Saturday night in Belfast, what do you do? Hit the bars and clubs? A trip to the cinema or theatre in search of some culture?

Well last Saturday I got in my car and headed to the town of Markethill, County Armagh to attend the famous (although you may have never of heard of it) Clady Night, drumming match. An evening of culture and music awaited.

In case you are unsure, a drumming match is when a group of lambeg drum aficionados gather together to beat their monstrous musical instruments for hours and hours and in the end one is crowned the winner. The drumming season runs from February until November. Events take place each Saturday night across the province and County Armagh, it's claimed, has the strongest tradition of any county in Northern Ireland.

There was very little information available online about the evening's events so I had to rely on the word of mouth of people who had attended before. The one thing that was repeated time and again was that there would be no drumming if it rained. Rain was forecast but at five o'clock the sun was shining in Belfast so I took my chance.

Crowds gather as the drums begin to beat 

There is something very tribal about the experience I encountered, and the noise that greeted me upon parking my car was like nothing else that I had heard before. The sound was generated from banging an individual lambeg with a curved cane stick and can reach 120 decibels. There were over fifty drums in Markethill on Saturday evening, I'm sure the sound must have carried across the county.

Although allegedly named after the Co. Antrim village of Lambeg, where it is reported that the first drum was constructed after King William stopped en route to the Battle of the Boyne, the lambeg drum is deep routed in the history of Armagh. Drums have played a big part in the processions of the Orange Order, since its formation in 1795 in the home of James Sloan, Loughgall. The first recorded use of a lambeg drum and fife took place during the Co. Armagh twelfth demonstration and the historic event was recorded by Lord Gosford of Markethill in a letter he sent to the Lord Lieutenant 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 commanders."

This combination of lambeg and fife is the traditional musical accompaniment for twelfth demonstrations but has been replaced over the years by flute bands whose numbers greatly increased during the period of the troubles. One of the reasons that the lambeg has been replaced is due to its sheer weight and size which can slow a parade down. A lambeg drum is typically three feet in diameter and two feet deep and can weigh up to twenty kilos. They are carried by a neck harness and therefore require a certain level of physical fitness and stamina as well as rhythm to play.

The mark of a quality drum head 
Arriving in Markethill around six I was greeted by a decent crowd of approximately one hundred, who were mostly male and all engrossed in the drums. As the evening went on the crowd of spectators grew in number and as far as I could see the drums kept arriving, in trailers,vans and in the back of cars. There were drums from all over, including Armagh, Antrim, and Down. The drummers assembled at the roundabout at the bottom of the main street, outside a pub called the Village Inn which appeared to be doubling as drumming headquarters for the night. It was explained to me by one onlooker that the drums needed to be kept at a consistent temperature to ensure success and the pub provided that space.

Before competing the drums were prepared, a combination of oak and goat skin held together with linen ropes, each instrument was carefully inspected by the backroom team to ensure it was ready for battle. The ropes were "pulled", little rubber mallets were used to fine tune the drum. This "knocking" of the wooden hoops which hold the head in place is carried out in order to balance the tension of the two drum heads. These guys take their craft very seriously and the process of tapping the hoops and listening to the resulting sound is greatly exaggerated at times, but always entertaining.

Getting the drum ready for inspection
There is a massive social aspect to these drumming matches. Fellow spectators greeted each other with a smile and a handshake and stories were exchanged over a burger and a pint on what turned out to be a warm Saturday evening. It was a very relaxed atmosphere and I was made to feel very welcome, people patiently answered all of my questions.

Disappointment after their head bust 
From what I could gather, the competition works on the basis of rounds. In the first round judges award a maximum of ten points to each competitor and those who fail to achieve twenty points are eliminated. The judges walk around with clipboards listening to each drum, a minute on either side and then again at the front and back. They make a quick note and move on to the next drum. Even after the drum has been judged the drummers keep drumming up and down the main street. It requires particular attention to figure out when one round ends and another begins.

The judges at work 
The drumming never ceased and while it had all just been noise when I first arrived in the town, after being there a while I could differentiate between the individual sounds of the drums and soon realised that they didn’t all sound the same. The look of determination on the faces of those wielding the beast drums, as they displayed their skill, strength and endurance. In competition unaccompanied by the fife, these drummers, drum double time, a style that allows for improvisation and embellishment of the rhythm which would have no place in a traditional Twelfth of July parade.

Fine tuning, with a mallet 
While the drums take pride of place within their respective Orange halls, the drums tend to be owned by individual lodge members and the drummers tend to be family members as the tradition is passed down through the generations.

I asked one drummer how often he practiced during the week, he laughed, and said that this was his practice, these matches on a Saturday evening during the season was where he honed his craft. Years of attending and listening to other drummers replaced any need for formal tuition. I wasn’t brave enough to ask if I may try and have a go, feeling competition time was the wrong time to seek an introduction, but I found the constant drum beat totally hypnotic and would love to try in the future.

As I continued to make my way through the crowd I couldn't help but notice the care and attention that was given to the drums, some were painted with representations of the associated lodge, others were not, I was even shown one that had been the subject of a court case.

He bangs his drum 

Then, all of a sudden the rain came, first a few drops and then suddenly a downpour. Within seconds there wasn’t a person to be seen on the main street, they having all ran as fast as they could to protect their prized lambeg drums from the rain followed by the spectators.

It was a this point that I decided to leave and head back to Belfast having forgotten to bring a coat I got soaked in the rain. I don't know which drum won on the night or even if they got to finish the match. One of the rules of drumming matches states that the event must finish by eleven and failure to adhere to this rule can result in a suspension. 

It certainly wasn't at all what I was expecting but it was certainly interesting and I feel like I learned something about an aspect of the culture of our land that I had no understanding of before I went to Markethill. If you get the chance, go and experience it for yourself and who knows you may see me there. 


Today I was reliably informed by the Mayor of Craigavon, Mr Colin McCusker that the match did indeed finish and was won by a Mr. Robert Orr