CHAPTER 4: Dulcimers in the British Isles since 1800 > Dulcimers in Southern Ireland

Andy Dowling

photo to be added

When I found Andy Dowling, however, (he pronounces it 'Dowlen') tucked away in a rather remote cottage near a peat bog in Co. Laois, he told a fascinating story; beginning with a stirring of his interest by John Barton and the "feller up the road".

"Then years passed along ... and I used to be thinking of it. I put a notice in the paper, and got a reply from Dublin. I went up on an excursion and bought the dulcimer, case and all, for £2; it was huge: I cut 4" off both sides, but it's the same back... A strange thing, then, I used to be at it here and I was trying to find out what was the tune of it, but I was still at the fiddle all the time... My brother-in-law in Dublin, he picked up two and he sent me one of them, the big one - I liked the tone on it, 'twas a fine instrument and I used to keep playing... but I was enamoured of the small one ... it was very handy for carrying round...

"Then I took a notion and I remade the other one, but I made it too short: you can't get a small one to concert pitch ...

"0h, yes, I'd learn tunes from other players .. but didn't I write it down, otherwise I couldn't get it. I learnt to read music from a book; used to play the fiddle, always, for years, but I gave it up when I began with this ... that would be 20 or 30 years ago now... you want to be playing an instrument all the time, that's the way it is with music ... it becomes part of your life: 'twas never like that with the fiddle..."

Andy works as a freelance Land Surveyor, and is quite a man of letters: he is obviously widely read, and has written histories of both the Comhaltas movement (the Irish Traditional Music Association) and his parish, and the latter was recently published.

Of Andy's three dulcimers, two are about 36" long, the third is a little shorter, 33 1/4"; all are the standard shape, such as the Birmingham players would call 'German' dulcimers. Two of them have carved soundholes, but neither is very elaborate; Andy has given one a green felt pelmet.

Andy Dowling's bridges and tuning pins
photo DK
- click for a larger view

The bridges are all chessmen, and those of one instrument he made himself; the strings are all of steel wire: "Medium gauge, not too fine and not too thick". The wrest-pins on one instrument have the appearance of having been hand-made by hammering them square, but this was not done by Andy.

Concerning tuning, he says,

"Oh, I have D and G ... and C and F ... the only thing I couldn't play is the key of A - there'd be no three-sharps ... but look, I have a lot more... [strings than you]... and some to spare! You see, I'm not too keen upon the key of A anyway; there's a lot of Scotch music in the key of A ... there is Irish music, but I don't care about it. I like C, I hate going over here ... "


Andy Dowling's hammers, soundhole, bridges
photo DK
- click for a larger view

His hammers are of cane, very like those recommended in the English tutors, but bound with insulating tape rather than wool; he uses plectrums, but only for tuning, which he checks all the time: they are made from bits of steel out of a radio.

Andy plays at home for his own amusement, but also travels round to many of the fleadhs, or festivals, organised throughout the country by Comhaltas Coeltoiri, the folk music society of Ireland and I heard of him in Dublin, Cork and Limerick. He has recorded for radio, and a special highlight was when he was asked to play during the filming locally of Lock up Your Daughters: he has a poster on his wall, in which he is playing, surrounded by a crowd of dancers.

His repertoire consists of about equal numbers of popular song tunes and dances; he says: "I have a selection: four or five reels, jigs the same, polkas, marches, pieces, waltzes, song tunes - you can play all the tunes that ever there were on a dulcimer"; however, he did add that "ah, the jigs don't work too well..."

Dance tunes he plays 'straight', note for note, for they are so fast that there is little else one can do; but on slower tunes he adds repeated notes, and occasional harmonies in thirds.

He has painted the key bridges gold, and also dropped gold spots next to them on the soundboard: "ah, 'tis a great guide ...".

He stands to play, the instrument mounted on a three-legged frame he made himself. It is interesting that both Sullivan and Silas Braley also mention a stand for the dulcimer.