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.

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  • The worm!

    I live within earshot of some of the best drums and drummers that County Antrim has to offer. Caddy, Tullygarley, Slaght, Galgorm, Gracehill, Gloonan, Glebe, to name but a few.

    A still summer evening with the sound of Lambegs echoing around the Maine Valley is something that I hope I never have to live without.

  • murdockp

    The belief that this instrument is the heartbeat of Ulster pretty much sums up why there never will peace in Northern Ireland.

    Although I accept this drum as evolved to be a musical instrument it is today, its origins cannot be ignored, these drums originate from the military and are weapons no different to guns and bombs as they were used to intimidate the enemy, scare horses and to communicate commands during battle. They are not an instrument of cultural heritage for many people, they are an instrument of fear. It is no surprise that the cymbal maker Zildjian was originally formed to made instruments that allowed the Turkish armies to frighten their enemies, thankfully now a drumkit for a heavy metal band are as threating as their cymbals are in 2017.

    If the writer fails to see that most people in ulster (greater that the 60% of the population of ulster when Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal are taken into account are likely to look upon this drum negatively, perhaps he would not use the statement “heart beat of ulster” as although this statement correctly captures the opinions of orange men and their supporters, it ignores the views of the greater population of ulster.

    A minority group stating that one of their cultural instruments represents the heart beat of a province in which they are a minority people is just not right.

    Is it any wonder the shinners are telling us that we must all speak Irish when the Lambeg drum is considered by many to be the heartbeat of Ulster?

    Statistically, I reckon the true drum beat of ulster is Nathan Carters Drummer, as his drumming is the only beat accepted by both Republican and Unionist communities alike.

  • John Spence

    Yeah, it’s the lambegs that make SF extreme.

  • Spike

    Absolutely brilliant and iconic instrument. Such a shame its associated with ignorance and bigotry

  • Nevin

  • Séamus

    The lambeg is generally accepted to have received its name from the County Antrim village, which is derived from the Irish “little church”.

  • The worm!

    Only by those who are ignorant and bigoted themselves!

  • james

    Grand cultural appreciation piece. Thank you, sir!

  • William Kinmont

    Excellent point .

  • tuigim

    I appreciate honesty: “I’ll be honest, though.” you wrote. “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.”
    Listen to what the child within you said and know the purity of that.
    Before you were ‘schooled.’
    You knew.
    It was designed to make people jump out of their skin.
    That was and is wrong.
    It is used as a weapon to intimidate, just as orange ‘culture’ is.
    Imperialism does a helluva lot of damage that lasts a helluva long time.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I used to know the late Jim Kernohan who taught Lambeg and could skilfully display every local drum pattern in County Antrim. An extraordinary musician. Interestingly, most drum patterns reflect local speech patterns. For example, in the “Larne Pattern” there is a slide, or long note, just before the repeat, as with the local tendency to draw out with a questioning rise the penultimate word in a sentence.

    A man of much good humour, tolerance and sheer decency, and very much missed.

  • DOUG

    Nathan Carter wandering down the street – now there’s a parade I’d protest.

  • DOUG

    As in Lambeg just outside Lisburn?

  • ted hagan

    I note, interestingly, that the Ancient Order of Hibernians uses the Lambeg drum on occasions.

  • ted hagan

    ‘It is used as a weapon to intimidate’;
    Well at least it’s not as lethal as Semtex or an Armalite.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I have photographs of one or two from Tyrone somewhere.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Spike, a lot of people who play are just into the drum as a thing in itself, and one of the most interesting things in a drumming match will be to watch players go into trance as they are taken over by the repeated beat pattern. One June evening I watched a man with both skins burst continue to play until someone intervened and brought him back from his hypnotic condition.

    Predictably, the players who are “just political” are the worst players. There is an excellent study from 2001 by the locally based German Ethnomusicologist Rina Schiller “The Lambeg and the Bodhran: Drums of Ireland.” Highly recommended:

  • SeaanUiNeill

    You may remember that local doyen of the Lambeg the late Jim Kernoghan then.

  • The worm!

    Didn’t know him personally but my late Father-in-law and him would have been great, I would know quite a lot of his family circle in the area though.

  • Nevin

    Owen Roe O’Neill’s name appears on the Branty AOH No 40 Lambeg drum – in the company of Gerry McGeough.

