fife and drum
Diana Atkinson
The Fife
The Drum
malacca canesThe lambeg is a large, double headed drum of approximately 93 cm in diameter, 61 cm in width and 20 kg in weight, and is beaten with curved malacca or bamboo canes.

This unique drum, often known as the ‘goat skin’ or the ‘orange drum’, is generally associated with the ritual twelfth of July demonstrations held by the Orange Lodge in Ulster, and ‘was an integral part of the identity of Northern Protestants.’[1]

Whilst carrying out research for this topic, I discovered that sources of literature concerning the origins, construction and playing styles of the lambeg drum were extremely limited.  This could possibly be related to the fact that those who have studied and written material on Irish traditional music, have noticeably ignored the lambeg drum and it’s tradition, primarily because it is classified by many as a Protestant custom, and consequently does not belong to the Gaelic or Roman Catholic section of the country.  However, unknown to many, the lambeg drum itself was traditionally played by both members of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland and the Roman Catholic/Nationalist association, the Ancient Order of Hibernians.  This therefore implies that at one stage during history, the lambeg drum was not confined exclusively to Ulster and it’s Protestant inhabitants.


Formed following the Battle of the Diamond in September 1795, The Grand Orange Order’s principal function and role was to offer a communal focus outside the church, and to assist society in an era when social welfare was practically non-existent.

            Regular Orange Lodge meetings were a blatant excuse for song, dance and entertainment.  It is therefore evident at this early stage in 18th century history that ‘music was an integral part of many of the proceedings.’[2]  This is reinforced by the vast collection of Orange songs, anthologies and printed music which remain to support this fact.

            Music within the Orange Order was, and of course still is, a significantly essential and imperative feature of their heritage, which not only ‘reinforces and reflects identity…[but] is an essential element of the ritual.’[3]  ‘Music can express social attitudes and cognitive processes, but it is useful and effective only when it is heard by the prepared and receptive ears of people who have shared, or can share in some way the cultural and individual experiences of its creators.’[4]

            Since the establishment of the Orange Order, the musical combination of fife and drum was the usual accompaniment for twelfth of July processions.  Gary Hastings within his book, With Fife and Drum, describes one of the earliest accounts of a twelfth demonstration: 

‘One party consisting of thirty companies…had one drum, and each company had a fife and two or three men in front with painted wands in their hands who acted as commanders.’[5]

The drum in use here however, is not the lambeg we have become closely accustomed with today, but is more likely to be a large side or snare drum.


historyThe historical background of the lambeg is relatively uncertain and vague.  Many theories or stories concerning the creation and development of the drum have been presented over the years, causing much discrepancy and incongruity.  The most common fable is that the drums were first constructed in the town of Lambeg in County Antrim.  It has also been highlighted that it was in lambeg that the drum was first played with arched canes in 1871, having originally been beaten with wooden, ball headed sticks up to this point.  Famous drum manufacturer William Hewitt of Sandy Row, Belfast, additionally claims that his grandfather produced the first lambeg drum in 1870.  Author Gary Hastings however, contradicts this tale, highlighting that ‘the oldest reference to them which I have [is that] two were bought for a certain Orange Lodge in 1823.  They were called ‘lambegs’ as early as that and it is likely that they were made in lambeg (County Antrim) as I am not aware of any other explanation of the name.’[6]  There is also the renowned legend that the lambeg drum was initially brought over from Holland by King William’s troops during the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.  According to Fionnuala Scullion this theory could well be true, since a drum resembling the size and shape of the lambeg is displayed in Rembrandt’s 1649 painting entitled, ‘The Night Watch.’


