Drums that are rolled out each Twelfth of July

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

Orange folklore has it that the Lambeg drum was brought to Ireland from Holland by troops of Duke Schomberg, William’s second-in-command at the Boyne.

Another theory is that the first Lambeg drum was made for the Battle of the Diamond in September 1795, after which the Orange Order was formed.

It is claimed the first Lambeg drum in its present form was made in Sandy Row in 1870 and it had its first appearance at a Twelfth demonstration in Lambeg the following year.

This drum measured 86 centimetres in diameter and 61 centimetres in width, and is still in the possession of a Moira, Co Down, lodge.

However, there are drums which pre-date the 1870 version - 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 oak boards.

King William stopped at Lambeg outside Lisburn on his way to the Boyne in 1690, and this could probably explain the name given to the large drums which have become such a dominant feature of Orange parades over the past 50 years.

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

The beating of drums has been associated with Orange processions since the Order’s formation in September 1795. A drum was carried at a Twelfth demonstration in Co Armagh in 1796 - Lord Gosford, of Markethill, confirms this in a letter to the Lord Lieutenant, Lord Camden in Dublin Castle.

“I have 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 by the mid 20th century, accompaniment of Orange lodges by drummers and fifers was a regular feature of parades.

Lambeg drummers beat to a set rhythm or roll whether it is in tune with another drum or a 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, Portadown, Lurgan, Loughgall and Markethill any evening leading up to the Twelfth and you will hear the staccato beat sounding out from a fully tightened drum over the summer night air.

Prominent Unionist politicians like the late Jack Maginnis and the late Harold McCusker loved a crack with the cane on the goatskins that made up the head of a Lambeg drum.

But the advent of more bands on the scene has meant a reduction in the number of drums being carried at Twelfth parades. And even the traditionalists in Co Armagh will admit that the place for Lambeg drums in the Twelfth walk is narrowing.

In the heyday of drumming - in the 30s and 40s - the 22 lodges of Tandragee Orange district usually had about 60 drums out on a Twelfth parade.

Loughgall, Portadown. and Lurgan districts were the same and it was commonplace for 200 drums to be carried at the Armagh County demonstration with some of the drums being accompanied by a fifer.

Now, the quota of drums taking part has been reduced to around 50 overall.

Getting drummers is also another problem for the lodges and sometimes it is left to a few enthusiasts in the number to look after the drums for the day.

Most of the Co Armagh drums, as elsewhere in the Province, are now owned bv individual members of a lodge and this allows greater freedom to participate in the many drumming matches that are held throughout Ulster from February to November each year.

The weather is a factor in getting the best out of a 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.

There are no documented tunes as such in a Lambeg drum, but each drummer has his own distinct rhythm and roll. It is a unique tradition embedded in Orange culture.