Tuesday 20 March 2018

Dun Laoghaire braces itself as 3,000 'uke' enthusiasts descend for Ukuele Hooley

Niall Kavanagh
Niall Kavanagh

Ireland's only dedicated wooden ukulele maker is gearing up for a busy weekend as 3,000 ‘uke’ enthusiasts are set to descend on a south Dublin suburb.

Niall Kavanagh is 49 and lives in Mounttown, Dun Laoghaire where he fell in love with the craft of making ukuleles.

“I just fell in love. I never play my guitars anymore. With ukuleles you can pick them up and walk around the house. They work really well with your voice and you don’t have to sing very loud,” he said.

He said the love of music runs in his family as his father “moved to England when he was 16 with a guitar on his back”.

“I’ve always worked with wood and musical instruments. I started off as a piano restorer in London. I grew up in the Irish community there as the son of immigrant parents,” he said.

He met his wife in England and the couple now have three daughters aged six, 10 and 14.

They decided to move back to his wife’s hometown of Dun Laoghaire ten years ago.

“It was the right time for the family. We were moving over just in time for my eldest to start school,” Niall said.

However, the instrument maker admits it wasn’t the right time in terms of employment.

“It was probably the worst time possible to move in terms of the recession. I ended up being a house husband because my wife had the qualifications.  About five years ago I just thought I would try and build a guitar,” he said.

He started making ukuleles as a hobby while the kids were in school and at the weekends, but he has now turned this into a company, Kingstown Ukes, which he runs from home.

He said that his piano restoration skills translated well to the craft of making ukuleles.

“After 20 years of working on musical instruments, none of it was a mystery but there certainly was a lot to learn. The internet and amateur builder forums are great. We’re all sharing helpful advice and trying things out,” he said.

He described the craft as an addiction and put it down to the feeling of anticipation that builds while the instrument is being finalised.

“It’s just once you get the strings on it and under tension – you hear it’s voice. You just never know until then,” he said.

“I have a wall lined with failures. Some of them just don’t work. It’s the same with all instruments,” Niall added.

 “I have a workshop in my back garden but really it’s a glorified shed,” he laughed.

Niall said there may be guitar makers who make the odd ukulele, and another man in Donegal who makes them out of carbon-fibre, but he believes he is the only one dedicated to making ukuleles out of wood in Ireland.

The eighth year of the Ukulele Hooley comes to Dun Laoghaire this weekend and is billed as Europe’s biggest ukulele jam with events including workshops, The Big Jam, The Uke Factor and the Busk Bus.

Niall said he is looking forward to the Busk Bus in particular as it is an opportunity to play music with his eldest daughter.

The Busk Bus is an open-topped bus full of ukulele players touring the coastline and harbours of Dun Laoghaire and stopping off at Killiney Castle.

 “You can easily have 20 ukulele players playing at once. It is certainly a fare more social instrument. The learning curve is very shallow – certainly for older middle aged people,” Niall said.

“But of course, the people playing on Sunday are up on another level – they’re in the stratosphere,” he added.

Sunday will see the main event of the Hooley, a free eight-hour-long concert in People’s Park featuring some of the world’s most talented ukulele artists and groups .

“This is a very unique community family-friendly event and it is free. Ukulele lovers all over the world know about the Hooley and they come in their thousands to listen, learn and play,” says organiser Tony Boland.

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