Andi Wolfe asks:
I would like information regarding the triompa'n. Is this an
Irish version of the hammered dulcimer??? If so, then I have the following
1. Is the instrument diatonic?
2. American hammered dulcimers generally are strung with 12/11 treble/base
strings or 15/14 diatonic. Some of the more modern instruments are 16/15
and are partially or fully chromatic. How do these configurations compare to
their Irish equivalents?
3. I think Derek Bell of the Chieftans plays this instrument. Who are some
other Irish musicians that also play the triompa'n.
4. How do you pronounce it?
Seamus added the further note that the correct spelling is tiompan.
There was a legendary instrument in Ireland called the tiompan. It was,
however, not a hammered dulcimer type of instrument. The confusion possibly
comes from the fact that there was an instrument in Europe called the tympan
which was a hammered dulcimer. Tympans were used around the 1600-1700's in
France at least, and probably elsewhere. The one I have seen was about the
size of a small 12/11 (notation significant only to dulcimer players).
The only knowledge of the tiompan comes from a few pieces of Irish literature
which describe or allude to various aspects of the instrument. The
descriptions are not totally consistant, and none of them describe the
The earliest reference is found in Aisling Oengusso (The Dream of Aengus)
which dates to the 8th or 9th century. English translation is:
[He saw] A tiompan in her hand, the sweetest that ever was.
She played music to him. He slept to it [i.e., its sound]
From other references it was clearly a stringed instrument, with metal
strings (gold, silver, or bronze), sweet sounding. They were probably made
of wood and often decorated with silver or bronze. One source describes it
as having a thin wooden frame. Where reference is made to the number of
strings, it is three. In one reference, it appears that there may have been
tune and drone strings and could have been plucked or bowed. It begins to
sound more like a "mountain dulcimer" than a hammered dulcimer.
The tiompan and the cruit are often mentioned together in the ancient
literature, and one author suggests they were the only types of stringed
instruments in common use in medieval Ireland, fiddles not having appeared
until the 17th century.
To give an indication of the social rank of tiompan players, the order of
seating at the table in the Assembly Hall at Tara was given in The Yellow
Book of Lecon as placing cruit and tiompan players between the horsemen and
judges after which came the doctors of letters, their nominated successors,
the chidf poets, and the second grade poets. As high ranking musicians,
cruit and tiompan players were entitled to the shoulders of the pig, as also
were the master wrights, deer-stalkers, fifth-rate poets, and champions.
The last reference to tiompan was by Thomas Dease, Bishop of Meath, (1622-
1650) and a famous tiompan player. The bishop laments in a poem:
Big fires on the floors, the sound of tiompans and harps,
Since these have gone, Ireland is a desert.
The reference suggests this indicates the decline of the tiompan must have
coincided with that of the harp, only it became obsolete before the harp.
With regard to the hammered dulcimer in Ireland, there apparently were only
two significant older players in the 20th century: John Rea, from Co. Antrim,
and Andy Dowling, from Clonmeen Erroll, Co. Loais. Additionally there have
been a few dulcimer players in Antrim over the years.
John was given a dulcimer by his father in 1924; he was about 4 or 5
at the time. The rest of the family were fiddle players, but it seems there
were no little fiddles around, so John got a dulcimer. There were a lot of
deep-water sailors in the area and it is presumed that some of them
introduced the dulcimer to northern Ireland. John died in the early 1980's I
believe, having made two record albums of Irish traditional airs and dance
Andy Dowling bought his "from a Jew man in Dublin" also in the early
1920's. Andy died just a few years ago at the age of 91. I visited Andy
Dowling in 1989. Wonderful man, lived alone in the house where he was born.
Sort of a regional historian. He was also a poet and a playwright. He
played mostly for his own enjoyment in the later years, but he and Charlie
Byrne (the bodhran maker) used to go to the fleadh together every year.
Currently there are a few dulcimer players in Ireland, but no major players
that I know of.
I'm not sure why Derek Bell calls his dulcimer a tiompan. I asked him once
back stage about it, how it was tuned etc., but he was rather non-
There are a lot of hammered dulcimer players who play Irish music, but there
are very few that try to be Irish musicians on the hammered dulcimer, i.e.,
really attempt the play in the Irish style. Karen Ashbrook is probably the
most notable person who currently plays the hammered dulcimer in the Irish
style. She has published a very good book which is available from Oak
Publications. She is teaching the class on Irish Hammered Dulcimer during
Irish Week at the Augusta Festival this summer at Elkins WV. Write if you
want more information.
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