Lambeg drum is most traditional Orange instrument, but its origins remain uncertain

BILLY KENNEDY traces the colourful history of the Lambeg drum right back to the Battle of the Boyne in 1690

Monday, 13th July 2020, 7:42 am
The Lambeg drum (left) is the McCusker Memorial – The Pride of Lurgan in memory of the late Harold McCusker MP, while the drum on the right is in memory of Robert Serplice and Thomas Robert Corkin, two relatives who both died in the Battle of Messines in June 1917
The Lambeg drum (left) is the McCusker Memorial – The Pride of Lurgan in memory of the late Harold McCusker MP, while the drum on the right is in memory of Robert Serplice and Thomas Robert Corkin, two relatives who both died in the Battle of Messines in June 1917

The Lambeg drum rivals the flute as the most traditional of Orange instruments, but its exact origin is open to debate.

Folklore has it that the Lambeg drum was brought to Ireland from Holland by troops of Duke Frederick Schomberg, King William’s second-in-command at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Another theory is that the first Lambeg drum was made for the Battle of the Diamond in Co Armagh in September 1795, after which the Orange Order was founded.

Renowned Sandy Row drum maker William Hewitt claimed his grandfather made the first Lambeg drum in 1870 and it had its first appearance at a Twelfth demonstration in Lambeg the following year.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

This drum measured 86 centimetres in diameter and 61 centimetres in width and is still in the possession of a Moira, Co Down Orange lodge. However, there are drums which pre-date the 1870s - one in Belfast is marked with the name Walsh, the drum maker, and dated 1849, the year of the Battle of Dolly’s Brae in Co Down.

It measures 72 centimetres in diameter and 61 centimetres in width and resembles present-day Lambeg drums with a construction of two wooden oak boards.

King William did stop at Lambeg outside Lisburn on his way to the Boyne and this could likely explain the name given to the large drums which have become such a dominant feature of Orange Order parades over the past 150 years.

Various animal skins have been used for the drum heads, with goatskin the most popular. The shell is mostly of wood, but brass has also been used. Drum sticks are of wooden cane.

The beating of drums has been associated with Orange processions since the formation of the order in 1795.

A drum was carried at a Twelfth demonstration at Gosford estate in Markethill, Co Armagh in 1796. Lord Gosford, of Markethill, confirms in a letter to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland Lord Camden in Dublin Castle: “I have had the honour to acquaint your Excellency that the meeting of Orangemen took place in different parts of this county. One party consisting of 30 companies with banners etc, after parading through Portadown, Loughgall and Richhill came towards this place. The party 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.”

The 1796 version was probably the first of the fife and drum combinations that were to become a celebrated part of Orange culture. Before the dramatic increase in bands in the early part of the 20th century, accompaniment of Orange lodges by drummers and fifers was a regular feature of parades.

Lambeg drums beat to a set rhythm or roll whether it be in tune with another drum or fife. The sound of the drum travels horizontally and, with the shrill tones of the fife moving in a vertical direction, the two blend in quite a unique way.

Armagh, not surprisingly, has the strongest tradition of Lambeg drumming of any county in Northern Ireland. Travel the roads around Tandragee, Lurgan, Portadown, Markethill and Loughgall any evening leading up the Twelfth and you are nearly always bound to hear the stacatto beat sounding out from a fully tightened Lambeg drum over the mid-summer night air.

Two former Ulster Unionist MPs in Co Armagh - the late Jack Maginnis, a Tandragee man, and the late Harold McCusker, from Lurgan – loved a crack with the cane on the goatskins that made up the head of a Lambeg drum. Both were considered highly proficient drummers.

The advent of more bands on the present-day Twelfth scene has meant a reduction in the number of drums being carried at parades. Even the traditionalists will admit that the place for Lambeg drums in the modern Twelfth walk is narrowing.

In the heyday of drumming – 1930s, 40s and 50s – the large Co Armagh districts of Portadown, Tandragee, Loughgall. Lurgan and Markethill would have had a large presence of Lambegs (more than 100) heading the various lodges to the field. The Lambeg drum still has a significant presence in the parade of these districts and many young Orangemen are encouraged by their elders to follow the tradition.

Her Majesty the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, on a visit to Northern Ireland just after her 1953 coronation, were serenaded by two Lambeg drums at a reception at Hillsborough Castle. Royal approval, indeed.

Getting drummers can be problematic for some lodges; the size and weight of a drum makes it a heavy load for the most sturdy of brethren. Usually carriers are recruited in a lodge to share the load. Most of the drums are lodge owned, but some belong to families.

The weather can be a factor in getting the best out of a Lambeg drum and a summer heatwave is considered to be ideal. the warmer and drier it is the sweeter the tune.

Wet weather spoils a good drum and takes them off the roads. There are no written tunes as such in Lambeg drums, but each drummer has his own distinct rhythm and roll and style. Drumming men are a special breed.

Lambeg drums disappeared from the Belfast Twelfth parade in the mid-20th century because of the distance covered in the route. Carrying a Lambeg drum seven miles from Carlisle Circus to Finaghy or Shaw’s Bridge was quite a feat.

A new drum today, complete with heads and an appropriate painting, will cost anything up to £1,000 and drum-makers locate in various parts of Northern Ireland. Aside from lodge activity, drumming associations exist, primarily in the Co Armagh, South Antrim, South Down, South Londonderry and Mid-Ulster areas.

For deep-rooted Orangemen, particularly in the rural Protestant heartlands, the Twelfth would not be the Twelfth without the dynamic sound and a rattle or two on a Lambeg drum.

It’s a tradition that will never die out as long as Orangeism continues to flourish in Ulster.