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History of Portneuf bodhran

Monday 15 August 2011, by Gaétan Morissette

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]


The Portneuf region is situated west of Quebec City . French settlers arrived here in the 17 th century , among them were my paternal and maternal ancestors. The first musical influence therefore is from France.

In the beginning of the 1800’s , following the English conquest ( 1760 ) , several seignories were taken over and dominated by rich English merchants , one which was the Barony of Portneuf ( town of Portneuf presently ) , also Bourg-Louis seignory ( St-Raymond and St-Basile region ).

At Portneuf , the last Seigneur , Edward Hale , had interests in wood , pulp and paper and also shipbuilding. Born in the north of England ; he died in Quebec in 1862. During the period of his administration , he developed the 4 th , 5 th , 6 th and 7 th ranges , he brought in Irish settlers for this purpose. His father had been in Wolfe’s army in 1759. The Seignory of Bourg-Louis was owned by the Panet family. A member of this family ; Bernard-Antoine and his wife , Hariett Antill brought in Irish and Scotch settlers to develop this region whitch some distance away from the French speaking villages.

The first colony , north of the present town of Portneuf ( and east of St-Gilbert ) was named Halesborough. The second , situated south of present town of St-Raymond and east of St-Basile-de-Portneuf , in the area of the Grand Rang , was given name Bourg-Louis , it seens that Halesborough was settled principally by protestants and that Bourg-Louis was both Catholics and by Protestants.

According to the inscriptions on gravestones , the two protestants cemetaries , ( still in existence) most of deceased came from the counties of Antrim and Tyrone , situated in Northen Ireland , close to Scotland ( the Lowlands ). This would explain that the family names of these settlers , eg. Burns , Jess , Gilpin , Gillespie , Marshall , White , Welsh , Bonnelie , Kingsborough , etc , had very little Irish blood . It should be noted these peoples were Anglican ( protestant ) as were the English elite of that period.

On the other hand , the Irish Catholic did not build churches , they settled on each side of Bourg-Louis , close to the French Catholics who lived in St-Raymond and in St-Basile. They lived close the Portneuf river and to Rang St-Angelique. The Catholic names were different ; Cleary , Shanahan , McHugh , McCarthy , Henessy , Lawless , Meehan , etc . We can still see , at the St-Basile cimetery , family monuments of these families whith inscriptions in English among frenchs gravestones . We see descendants of the McCarthys whose original ancestor came from County of Kerry in the southwest of Ireland. I was told by a friend that the Irish continued to celebrate St-Patrick’s day as a community up to the period 1930-40 , the feast could last a week , moving from to house to house , the horses would remain tied outside the houses. Many francophones family members have mentioned that their fathers and grandfathers would visit with the Irish and take part in the celebrations.

This situation also existed in Halesborough , my own grandfather used to visit the Gilpin family in his youthful years and go to dances and parties.

After the boom related to the wood cutting was over , a number of the settlers moved away to the others parts of canada and US , others remain and settled in permamently.

Because of the reduced availibility of farm land in their parished , francophones began to buy farms from the Irish and moved to those areas. Later on , something else happened , a major part of the Halesborough settlers abandondoned the area and moved to Portneuf Station which had effect of integrating the two cultures.


It is appearant that one or several families , from one or from both colonies , arrived in the area whith drums and played to accompany the fiddle in the same way that the bodhran was used to accompany musicians in Ireland. Several people have told me that a certain number of these drums were made from dog skins.

During this same period francophone musicians had begun to play Irish , Scottish and Englisd tunes. This explain why , during more than a century ( 1830-40 to 1985-90 ) , this drum was used to accompany traditional music and sometimes song in the county of Portneuf.

I grew up in a francophone family in Portneuf-Station where traditional music was present. My great grandfather on my mother’side was a fiddler , my grandmother played the piano and was the organist at the church of St-Gilbert , my father and mother both played accordion . This contact whith traditional music was prevent when i was growing up , we attented local parties and festivities.

