The House of McDonnell, 71 Castle Street, Ballycastle, Co. Antrim BT54 6AS Northern Ireland. Tel: 028 2076 2975

The Hammered Dulcimer in Co. Antrim!

If you are seriously interested in the history of the Hammered Dulcimer, and in particular its history in Northern Ireland, as well as Southern Ireland, Scotland & England too, then I would strongly recommend that you visit the excellent website of 
If you just have a passing interest into how Co. Antrim fits into the history of the Hammered Dulcimer, then you might like to read the brief notes below.
Much of the information for this piece was gleaned from the pages of David Kettlewell's wonderful website. David very kindly gave me permission to use the information below, saying he was happy to see the word being spead around.
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The Hammered Dulcimer - an early history
The word Dulcimer is apparently Greek for Sweet Sound, so how come it's sweet sound isn’t more widely known, and why is it not being played more often, in Co. Antrim, where it seems, it has always been more popular than anywhere else in Ireland? That is something the my Causeway Dulcimer Festival strived to address!
When you first listen to the Hammered Dulcimer you could be forgiven for thinking that it probably originated in the Middle East, around Persia, about 900 A.D. and is related to the psaltery. However, the smart thinking today maintains that the instrument we know today originated from central Europe in what is now Germany. From there it has spread all over the World & each country to adopt it has made it their own, creating their own music on it & giving it a name unique to that country.

So today it is known by many different names in different countries e.g. a Tympanon in France; a Hackbrett in Germany; and a Cymbalom in Hungary.
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The Hammered Dulcimer in Co. Antrim
In this Co. Antrim map you will see the area where the Hammered Dulcimer was made, played, & became popular.
It lies roughly in the centre, between four towns ~ Glenarm, Larne, Ballyclare & Ballymena.
Although this instrument is relatively unknown now in Co. Antrim, some say it has actually been on these shores, in one form or another since, at least, the 18th Century.
In England it was very popular during the late 16th century and it seems likely that the hammered dulcimer was also being played in Scotland in the C16th, for there is mention of it in a Scottish poem of 1543, calling it a ‘dulsacordis’! It then probably travelled to County Antrim with the Scots, at least 4 or 5 generations ago.
Scotland's Bob Smith's Ideal Band. Thanks to Jenny Coxon of the Nonsuch Dulcimer Club for the photos of this LP cover & the photos of John Rea's LPs below.

The first player to be mentioned in Co. Antrim was a Harry Coudy, who was a well known player in the 20’s. Then there was a John Johnson who only died in 1974. “He made four dulcimers, while Alec Magee of Larne made about a dozen instruments, many of them for young people, who apparently gave up when they found it too difficult; he was a joiner, took the measurements for his instruments from that of John Rea, and used autoharp pins from a music shop.”
Other more recent players included 
James & Andrew Davidson of Buckna, Miss Katie Johnson of Owencloughy, William McMullan of Ballyclare, Thomas Taylor of Mullaghmore, Robert Gilbert of Kilwaughter plus others from around Ballyclare including Nat Magee ( Alec's son ), Mrs. CraigMrs. Doris ApseyJackie ApseyMrs. WoodsideWilliam Mundel and Alec Rea of Ballymena."
However the most famous Co. Antrim Hammered Dulcimer player of them all was John Rea of Glenarm. He started out on the Dulcimer at the age of eight, and says his brothers all got fiddles but he was too small, so he got the dulcimer! John worked on the tug-boat in Belfast Lough and lived on board a lot of the time, which I suppose gave him plenty of time to practice. Today people play the dulcimer with little wooden hammers but John Rea used hammers made of thick steel wire, wound with wool, which were his own idea.
John, in his day, was very famous. John Rea performed with his Dulcimer on the TV, played live with ‘The Chieftains’ and recorded two LPs.
In Scotland the players used to play a lot of old song airs, and of songs which were popular between the wars, but John Rea tended to play the old traditional tunes he learned from his dad’s fiddle playing. So Reels, Jigs, Marches and Strathspeys were more his cup of tea and he, like most Co. Antrim musicians, played a fine healthy mix of Scottish and Irish tunes.
John Rea, before he died, used to regularly play duets with his brother
 William Rea, and thankfully Willie is still going strong. 
Sadly Nat Magee, has passed on to the great Ceili in the sky, so Larne rings no more, to the sound of his Hammered Dulcimer.
The final resting place of John Rea, in Glenarm Cemetery
Note the Dulcimer on the stone.
[photo  Rick Davis ]

Another well known 
Hammer Dulcimer player of Co. Antrim was 
Derek Bell of the Chieftains, although he called his a Timpan, but it was simply a Hammered Dulcimer. 
Today, the best player in Ireland is still a County Antrim man, one Barry Carroll who has also recorded a CD with Hammered Dulcimer & Uilleann Pipes and more recently was a guest musician on Sharon Shannon’s last CD.
Here's Barry Carroll playing his Dulcimer on The Late Show.
 Barry Carroll  
Interestingly, there was very little interest in Hammered Dulcimers in the south. However "two players from both areas did try to meet up once, but the meeting never happened because both men were waiting at different stations!"
In 2002, a Hammered Dulcimer festival took place in Cork and ran for three years, organised by an American player, 
Christie Burns. Before the first Fest, a call went out for all Irish Hammered Dulcimer players to attend, or at least make themselves known – only four appeared! However, many Hammered Dulcimer players from all over the world did turn up & beginners classes rekindled an interest in this endangered species.
In an effort to raise the profile of the Hammered Dulcimer in Co. Antrim, I organised the 
Glenarm Castle Kitchen Concert in Glenarm Castle back in 2003, which was attended by four local Hammered Dulcimers players, including myself.
2004, for my Black Nun Fest in Ballycastle, American player
 Rick Davis, kindly came over from North Carolina thelp keep the flame burning. 
Nat Magee, of Larne, also played at my Black Nun Folk Club
In 2005 I organised the Causeway Dulcimer Festival 
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If you live in North Antrim and you are curious to find out what a Hammered Dulcimer actually looks like, and you would like to hear it being played, then you might like to know that I play mine every Saturday night in the Bushmills Inn.
So there you have it, its been around for perhaps a thousand years, made and played throughout Co. Antrim for at least the past 4 or 5 generations, and still, every time I take it out in North Antrim folk ask me what it is! 
Just for the record & in case you can't get along to our local session to hear it, here's a video of me playing a set of Scottish tunes.
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If you would like more information on this subject, check out my site
For a more detailed look at the history of the Hammered Dulcimer in Ireland, visit my site

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