The Tradition of the Lambeg Drum


The Lambeg Drum rivals the flute as the most traditional

of Orange instruments. but its exact origin is open to


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.

Sandy Row drum maker William Hewitt claims his

grandfather made the first Lambeg drum 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.

It measures 72 centimetres in diameter and 61

centimetres in width and resembles present-day Lambeg

drums, with a construction of two oak boards.

William did stop 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 mostlv 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 formation of the Order in 1795. A

drum was carried at a Twelfth demonstration in Co. Armagh

in 1796, lord Gosford, of Markethill, confirms 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


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 early half

of this centurv. the 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 he tune with another drum or a fife. The sound of the

drum travels horizontallv and with the shrill tones of the

fife moving in a vertical direction the two blend in quite a

unique way.

Photo:Irish Times 7/13,96

Armagh, not surprisingly, has the strongest tradition

of Lambeg drumming of any county in Northern Ireland.

Travel the roads of Tandragee, Lurgan or Loughgall

any evening leading up to the Twelfth and you are nearly

bound to hear the staccato heat sounding out from a fully

tightened drum over the summer night air.

Even prominent politicians like Jack Maginnis and the

late Harold MeCusker 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 - back in the thirties and

forties - 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 county

demonstration with some of the drums being accomp:tnied

bv a fifer,

Now the quota of drums taking part has been reduced

to around 50 overall, most of them taken only by the

Tandragee. Loughgall, Lurgan and Portadown Orangemen.

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

Februarv to November each year.

New drums can still be purchased from William Hewitt

in Sandy Row at a cost of about £100 but there are also

drum-makers in Carrickfergus and Tandragee. Some

in centres from Co. Armagh to South Derry and South


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

and a summer heatwave was considered to be ideal. The

warmer and drier it is the sweeter the tune. Wet weather

spoils a good drum. There are no tunes as such in a Lambeg

drum but each drummer has his own distinct rhythm and roll.

You will not hear a Lam beg drum at the Twelfth parade

enthusiasts make their own heads and these cost anything

from £30 to £40.

The drumming matches are organised by three different

associations, the largest operating from Glenavy and

carrying a Province-wide membership. The other two are

in Mid-Ulster and in the Tandragee area.

In addition to cups the prizes at drumming matches can

include cash incentives for the winner.

It has now become largely a sport and 30-60 drums

usually take part in the matches that are held every week-end

in Belfast - drumming has practically died out in the city.

But in most of the provincial centres, notably Co. Armagh,

you will, even if the drums are fewer in number than they

were in the halcyon days of the fifer.

Only a few traditional fifers remain - in the South

Down and South Antrim areas. Unlike the drummers theirs

is a dying art.

For Orangemen, the Twelfth would not be the same

without a rattle or two on a Lambeg Drum.

-Imagine! 6-8 of these in a line walking and playing! Much more than a rattle -Thanks Norman Nelson for the photo and description! Perhaps we shall see the two great war drums of the Island playing side by side together! The Bodhran is after all a war drum too! (But the Lambeg is a bodhran on steroids!!!)
And did you know its the Lambeg itself which has lead the Protestants to a life without alcohol!
Tis' true- fore unlike the wee bodhran the Lambeg will not fit conveniently if at all through the thin old style doors of the Pubs- thus keeping the men out of the pubs!

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