In the early 80’s , ( end of 1970 ) , i go to meet Mr. Adrien Dubuc from St-Raymond . He was the last drummaker , he lived close the protestant chapel in Bourg-Louis. This man greatly contributed to making this instrument known , he accompanied musicians during many feasts and festivals , he also sold many of his instruments. He was a good friend of renouned fiddler André Alain from St-Basile and also a friend of Jack McCarthy ; accordion player and drummer respectively.

A Portneuf family gave me a drum which had been owned and played by Mendoza Alain , cousin of André Alain. In 1983 , i had the drum repaired by Mr. Dubuc ( deceased in 1988 ) , it was he who showed me how the drum was built.

In 2005 , i decided to built one by my own. I borrowed tools from the Dubec family. In my search for information , i found that very few people could help-me , such information was very limited. I proceded by trial and error and i was able to master the traditional fabrication technique. Either in the bending of the ash board and ajusting it whith the calf hide stillborn , thumped , crafted and sewed whith a waxed thread whith help of a awl.

Finaly , from discovery to discovery , i was able to observe the following :

I was able to locate more than twenty instruments still existing in about fifteen families in Portneuf county , from Portneuf town to Saint-Raymond , passing by St-Basile-de-Portneuf , St-Christine d’Auvergne , Pont-Rouge and St-Leonard-de-Portneuf. That area corresponds to the centre of the original county of Portneuf from the St-Lawrence river to the mountains. The diameter of these drumds varied from 14 to 18 inches ( 35 cm to 45 cm ).

All these drums were built used same technique , wood frame bent and heated in hot water ( or vaporized ) whith calf or cow skin , thumped , crafted and using a metal circular ring whith squares and metal screws. A wooden drumstick it used , a cord is attached to the smaller end to insert one’s finger.

It should be mentionned that no such instrument was found in any francophone villages , this also applies to the area from St-Catherine-de-la-Jacques-Cartier, Shannon , Val-Cartier and in St-Malachie
( Bellechasse county).

The use of this drum had influence on how traditional music was played : people used cereal boxes as drums , other used an empty bottle or a beer case. Other used their hands ( clapping ) whitout a drumstick. In my research i was able to find many photos of musicians playing traditional music at festivals and at familiy gatherings. In Pennsylvania , i found and purchased an identical drum , it was very old , it came from an area which had been settled by Irish people. Obviously , this confirms that the instrument has Irish roots.

I asked descendants in Portneuf town who still spoke English to give -me the term used to name the drum ; their families called it a tambourine , they did not know the term bodhran.

Presently , use of this type of drum is almost extinct , it seems that many accordion players ( presentaly the dominating instrument) were disturbing by the misuse of the drum ( too loud or badly corded ). Young musicians now seem to prefer the bodhran or the africain djembe.

Finally , it appears that in Ireland and in Scotland drums whith drumsticks ( or the opposite) still exist. In 2009 , i found videos on YouTube from the 1970’s showing musicians from County Clare playing whith instrument identical to the used in Portneuf , using a single drumstick. On the Web references to Bodhrans can be found , it-is mentioned that the use of a single stick can be traced to West Limerick , and in southwest of Ireland. It-is interesting to note that the McCarthys of Portneuf came from Kerry , border county. The videos i refer to are from County Clare , next to Limerick.

Futher research could provide for other discoveries on this subject , this is why i plan to visit Ireland in february-march 2010 to continue this research. ( See text : Trip to Ireland- Irish Research ).

If any readers have additional information ; i would happy to hear from you. And if anyone want aid-me for Ireland trip ; please contact-me .

Gaetan Morissette

Adress : 780 , rue Notre-Dame
Ville-Portneuf ,
Quebec , Canada
G0A 2Y0

Telephone : 418-286-2211

Email : gaetanmorissette@hotmail.com

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