            Still others believe that the first lambeg was made for the battle of the Diamond in 1795, a befitting date which coincides with the founding of the Orange Order.  A final anecdote told by Robert McLeese associates the lambeg drum with a bird known as the ‘Jinny’ Wren;

‘Ah, well, ye see, King William’s wee drummer boy was eatin’ this bit of cake, and he had the drum between his knees an’ he went to sleep, an’ all the crumbs had fallen onto the head of her…an’ he was to wake up the army the next morning’ an’ didn’t he sleep in, an’ all the army an’ King William, an’ didn’t this wee Jinny wren come down onto the drum for the crumbs, an’ wi’ her rattling on it, she woke up the whole camp, an’ she saved them from bein’ attacked…an’ that’s why

ye’ll see a wee chitty wren on a lot of drums.’[7]

drum            The common element discovered within these accounts however, is that they are all associated in some way or another, with two eras of prominent significance in Protestant history; firstly the conquest of William at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, and secondly the establishment of the Grand Orange Lodge in memory of King William in 1795.  It is important to highlight however, that the formation of the Orange Order appeared to have no immediate connection with King William and the Boyne, since it occurred almost a century after the battle took place.  According to Fionnuala Scullion, the connection between the two occasions ‘were made in the minds of the Orangemen who regarded their new society as a revival of an old tradition.’[8]

            The most probable prototype of the lambeg is the 18th century long drum, a form of bass drum used in military music, which was hung around the neck in a horizontal position and was beaten on both heads with heavy knobbed sticks, much like the original lambeg drum.  Ulster writer Sam Hanna Bell states that ‘it seems reasonable to me to deduce…that the big bass drum of a country band was the archetype, the original of the lambeg.’[9]  It is therefore possible that, through time, experimentation and much modification, the long drum gradually developed into the lambeg drum as we know it today.


 A number of men throughout Ulster have been connected with the manufacture of the lambeg drum, the most prominent of the past being Lecky of Cullybacky, David Wilkinson of Portglenone and William Moore of Ballymena.  To my knowledge only one man within the province today constructs lambeg drums on a full time basis, and that is Thomas Louden of Dunaghy (Ballymoney), County Antrim.

 drum shell


Figured oak is believed to be the most suitable, preferred type of wood for the shell of the drum.  Many other forms of wood such as mahogany, walnut and beech have been tested and experimented with, but the most suitable type appeared to be oak, primarily because of its life long durability against wood worm and accidents.

            ‘In the past the wood for the shell was steamed to facilitate bending around the template where it would have been left for a period of six months to a year.’[10]



The skin of a goat is the only material now used for making the heads of a lambeg drum, and is typically imported from Europe.  Prominent Ulster drum maker, Thomas Louden of head with maker's markDunaghy, informed me that his skins are imported from the continent, as goats in Ulster are scarce. 

            The choice of goat is an extremely significant part of the drum making process.  Essentially it has to be a ‘nanny’ or ‘she’ goat, largely because their skin is of a much finer texture than that of a buck goat.  This therefore explains why the lambeg is often  considered or classified as a ‘female’ drum.  Many lambeg manufacturers in the past have bred their own goats for the particular purpose of drum making, primarily because the skin of a wild goat would almost certainly be blemished and weakened by scars, bruises and scrapes from living in their natural habitat.  These problems would undoubtedly affect the strength and durability of a finished skin.  By breeding their own goats, drum manufacturers could therefore avoid this dilemma.       

 As indicated by Fionnuala Scullion, ‘November is the best time to buy a goat for skinning.  By this month the goat has moulted and its skin is in the best condition.’[11]             As a means of removing the hair from the skin, the coats are usually immersed in a chemical solution for a specific duration of time.  Whilst visiting Thomas Louden’s workshop in Dunaghy, he informed me that he stored his imported skins in a heated container for several weeks in order to dry them out, and make the hair easier to remove.  Subsequent to this, the skin is then cleansed, to eliminate all traces of chemical solution, the fat removed with a wire brush and the skin is ultimately left to dry.

            Once dried, the skin is shaved down to a become reasonably thin in texture, and it is at this specific pogoat skins hangingint, that a special, secret substance is added to the skin enabling it to stretch easily over the flesh hoop and become slightly harder and tougher in texture.

            The next procedure in construction is the matching of the skins into pairs, labelling them right and left.  This process is vitally important as the skin on the right hand side of the drum needs to be somewhat heavier, as this is the side that undergoes the most pressure when the drum is ‘pulled.’[12]



completed head with flesh hoopcurled up headA process known as ‘knocking’ subsequently takes place, so that any variation in weight between the two heads are balanced and each side of the drum is carrying the same level of stress.

            The final step is the lapping of the skin onto the flesh hoops.  It is imperative that the skins can move easily over the flesh hoop so as to avoid the skin splitting when the drum is tightened or ‘pulled.’