    In a conversation someone has suggested that the drum takes its name from the Lombok Island in Indonesia, an island visited by the Dutch in 1674 [Wiki]

  • The worm!

    They do indeed. Some of the boys about here would be very quick to tell you that’s they’ve “a whean o quare good drums about them” too!

  • Oggins

    How hard is it to learn? Comparable to other drums?

  • Nevin
  • SeaanUiNeill

    All fine people, his family, those I met. I remember a very political drummer in Ballycarry once describing such “pure” Lambeggers contemptuously as “only folk musicians.” Indeed they were, in the very, very best sense, and its a pity their skills are not better recognised within Ethnomusicology. I’m hoping to deposit texts and recordings regarding Jim at Cultra at some point when I’m more organised. He was an extraordinary natural musician, with no pretensions whatsoever, and deserves to be remembered.

  • Nordie Northsider

    How could ‘droim’ mean church? Surely it means ‘ridge’?

  • SeaanUiNeill

    It demands a lot of stamina, both from the weight, which needs to be held on neck strap only, and the physical demands of the sustained playing are great also. The speed and complexity of drum patterns are quite different to, say, managing a side-drum. Of course the sense of timing which is developed in playing any drum is going to be useful, but the technique is entirely unique to the Lambeg itself. I’m not a player myself, but I’ve tried a few times and can accordingly understand what I’ve been told by those who play.

    There are also significant preparations. The drum will need to be stretched into full tension for a week or more before playing. Skins are under extreme tension and break easily after such constant tensing and loosening.

  • Aodh Morrison

    “that this instrument is the heartbeat of Ulster pretty much sums up why there never will be peace in Northern Ireland”.

    I’d advance that investing such umbrage in a drum is what may rather more sum up why “there never will be peace in Northern Ireland”.

  • The worm!

    Well maybe it’s the company I keep but the people I know in the lambeg scene would be much more in keeping with the ethos of Mr Kernoghan. I know a wee gentleman who actually makes fifes as a hobby and will talk for hours about the intricacies of the job. Not a sectarian bone in his body but has great pride in the fact that his work will be accompanying many drums around the district today.

    Yes, they see themselves as proudly British. Yes, they wish Northern Ireland to remain as a separate entity within Ireland. Yes, they will be parading today, for some it will be one of the biggest days of the year. Yes, many of them will have been at a bonfire last night (I was at five myself!). But bigotry or hatred, no!, no time for it.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    The first time I heard a Lambeg was at a 12th parade when I was an infant. I slept through their passing even though they were only metres away.

    My family has one over 100 years old.
    It was the childhood playpen of one of the local farm workers/orange men back in the 20’s.

    One of the most damaging aspects of imperialism is evidently the tendency to see menace and threat where there is none…

  • SeaanUiNeill

    No fan of the Union myself ,a s any regular reader of Slugger will know, but still, what a pity this cannot today be transformed into something which our wider community could fully embrace some day, as Thomas Davis describes it:

    “What matter that at different shrines
    We pray unto one God?
    What matter that at different times
    Your fathers won this sod?
    In fortune and in name we’re bound
    By stronger links than steel;
    And neither can be safe nor sound
    But in the other’s weal.”

    As you say “bigotry or hatred, no!, no time for it,” the voice of that generous “new-light” Presbyterianism which runs back through 1798 and the Belfast Volunteers of the 1780s, and is still proudly remembered even in the most Orange of homes. And is where quite bait of the Music came from. That old Orange fife tune “The Downfall of Paris” is a local reworking of that great Revolutionary anthem “Ça ira”:Ça_Ira

    I remember discussing this with Jim!

  • Writing that the drum is the heartbeat of Ulster is just an exercise in poetry, to take the claim seriously is to misunderstand the passion somebody has for a hobby.

  • PeterBrown

    Presumably or possibly a relation commemorated on a drum in the field in Cullybackey today – where was your Kernohan from?

  • Am Ghobsmacht
  • Am Ghobsmacht
  • Barneyt

    I was reading a Facebook post on a local history site. A picture from the Irish national foresters was posted showing the Lambeg they used to march to. I’m pretty sure this drum, although mainly seen in orange and presumably black order processions, was part of the green culture too. It’s a great instrument

  • Get The Grade Get The Grade

    “The heartbeat of Ulster” and the name of the instrument directly comes from the Irish language – oh the irony!

