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Violinists on Italian balconies? Roisin Murphy talks to an Irish violin maker about the art of making wood sing.


James Beatley crafts instruments in his front room workshop in Stoneybatter, Dublin, from €8,000; beatley.ie

James Beatley crafts instruments in his front room workshop in Stoneybatter, Dublin, from €8,000; beatley.ie

James Beatley at work in Stoneybatter, Dublin.

James Beatley at work in Stoneybatter, Dublin.

James Beatley's violins

James Beatley's violins


James Beatley crafts instruments in his front room workshop in Stoneybatter, Dublin, from €8,000; beatley.ie

Bono often talks about the piano in his grandparents' house and his sadness as a child when it was sold. Recently we heard violins and voices ring out from balconies across Italy, and it has me thinking about the importance of musical instruments in the Irish home.

Many of us have a recorder or guitar at home, or that enemy of the open-plan interior - the upright piano that refuses to integrate nicely into the wall like our fridge.

Back in the days of Dublin in the 1770s, you might have been able to buy a piano by William Southwell, an Anglo-Irish maker who started out as apprentice to the famous Ferdinand Weber of Dublin. Now it's hard to believe we were once home to such a rich tradition of piano making.

Although the manufacture of pianos has gone far afield, there are still people making instruments here, including luthiers or makers of stringed instruments.

One of the most highly regarded luthiers in the world is Irishman James Beatley who has lived in Dublin's Stoneybatter since the 1980s. His front room is his workshop and he can look out at the bones of the new Conservatory of Music and Drama emerge from the construction site on the Grangegorman campus.

His house is also the birthplace of poet Austin Clarke. To hear James talk, he could be a poet himself. He talks of the "everyday miracle of turning two planks of wood into music". He says, "Wood doesn't have a voice, you give it its voice."

Before James starts work on an instrument, he listens to the musician play so he can match the wood and his work to the player. James's specialty is violins, violas and cellos. "You have to match the violin to the player's ability," he explains. A child can't play a very complex violin; they need something that's easier to play with a rich tone. If they're playing something that can make a nice sound, he says, it will encourage them to keep playing.

His wood is sourced from many places, but the best is maple from Romania. He also uses materials from Alpentonholz Pahler, a company that specialises in wood for musical instruments. Their planks are cut in certain directions from maple or spruce trees with carefully selected grains. The wood is cut at certain phases of the moon too, in the first week in December, and felled in a particular way, using hydraulic arms so it never hits the ground.

He taught himself how to make violins while living in Edinburgh with his wife Teresa McKenna, a textile designer. He says, he ''got the notion'', selling each one to buy the tools and materials for the next. He later studied the art at Newark School of Violin Making in London.

James has made instruments for some of the world's most serious musicians. The first violin he ever made is owned by Scottish violinist Peter Markham, who already owned an instrument worth a quarter of a million, when he came across James's violin. When Hungary embarked on a period of investment in the arts in the 1990s, the Academy of Music in Budapest decided to try out the instruments of some contemporary makers. A blind test was set up with cellist Rezso Pertorini playing behind a curtain, and the instruments chosen on their performance. James's cello came second to one worth €250,000, and Pertorini refused to give it back.

As Ireland quietens down, we might hear low airs tuning up, and maybe a potential young Bono on a Dublin violin. We may have lost the tradition of piano making but violins are still our forte!

Sunday Independent