Dermot Sheedy is a bodhrán player, percussionist and drummer from County Clare. Dermot started playing the bodhrán aged 6 and has 25 years experience of the instrument. A professional musician for the last ten years, he is a member of the Limerick band Hermitage Green, as part of which he has toured the world and achieved two top 5 albums.
Dermot is the force behind Alison’s Bodhrán Courses, released this month as part of our Traditional Irish Music hub. He spoke to the Alison Blog about his love for the instrument, his professional experience and why the bodhrán is the perfect instrument through which to learn about traditional Irish music.
So Dermot, how did you get into Irish music?
I started playing because I’m from a musical family. My dad is a great set-dancer and I have two older sisters that played traditional music – the flute and fiddle. I was the young sibling that used to tag along and the bodhrán was an easy instrument to give to the youngest to tip away with lightly in the corner.
Then when I was around 6 at a Fleadh (traditional Irish music competition) in Listowel, I remember seeing a bodhrán player called Neil Lyons playing in the Listowel Arms and just being glued to the hypnotic rhythm of the instrument. It was quite tribal and I just remember feeling, “Oh, I want to do this. This is class.” That was transformative for me. Then when I was twelve years of age I fell deeply in love with a band called Flook, and also Michael McGoldrick, and I just wanted to learn and play as much bodhrán as I could. I taught myself by playing along with all my favourite trad albums and it went from there.
Did you play throughout your school days?
When I was in secondary school I started competing in the Fleadhs in solo competitions in both the bodhrán and the drums. Throughout my time in school I was also playing drums in the Inis Óg Céilí Band and we’d compete in the Fleadhs too. Céilí band music is very important in County Clare. Traditional music is essentially dance music. It’s meant to accompany dancing, which is why it’s so lively and full of craic and rhythm. While at school, I won 7 All-Irelands across bodhrán, drums and céilí bands.
Also, when I was 16, I did a couple of tours with the Irish Harp Orchestra, across Germany and Cyprus. That was an unusual one because I got to play some of the finest concert halls I’ve still ever played in my life, like the Munich Philharmonic and the Cologne Philharmonic.
How did you end up becoming a professional musician?
So I didn’t study music in college, I studied real estate. But when I was 19 I got selected by Dónal Lunny to be in a band called Ciorras, which was formed as part of an series for TG4. It was about picking eight young people with different personalities and putting them together to form a band. It was anchored around the construction of a new percussion instrument and that was called the greadán, which was essentially a drumkit of bodhráns. After filming we toured a good bit with Ciorras, and I was playing both the bodhrán and the greadán.
I was playing with other bands as well at the time and then Hermitage Green came along when I was 21. They were still playing covers in bars and then once I joined we started doing more original stuff and stopped doing cover gigs. We started doing ticketed gigs and it’s all progressed very naturally. We’ve signed to Sony music, sold out shows around the world and also had two top 5 selling albums.
Tell us a bit about the history of the bodhrán.
The bodhrán has evolved hugely over the last sixty years. Originally it was largely seen as a ceremonial instrument that was only taken out once a year on Saint Stephen’s Day when it was beaten by the neighbours when they called around to the house. It was really in the fifties, when Seán Ó Riada brought it in to a concert hall setting, that it was formally introduced into the traditional idiom. Over time it continued to develop. Hand techniques changed, tonal work started to emerge and then the stick was added for playing.
What is it that you love about the bodhrán? And why would you encourage others to learn it?
The bodhrán is an unbelievably diverse instrument and it’s a great instrument for people to learn if they’re interested in traditional music. You can get good quite quickly if you have good rhythm and timing, so it’s quite accessible. Also there aren’t a lot of limitations to it across genres. With the bodhrán, I play traditional music but fifty percent of the music I play is non-traditional. You can rock up with the bodhrán to anything, it’s limitless. In my course, I teach traditional music but I also teach that you can apply the beats that I have taught you across so many different genres of music. The way the instrument will evolve in the future is by players listening to other styles of percussion and hopping in with that. It’s an all-round instrument and a great gateway for people getting into traditional music.
Why would you recommend learning Irish music to people?
Learning traditional music and opening yourself up to the traditional music community, you’ll be surprised at the abundance and the welcome across the world that you’ll be tapping into. It’s such a wide-spanning community. When I travel, I meet people who play traditional music all over the world. Someone at the start may be completely unaware of the support networks that are out there for traditional music, online also. Traditional music is a great gift. It’s also naturally and distinctively Irish. If you’re looking to be connected to the flow of what it means to be Irish, then you should choose traditional music.
Start your journey into Ireland’s musical heritage by checking out Alison’s Bodhrán courses now!
Photo credit Peter O’Hanlon