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

John Rea

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John Rea himself is generally reckoned to be the best Northern Ireland dulcimer-player; he works on a tug-boat on Belfast Lough, and lives on board, except when at home in Glenarm. He started playing when he was 8, and can play anything he can hear in his head: "I just picked it up - my father was a great fiddler". He is one of the fewer dulcimer-players of an older generation who is still learning new tunes. He was born in Glenarm in 1924; Colin Hamilton writes that his father was a farm labourer and a fine fiddler, and John was given a dulcimer made locally because he was too small for the fiddle (39).

His dulcimer is of the general proportions of most British instruments, 36" long, and has a polished black sound board without a soundhole; Willie Rea said that John's was the first of the new ones, while John says "they're all like this one", apart from the old deep models which were too deep, and had "too much booming tone: before the War you could get a German one, that was very nice". It is strung 6 III + 7 III over long bridges, although he mentioned that other instruments had "chessmen" bridges.

The tuning is particularly interesting, for it is a pure diatonic system of relatively small compass - just short of two octaves - and starts on the second degree of the major scale: a transposed dorian mode is thus very readily available, and it is surely no coincidence that many of John Rea's tunes are in this mode. The fifth interval between bass courses and right-hand treble courses is also very unusual in Britain, though more common in America. John Rea says it takes him "a good hour to tune"; he does it once in six months, working from the a' in fifths and octaves, checking the chords as he does so.

His hammers are made of thick steel wire, wound with wool - his own idea - and he has a spare pair ready in case of breakage; he also has a most unusual case for the instrument, split down the middle.

He has played on TV, and used to perform regularly in one of the Belfast pubs, but since the troubles he has left his dulcimer in Glenarm; recordings were made for an LP some years ago, to be released on the Mercier label of Cork, but after some delays it came out on Topic Records of London [2002 - out of stock: but Topic are here]. Nowadays [1976] Mr. Rea only plays at home, or occasionally in the Antrim pubs.

His repertoire consists of jigs, reels and hornpipes which he learnt from his father on the fiddle; no change was necessary to fit them to the dulcimer, in very stark comparison with, for instance, the Scots players. He plays no slow airs, nor any popular songs of the years between the Wars. He plays standing at a table, the dulcimer lying on a matchbox, horizontal with the table but not touching it, for resonance. He does not pluck the instrument, but features rapid ornaments characteristic of the repertoire, executed as two-handed shakes. He has played duets with Willie Rea in local concerts, and for dances with two fiddles: he dislikes bass and rhythm instruments.