Artisans who coax a 'living soul' from a piece of wood
The city of Belfast is internationally renowned for its craftsmanship. However, away from the shipyards and hangers, in the back streets of the city, small workshops can be found where the craftsman’s lathe and chisel are interwoven with the sweet sound of music. I am talking about the lutiers or instrument makers who have put Belfast back on the map as a centre of excellence.
If you drop in upon traditional Irish music sessions in Europe or the US, you will at some stage come across a folkie tapping and massaging the tattooed goatskin crafted by bodhran maker Eamon Maguire. Maguire, from the Ardoyne, also has an art gallery, Ogham, at Belfast’s Antrim Road. Charlie Lowden, from Newtownards, Co Down, makes some of the best folk/acoustic guitars in the world, while Rab Cherry’s fiddles, produced from his workshop at Belfast’s Donegall Street, are in great demand. The Belfast Institute of Further and Higher Education also offers a course in stringed instrument making with professional craftsman Sam Irwin at their Tower Street campus.
Originally from the Sailortown district of Belfast, Sam Murray started making flutes from his city centre workshop in the early 1980s, and continues to make some of the best traditional flutes in Europe. They are highly sought after, and his waiting list is as long as the River Lagan. I asked him how he started making flutes:
‘I’ve been making flutes fulltime now for fifteen years after I started in a workshop at the back of the house. I came from a family of frustrated craftsmen; because of the way the religious divide went at that time you wouldn’t get much of a start at any fine trade or craftsmanship. I don’t make flutes for marching bands. I make traditional concert flutes and the traditional music scene balances the religious divide in this part of Ireland.’
When Murray first started making flutes, the vast majority of them were for the baroque or early classical market, but things started to change dramatically: ‘I have been overwhelmed with work recently. Traditional music has become so strong internationally that today 90% of my work is for the traditional music market.’
A quick peek at an average page in Murray’s order book shows how popular his flutes are. Customers as far away as New Orleans, Houston, Paris and Scandinavia wait patiently for a beautifully crafted timber by Murray. Although now living in Galway, Murray’s substantial legacy remains, and at almost every good music session in Belfast, someone will be playing contentedly on a Sam Murray.
Aidan Mulholland is an archier or a bow maker, and his workshop in Cathedral Buildings, opposite St Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast, has a Dickensian feel to it, with his few mod cons overwhelmed with numerous old instruments and musical artefacts.
Mulholland is from Finaghy, south Belfast, and became interested in violin making after attending a summer course at Cork College of Art:
‘From this I started doing some small bow repairs and re-hairing, before attending an advanced course in Oxford. After this my workshop expanded and I started making my own bows. I still regard myself as being in the early stages, gathering experience and building a reputation.’
Mulholland’s love for the violin brought him to the town of Cremona, Italy, where Stradivarius lived and worked. During this trip he observed the numerous violin makers still working from the famous, beautiful and inspiring Italian town:
‘There are over forty world class violin makers in Cremona, a town smaller than Ballycastle. I bought a violin there and played some Sean Maguire tunes in the town square for the locals.’
Mulholland agrees that it is hard to make a living in his line of work, but he is content and happy to be doing something he feels so passionate about.
Until recently, renowned traditional flute player Brendan O’Hare made uileann pipes from his lower Ormeau. A regular musician at sessions throughout the city, I asked him how he got into making uileann pipes:
‘At school I did woodwork and turning on the lathe, and after a chance meeting with pipemaker Robbie Hughes at a festival I began working in his Downpatrick workshop. I needed a job and he needed a hand, so I did about five year’s apprenticeship with Robbie. I’ve made pipes for nearly 20 years.’
O’Hare is originally from Castlewellan, though his grandfather came from Belfast’s Glen Road: ‘He played a bit on the fiddle and was a painter, an artist. He also dabbled in furniture and French polishing so I suppose the music and the craft came from my grandfather.’
O’Hare continues: ‘There aren’t too many pipe makers to come out of Belfast. One of the great pipe makers, Sean McAloon from St James’s Gardens died in the 1990s. Robbie Hughes got a lot of information from Belfast pipe maker Frank McFadden who died in the 1970s so I suppose there is a continuation, in that I learned from Robbie who learned from Frank and so on.’
But what of the future. Is traditional music in a good state of health?
‘Well from a pipe making point of view the number of people getting involved in piping is frightening’, laughs Brendan, ‘There are plenty of busy pipe makers throughout the country. Tom Clarke’s uileann pipe lessons in the Crescent Arts Centre every Thursday must have over 20 pupils on its register, which I think is indicative of the big revival in piping today.’
It is incredible to think that these craftsmen can coax a living soul from a piece of wood with only their hands and a few tools. There is something very spiritual in their profession and their attitude towards it. Whereas the musicians who stand out in the folk scene today are sometimes put on a pedestal, I believe the true artists are the instrument makers who seem content with the anonymity of what is often a solitary profession.
© Paul Flynn 2004