The Hammered Dulcimer - a Co. Antrim instrument!

The Hammered Dulcimer is truly a Co. Antrim instrument, but not a lot of people know that!

I would just like to make it very clear to readers of this forum that Co. Antrim plays an important part in the history of the Hammered Dulcimer.
To the rest of Ireland, Co. Antrim is the home of the Hammered Dulcimer so we should be proud of this fact.
In the world of Dulcimer playing one player, the late John Rea of Glenarm, is synonymous with Dulcimer playing here.

This instrument, believe it or not, has been made & played by Co. Antrim folk for at least 200 years, was often used in the Churches of the area when they could not afford an organ & yet it is now almost forgotten!

Unfortunately, there are only perhaps four or five Antrim men alive, who are a direct link with this tradition & although we are fortunate that they are still playing their own, family made Dulcimers, it has to be said that two of them are now in their golden years, so why oh why is it not seen being played more often at Ulster Scots concerts?

If we don't act soon, this tradition will be lost, forever.

I fear that ignorance of this once treasured instrument of the Glens of Antrim, particularly around Larne, Glenarm & Ballyclare, has led to it becoming almost extinct here.

With the danger of this instrument being lost forever to Co. Antrim & Ulster, I took up playing it a few years ago, and now play it every week on the Causeway Coast here & play it with our group ‘Scad the Beggars’ whenever the opportunity arises.
I must say too that when people hear this instrument for the first time, they are always fascinated by it & have to come forward & ask about it & they are always very surprised to learn about it's Co Antrim history ''

I also started a small festival in Bushmills last year to help raise the instrument's profile & try & save it.
Unfortunately, I have no funding this year to carry out this important work, but last year I did have a number of excellent musicians who very kindly volunteered their services for the cause.

Incidentally, the festival is also designed to promote other instruments with a Co. Antrim flavour, including the Fife, the Fiddle, the Lambeg Drum, plus Scottish Smallpipes, Northumbrian Pipes, the old Uilleann Flatpipes, the Harp plus the wonderful rhymes of this area. For more info. on this festival, visit:

But, back to the Hammered Dulcimer.

I thought it might be useful to give you a brief introduction to the instrument here. However, those of you who are not familiar with this instrument, might like to visit my festival website, where they will find numerous photographs of these beautiful looking & sounding instruments:

N.B. Much of the information for this piece was gleaned from the pages of David Kettlewell's wonderful website (see link below).
I did contact David by Email, & asked for his permission to use the information below, and he kindly agreed, as it was for such a good cause.

I have broken this info down into three sections:

1 – An early history
2 – The HD in Co. Antrim
3 – The HD in America

The Hammered Dulcimer - an early history

The word Dulcimer is apparently Greek for 'Sweet Sound', so how come it's sweet sound isn’t more widely known, and why is it not being played more often, in Co. Antrim, where it seems, it has always been more popular than anywhere else in Ireland?
That is something the 'Causeway Dulcimer Festival' will strive to address!

The hammered dulcimer probably originated in the Middle East, around Persia, about 900 A.D. and is related to the psaltery.

It spread from there across Europe & North Africa, and throughout the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance period the dulcimer remained a popular instrument in both eastern and western Europe.

It was known by many different names in different countries: a "tympanon" in France; a "hackbrett" in Germany; and a "cymbalom" in Hungary.

The Hammered Dulcimer in Co. Antrim

Although this instrument is relatively unknown now in Co. Antrim, some say it has actually been on these shores, in one form or another since, at least, the 18th Century.

In England it was very popular during the late 16th century and it seems likely that the hammered dulcimer was also being played in Scotland in the C16th, for there is mention of it in a Scottish poem of 1543, calling it a ‘dulsacordis’!
It then probably travelled to County Antrim with the Scots, at least 4 or 5 generations ago.

The first player to be mentioned here was a Harry Coudy, who was a well known player in the 20’s.
Then there was a John Johnson who only died in 1974. “He made four dulcimers, while Alec Magee of Larne made about a dozen instruments, many of them for young people, who apparently gave up when they found it too difficult; he was a joiner, took the measurements for his instruments from that of John Rea, and used autoharp pins from a music shop.”
Other more recent players included "James & Andrew Davidson of Buckna, Miss Katie Johnson of Owencloughy, William McMullan of Ballyclare, Thomas Taylor of Mullaghmore, Robert Gilbert of Kilwaughter plus others from around Ballyclare including Nat Magee ( Alec's son ), Mrs. Craig, Mrs. Doris Apsey, Jackie Apsey, Mrs. Woodside, William Mundel and Alec Rea of Ballymena."
However the most famous Co. Antrim Hammered Dulcimer player of them all was John Rea of Glenarm.
He started out on the Dulcimer at the age of eight, and says his brothers all got fiddles but he was too small, so he got the dulcimer!
John worked on the tug-boat in Belfast Lough and lived on board a lot of the time, which I suppose gave him plenty of time to practice.
Today people play the dulcimer with little wooden hammers but John Rea used hammers made of thick steel wire, wound with wool, which were his own idea.