  • Nevin
  • PeterOHanrahahanrahan

    Do you treat all objects with the same military-origins litmus-test? The list of inventions derived from or created for military applications is very long indeed. How many people in the world today would consider the drum as a weapon? Very few, I should think (though I would stand to be corrected).

    As an aside, Zildjian was an Armenian, and I wonder how the average Turk-on-the-caddesi might react if the cymbal were claimed as “the heartbeat of Armenia”?

  • PeterOHanrahahanrahan

    A comment on this video is explosive, if true:

    “The history of the Lambeg drum goes back to the 17th century, when the Dutch had colonised the Java Bali Sumatra Islands, one was the Lombok island, initially the drum was laid on it’s side and used to call the Muslim inhabitants to prayer, the sound carried well from island to island, ”

    The Loyal Sons Of Muhammed?

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Peter, that’s the area. Jim was a Galgorm man. I’d imagine that drumming runs in his family, and, as with so many other arts, has a new expression in every generation. Jim himself was a “natural” whose skills were up there with some of what is regarded as significant drumming in Ethnomusicological circles. I recorded him (for my wife’s researches) describing and illustrating Antrim drumming patterns for well over an hour.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    That’s Jim.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Having researched Seventeenth century military music, I’d imagine that the story refers to one of the enormous side drums used by military forces in the period with the Ditch forces probably brought to Sumatra. These drums needed to be as sizeable as possible in order to carry orders across the sound of gunfire. Of course the Lambeg is bigger than anything that could have been played as a side drum, which is why it is played on its side. I’m linking to an early seventeenth century print to show size:

  • SeaanUiNeill

    It’ll have to be tomorrow, off to the west today.

  • PeterBrown

    If Nevin below is correct this would if anything be a distant relation as I’m not sure there is a close connection between the Moyasset Kernohans and Jim. I did know your James Kernohan because I bought my first house at Bridgend near his family home in 2000 and for the next 5 years was treated to the sound of his drumming matches at the nearby hall. On the Twelfth morning the Galgorm lodge with their drums would come as far as my front door before turning and walking all the way into town to join the main demonstration. The unofficial Mayor of Galgorm as well as the Chair of the County Antrim Drumming Association!….

  • PeterBrown

    What utter rubbish – the Lambeg is a bigger threat to the peace process than Brexit now!
    It is this sort of cultural prejudice and weaponising of identity which is the threat not the revival of drums were used to communicate commands (so presumably flags horses and from the modern era telephones and radios are all signs of British imperialism which are offensive to nationalists too?).
    Lambegs featured yesterday in events which involved more people than there are Irish language speakers on the island of Ireland and there are more members of the Orange Order than there are daily Irish speakers yet it is the statutory protection of the Irish language which is preventing the restoration of devolution (and thereby creating a threat to peace greater than Brexit and lambegs combined!).
    Statistically a minority group stating that their language represents the heart beat of a province in which they are a minority people whilst using obscure historical references to attack every aspect of the culture of the majority is what is just not right

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Hi Peter, I think its different ways of thinking about what constitutes a “close” relative. A recently dead friend of mine in Fermanagh who shared the distinction of one line of each of our families being in the very first wave of the plantation used to call me “cousin” from a seventeenth century marriage between our families! It’s a” high sensitivity to extended family trees” thing I suppose! I’d think of any link which was even early nineteenth century being “close.”

  • DP Moran

    “The range of subjects is wide and varied. Oliver Cromwell and King William are, of course, favourites”

    Can understand King Billy but Cromwell? I remember last year one of the Scottish lodges was named in honour of Cromwell which begs the question why is the Orange Order a British Monarchist organisation honouring arguably the greatest republican figure in British history, a man who committed regicide. Obviously it is due to Cromwells mass murder of Irish Catholics but the irony should not be lost.

  • Am Ghobsmacht


  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Not to mention the occasional ‘Independence flag’ dotted here and there, that one always baffled me…

  • James Nelson

    I remember when a young man residing in Larne.seeing a Lambeg Drum in the attic of the Orange Hall. Lots of drums were kept there. One belonged to my own lodge and was always refered to as the Brass Shell. It hadn`t been used since before the Second World war.. It was also called the Cromwell Drum because Oliver Cromwell`s portrait was on the drum.