When the skin on the flesh hoop has fully dried out, all that remains to be done is placing the flesh hoop on the edge of the drum.  Thomas Louden highlighted to me that if a flesh hoop is not used automatically, it’s shape can be affected by the changing temperatures.  Louden showed me a device of a circular shape with several spokes, that he utilised to keep the flesh hoop in its spherical form.

spokes holding head in shape

Upon the drum’s completion, highly decorative paintings, similar to that exhibited on the banners of Lodges, are placed on the front of each shell.  The portrait on each drum varies significantly, ranging from important people or events in Protestant history, such as the Battle of the Boyne or King William, to Biblical characters such as David and Goliath.  This religious association highlights the highly respected, Christian aspect of the Orange Order.  The pre-requisites or specific qualifications required to become an Orangeman are clearly based on Christianity, a ‘sincere love and veneration for his Almighty Maker’[13] and a ‘firm and steady faith in the Saviour of the world.’[14]

            Each drum bears its own specific name, such as ‘The Lily of the Bann’, ‘The Terror’ or ‘Hewitt’s Pride’, and these must appear at the front of each drum, along with the particular Lodge’s name and number. 

            There appears to be much superstition and false notions concerning painted drums and bare shells[15], since many think that ‘some drums…that people are using at drumming matches, if they put a painting on them it destroys them.  And other ones that there is no painting on is no use; when they put a painting on them it makes them a better drum.’[16] 

 An example of a ‘bare shell’ drum.

bare shell

An example of a painted drum.

painted shell


The lambeg drum is now played in a range of different settings, gradually moving away from the long-established twelfth of July scene towards a somewhat more informal occasion of entertainment and competition. 

            The majority of rhythms or ‘tunes’ used in lambeg drumming are based on traditional Irish hornpipes, and the diverging types of drumming rhythms can be sub-divided into two principal categories:

1. Single-Time Drumming

2. Double-Time Drumming

            Single-time or ‘time-drumming’ was primarily used to accompany the fife at the annual twelfth of July demonstration.  The ensemble required two or more lambegs playing in time with each other whilst accompanying the fifer. 

            Single-time drumming is a tardy, undecorative style of playing which makes use of syncopated figures and includes little or no ornamentation.

             Single time playing is seldom heard nowadays, bar the few processions in County Antrim where fife and drum collaborations continue to assemble on the twelfth of July.  One drumming devotee commented that ‘it’s a pity it was done away with…because it gave the drummers a rest…not only that, it was tuneful…and it was rhythmic.’[17]

            Double-time drumming on the other hand has undoubtedly surpassed the twelfth of July processions as the main, predominant drumming context in Ulster today.  Used chiefly at organised drumming matches, double-time playing highlights and displays a drummers skill, strength and endurance. 

            This style of drumming is palpably more rapid and elaborate than single-time playing, and is unquestionably more appropriate for the rhythmic embellishments and improvisations of the individual drummer. 

            It seems that since bamboo or malacca canes were introduced to replace the originally heavy, ball-headed drum sticks, and the increasing tension and tightening of drum heads, that the speed of double-time drumming has accelerated, so that haste, energy and rhythmic decoration are its most characteristic features, qualities which all depend on the skill and capability of each drummer.  One renowned attribute of double-time drumming is the ‘roll’, an improvisatory idea based on an extended triplet figure:

             Nowadays the enrolment of drummers is usually kept within the family, being passed down from generation to generation.  The art of lambeg drumming is usually picked up over the years by listening to and attending numerous matches throughout the province, as opposed to having any formal learning or tuition.  The most frequently employed practice technique when learning to play the lambeg, is said to be the drumming of two pennies on a table or hard surface. 

            As a means of remembering specific rhythms and drumming tunes, many memory aids and mnemonic devices have been produced to help drummers determine the specific rhythmic schemes for both single and double-time playing.

Example:  ‘With Your One Pound Ten.’


Drumming matches or competitions became considerably more prominent during the second half of the 19th century, as a means of testing both the fortitude and proficiency of the drummer, as well as his lambeg’s tone, volume and general worth; features which became more important than it’s actual musicality. 

