The Lambeg Drum

Lambeg drum maker Richard Sterritt talks goat skins, military history and the lost tradition of Catholic drumming. Click Play Audio for a podcast on the process of making a Lambeg drum

Plans are already well advanced for this year's Clady Day drumming competition, which takes place on the last Saturday of July in Markethill, County Armagh. And as exponents of the Lambeg drum gather in the town for the annual festival, the chances are that they will be banging on a drum made by the Sterritt family.

Richard Sterritt jokes that if he didn’t have to work for a living, Lambeg drum making could easily be his Richard Sterritt making a Lambeg drumcareer. 'I sell hardwood timber and the drums are made of hardwood timber. It was passed down to me by my father who took it up himself when he was a young man.'

Sterritt’s late father, Ernie, was a founder member of the Armagh and Down Drumming Association and before that a member of the Ulster Drumming Association.

'He was at drums in orange halls local to him,' recalls Sterritt. 'Then he started fixing them as a hobby. People would bring them to him. He would buy and sell them. And then he began to make them himself.'

Sterritt inherited his father's love of the Lambeg drum at a young age. Although he enjoys the process of making the drums, it's the final sound that thrills him most. 'It’s the sound they make. That lovely crisp sound – it’s infectious,' explains Sterritt, while he brushes a solution of diluted ammonia onto a fresh goat skin.

The process removes the goat hair and eventually the skin looks like a piece of plastic. Once they are ready, the skins are lapped onto hoops that attach to the drum shell. The drummer adjusts and tightens the drum as he aims to get both sides sounding the same.

Tradition has it that the Lambeg drum came to Ireland with the Duke of Schomberg, King William's second in command, in the late 1600s and that it was used to beat out military times and rhythms to his troops.

'It is said that the original drum was smaller – about two feet diameter instead of three feet, and that they sat on either side of a horse. Apparently drums were preferable to bugles, whose players might be struck by fear and unable to play. Drummers could always make a noise.'

Richard Sterrit with a finished a Lambeg drumWhile the Lambeg drum is seen as being a big part of the Protestant tradition, Sterritt asserts that this has not always been the case. 'They used to be played by both sides of the house, but it has dropped off badly in the Catholic tradition this last 40 years. The Hibernians used them a lot. There were some good drums on the circuit and there are some great songs and stories about too.'

No doubt some of these will be sung and recounted during Clady Day on Saturday July 25, when there will be two drumming events in Markethill.

'It can be traced back to 1899 when the people would gather at a field about three miles away in Clady Milltown,' continues Sterritt. 'That would be after the 12th, once all the farm work was done. As they would go into the field they would get a keg of whiskey and bottles of porter. One year it was too wet so they came into Markethill and it’s been staged here ever since.

'The event I stage keeps the historical link with Clady Day and that’s on first at 2.30pm. The competitors then go to the other event in the evening. We raise money which goes into a comfort fund in the Health Centre in Markethill. It’s a way of giving something back to the people for the use of their town that day.'

Padraig Coyle