There are many theories about the origins of the bodhrán, including its possible African or Asian roots or that it developed from the tambourine. The most likely explanation suggests that the instrument developed from a farm implement, based on its uncanny resemblance to the skin tray used for centuries on farms in Celtic countries for separating grain from chaff. As with many other rural cultures' musical and percussive instruments, its agricultural or domestic uses were not incompatible with the desire to make music or strike rhythm. The bodhrán also features in records of mummers' plays and harvest festivities, adding credence to the theory about its agricultural background.
It was described by composer Sean O'Riada as Ireland's native drum and he believed its history dates back to pre-Christian times. Today, due to the efforts of talented players, the bodhrán is accepted as a complex and expressive instrument capable of producing a huge array of dynamic accompaniments, from driving contemporary rhythms to the most subtle percussive nuances.
The goatskin is decorated with a knot work Celtic Cross, with its characteristic circle, which is probably the most widely recognised of all Celtic symbols.