            These confrontational, challenge matches were formerly known as ‘stick-ins’ or ‘set-tunes’, and were held regularly in all the major drumming towns in poster for drumming matchCounties Down, Armagh and Antrim.  The primary intent of these rival competitions was the suppression of one mans opponent either by resilience, volume or artifice, so much so that the weaker drummer could not hear his own rhythms and therefore admit defeat. 

            Over the years however, focus has gradually shifted onto the musical ability of the drummer and tone quality of the drum, as opposed to the intense determination and vigour witnessed in the former, pre-war stick-ins.

            In the beginning, a number of drumming organisations came into existence because of occasional brawling between drummers from alternative regions, over judgments or verdicts made in drumming matches.  The eventual division into several different drumming societies throughout Ulster appeared to have resolved these problems of conflict and disagreement.  By the year 1950 five drumming associations had been formed; Ulster, Mid-Ulster, Lagan Valley, Antrim, and finally Armagh and Down.  The intention of separation into diverging associations was not to eliminate all rivalry, but to organise the matches in more professional, appropriate manner.  Rivalry and stamina are key features of these challenge matches, and in the past some competitions have been so competitive that the match lasted an astounding nine hours.

            Matches take place every Saturday evening during the months of February to November, customarily in Orange Halls throughout Ulster.  The atmosphere at these competitions is overflowing with excitement and tension, with devout drumming fanatics travelling miles across the province to attend these exhilarating drumming matches.  To enter as a competitor you are required to be a member of one of the five drumming associations in Ulster, otherwise you can act as a spectator, commenting on  the drums  and offering advice.  Generally there are limited numbers of women present at these competitions, with those that do attend being either the wives or girlfriends of those competing.

            Once the drums have been ‘pulled’ they are taken out into the open air where the fine tuning process of ‘knocking’ takes place around the hoops, in order to balance the tension of the two drum heads.  ‘A great show is made of tapping the hoops on either side and listening with exaggerated care.’[18]

            Upon completion of this procedure the event is then ready to begin, and in relation to the rules of both the Ulster Drumming Association and the Armagh and Down Association, there must be ‘no pulling of drums after the competition has commenced.’[19]  Two judges selected by the specific association committee, are appointed to adjudicate the competition.  Fionnuala Scullion describes in detail Belfast drum maker, William Hewitt’s experience of judging drumming competitions in the past: 

‘His stated reason for stopping was that he lost too many friends in the process.  ‘Because there’s about five people at a competition thought I should give to each of them you know.  Like ‘I was always a good customer of yours and I was dacent till you.’[20] 

A drum manufacturer more than anyone else is liable to face all forms of criticism, as opposed to any other man occupied in a different profession unconnected to lambeg drum construction since, ‘a drum maker elected as judge might be biased in favour of one of his own drums.’[21]  The position of adjudicator or moderator was therefore extremely unpopular and disliked.

            Weekly competitions begin promptly at 8 pm.  The general standing formation in early stick-in matches consisted of participants positioning themselves in a circle, with the judges walking around listening intently to each drummer.  Nowadays most competitors stand as far away from one another as possible, so as not be distracted by the other drummers volume or technique.  

            Within these matches all drummers beat in unison.  As the judge proceeds to walk around, reaching each man in succession, he listens attentively for approximately one minute from each head of the drum, and from in front and behind the drummer, marking the piece of card that hangs from each drum with a mark out of ten.  It is the contender’s intention not to quash his opponent, like the original stick-in competitions, but to demonstrate his adroit musicianship to those observing and most importantly to the judges.

            All drumming matches are based on an arrangement of rounds.  In the commencing round, each judge awards a maximum of ten points and only those drummers with a total of twenty points can advance into round two.  As drummers gradually fail to attain full marks in each round, they are eliminated ‘until the number is sufficiently small enough for each competitor to be assessed on individual merit.’[22]

            It is compulsory that the competition must cease at 11 pm and any member who breaches this regulation will be suspended from competing in all competitions for a period of a month.  The outright winner receives a cup or trophy to celebrate his victory.

