before taking it out for a march, as rain and goatskin are not good companions.

Only the skin of the nanny goat will do, for the billy’s oul hide is too tough. There’s lore aplenty about the search for the perfect head and one of my favourite old Orange songs recalls the displeasure of a farmer on waking up one day to find only the remains of his cloven-hooved beast:

Sure that oul ceogh-boy, he got up one day,

With his goat some pence to earn,

But little did he think of the gunk he’d get,

When the cruel truth he’d learn.

 

For the Orangemen had been around that night,

You might guess what he did say,

When the horns and the flesh of the goat lay there,

But the hide had gone away.

If you keep goats today, though, there’s little need to worry – most are now imported or bred specially: my Dad recalls a Lurgan man who had a goat ‘reservation’ on the tiny Croaghan Island on Lough Neagh to sate the thirst for quality skins in Markethill.

Drums vary a little in size, generally around 36 inches in diameter, and the names of the makers are legendary, with old drums prized for their characteristics and – indeed – personalities. The likes of Hewitt and Johnston head the pantheon of Lambeg legend.

Not that there’s any fault with the new drums being made, as the tried and trusted techniques, refined over generations, are still used. The craft of building a Lambeg has a vocabulary all of its own – with terms such as flesh hoops and buffs, dehairing and doping.

Assembling a drum for a march or a match is complex enough, too, and I’m grateful to Co Armagh drummer Colin McCusker for explaining the process in depth and letting me photograph the various stages of ‘putting up’ his new Moyraverty drum.

It’s a process which requires a combination of brute force and finesse to produce a playable Lambeg. Colin has a well-earned reputation for putting up a ‘hard’ Lambeg.

As you can see from the slideshow, the Lambeg drum is a thing of beauty and the intricate paintings are works of art in themselves. The Moyraverty drum is decorated with a depiction of two of Colin’s relatives outside Brownlow House in Lurgan, both of whom were killed in WW1.

The range of subjects is wide and varied. Oliver Cromwell and King William are, of course, favourites but others feature Joey Dunlop and General Sam Houston, founder of the State of Texas.

When it comes to the bit though, it’s all about how the drum sounds and how it’s played. Adorned with Orange Lilies or Sweet William on the Twelfth morning, there’s nothing as rousing as the brattle of the Lambeg.

As someone once said, the Lambeg is truly the heartbeat of Ulster.