John, in his day, was very famous. He performed on the TV, played with ‘The Chieftains’ and recorded two LPs.

In Scotland the players used to play a lot of old song airs, and of songs which were popular between the wars, but John Rea tended to play the old traditional tunes he learned from his dad’s fiddle playing. So Reels, Jigs, Marches and Strathspeys were more his cup of tea and a fine healthy mix of Scottish and Irish tunes he played too.
John Rea, before he died, used to regularly play duets with his brother William Rea, and thankfully Willie is still going strong, as is Nat Magee, so the glens still ring to the sound of these two men playing their Hammered Dulcimers.

Another well known Hammer Dulcimer player was Derek Bell of the Chieftains, although he called his a Timpan, but it was simply a Hammered Dulcimer. Today, the best player in Ireland is still a County Antrim man, one Barry Carroll who has also recorded a CD with Hammered Dulcimer & Uilleann Pipes and more recently was a guest
musician on Sharon Shannon’s last CD.
Interestingly, there was very little interest in Hammered Dulcimers in the south. However "two players from both areas did try to meet up once, but the meeting never happened because both men were waiting at different stations!"
In 2002, a Hammered Dulcimer festival took place in Cork and ran for three years, organised by an American player, Christie Burns. Before the first Fest, a call went out for all Irish Hammered Dulcimer players to attend, or at least make themselves known – only four appeared! However, many Hammered Dulcimer players from all over the world did turn up & beginners classes rekindled an interest in this endangered species.
Christie has gone home to America now, but I am determined to do my best to help save this rare Co. Antrim beastie, and in 2003 I organised a concert in Glenarm Castle which was attended by four Hammered Dulcimers players, including myself.
In 2004, for my Black Nun Fest in Ballycastle I brought over an American player Rick Davis, from North Carolina to
help keep the flame burning. Nat Magee, of Larne has also played at my Black Nun folk club.

If you live in North Antrim and you are curious to find out what a Hammered Dulcimer actually looks like, and you would like to hear it being played, then you might like to know that I play mine every Tuesday night in Kelly’s Bar, on Church St. Ballymoney and also in the Smugglers Inn, Bushmills, on Saturday nights. Nat Magee would also play with us every once in a while at the Smugglers Inn.

So there you have it, its been around for perhaps a thousand years, made and played throughout Co. Antrim for at least the past 4 or 5 generations, and still, every time I take it out in North Antrim folk ask me what it is! Hopefully the Causeway Dulcimer Festival will put this right.

The Hammered Dulcimer in America

The first wave of settlers came to Appalachia by way of the Valley of Virginia, having started in Pennsylvania. Around 1769 the "Wilderness Road" opened up migration through southwestern Virginia, Kentucky and northeastern Tennessee. They were made up of Germans, British, Scot-Irish and the French Huegonots.

Hammered Dulcimer like instruments have been found in Appalachia, Shenandoah Valley (Virginia) and northeast Tennessee along "The Wilderness Road." They were also found along the "Great Wagon Road" from western Maryland to North Carolina, but this was a relatively small number with the majority being found on the Wilderness Road. Early dulcimer- like instruments were also made in the Valley of Virginia.

People often confuse the hammered dulcimer with the three or four stringed "mountain" or "plucked" dulcimer, although the two have nothing in common, except their name.

The earliest reference to it in America is actually of one being played in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1717.

Hammered dulcimers are particularly interesting because, unlike the piano, dulcimers were often built at home, which was certainly the case in Co. Antrim.

This beautiful instrument is now enjoying a revival and for the first time in many years, new dulcimers are being built, and there is an increasing number of new players.

The Causeway Dulcimer Festival will be doing what it can to ensure that this revival takes place in Ulster too.

If anyone reading these notes has any information on County Antrim Hammered Dulcimer players or makers, please send it to me at or contact David Kettlewell

If, reading the above has inspired you to learn more, then you might like to either contact me or you will find more information on this wonderful instrument, including many beautiful photographs of these instruments & last year’s ‘Causeway Dulcimer Festival’ at:

For more detailed information on the Dulcimer, worldwide, check out:

I would also recommend that you visit the section there on Northern Ireland!

Let's act now, before it's too late!
Hi, it was a pleasure to read this. My Grandfather from east Donegal played the dulcimer and fiddle a lifetime, at concerts, parties and weddings etc. He died about 1972 aged 91yrs. I do have a very old dulcimer belonging to him in a state of disrepair which I intend to restore. He was recorded in the Omagh area by old 8mm film which I believe is in the hands of a local family to this day. I also have a very old photograph of him playing the instrument. Regards John Taylor.