            Many drummers are under the impression that it is the quality of the lambeg drum sticks or canes which produces the drums resultant tone.  Drummers and drum-makers alike apply a unique chemical solution to the skins of the drum in order to attain the required tone quality.  Additionally, striking the drum skin in the correct place is also considered essential for tonal purposes, as well as an even balance in both hands.  The drum itself must also be of a superior quality and must suit the type of man drumming it.  ‘In the long run it is a combination of a good drum, good sticks and the skill and strength of the drummer.’[23]

            As mentioned in the opening paragraphs to this essay, lambeg drums were also used by the Nationalist organisation, the Ancient Order of Hibernians.  Various myths have been circulating for years, concerning the members of the AOH and the Orange Order discussing and even disputing over the possession of lambeg drums.  There are additional fables pertaining to the occurrence of loan exchanges of drums between both organisations, as their specific marches would have taken place on different dates.  In the situation of those drums that were painted, special decorations according to the occasion were used to disguise the drums.

            In contrast to the Orange Order, the AOH had few lambeg drums.  However, many displeased Roman Catholics viewed this ‘borrowing’ procedure as a direct imitation of the Orange Order.  Fionnuala Scullion, interviewing a certain Willy Nichol, emphasises that the Hibernian drumming tradition declined dramatically as a result of the ‘IRA boys and Sinn Feiners’ calling them nothing more than ‘Green Orangemen.  They thought they had to make a difference - they had to give it up.’[24]

            The AOH drummers appeared to have held drumming competitions and challenge matches similar to those organised by the Orangemen.  Willy Nichol additionally highlights that these ‘Ribbon’ men also obtained their lambegs from drum maker William Hewitt of Sandy Row in Belfast. 

            Few Hibernian drums are in existence today, the most prominent survivor however is ‘Remember the Glories of Brian Boru’ now stored in Kilrea, County Londonderry.

            In conclusion, the lambeg drumming tradition in Ulster is indisputably continuing to thrive and prosper.  Within the Ballymoney and Ballymena areas alone, the production and competitive playing of lambeg drums is becoming increasingly popular and well-known.  When initially arranging a meeting and discussion with drum maker Thomas Louden, he advised me to visit during the afternoon rather than in the evening, as his workshop would be extremely busy with drummers collecting drums, and men requiring skins.  This therefore highlights the increasing interest in the lambeg drum, it’s heritage and it’s musicality.  


[1]Hastings, Gary.  With Fife and Drum, Music, memories and customs of an Irish tradition, (Belfast:  The Blackstaff Press, 2003), pp. 9-10.

[2]Hastings, (2003), p. 3. 

[3]Hastings, (2003), p. 10.

[4]Quote by John Blacking in, The lambeg and the Bodhran, by Rina Schiller, (Belfast:  Queen’s University, Belfast, 2001), p. 41.

[5]Hastings, (2003), p. 8.

[6]Scullion, Fionnuala.  The lambeg in Ulster, (1982), p. 4.

[7]Quote by Rab McLeese in, Hastings (2003), p. 13

[8]Scullion, (1982), p. 2.

[9]Ibid., p. 8.

[10]Ibid., p. 64.

[11]Ibid., p. 68.

[12] ‘Pulled’:  the tightening of the heads, by pulling the ropes round the drum.

[13]Hastings, (2003), p. 2.

[14]Ibid., p. 2.

[15]Bare-Shell: an unpainted drum.

[16]Scullion, (1982), p. 73.

[17]Scullion, (1982), p. 35.

[18]Ibid., p. 53.

[19]Ibid., p. 54.

[20]Ibid., p. 54.

[21]Ibid., pp. 54-55.

[22]Ibid., p. 56.

[23]Ibid., p. 59.

[24]Hastings, (2003), p. 60.



Buckley, Anthony. Symbols in Northern Ireland, (Belfast: The Institute of Irish Studies, Queen’s University, Belfast, 1998). 

Hastings, Gary. With Fife and Drum, Music, memories and customs of an Irish tradition, (Belfast: The Blackstaff Press, 2003). 

Scullion, Fionnuala. The Lambeg Drum in Ulster, (1982). 

Schiller, Rina. The Lambeg and the Bodhran, (Belfast: Queen’s University, Belfast, 2001). 




Distant Drums, A selection of music featuring the Fife and Lambeg drum, by Galgorm Parks Fife and Drum Group, DD507CD. 

With Fife and Drum, by Gary Hastings, (2003).