Broadcaster Una Hunt invites us into her Dublin home
When Una decided to buy a second piano, it meant that she and her husband had to find a bigger property to make room for them both.
Una Hunt lives in a magnificent period house in Dublin 4 with her family
It's a house with two large, airy reception rooms, and these are the key to why she and her husband, Paul Kelly, bought the house. People love these high-ceilinged reception rooms for their elegance and beauty, and they love them for entertaining, but Una's reasoning has to be unique – she wanted them to house her two pianos.
"About 15 years ago, I went to Andy Tynan's shop because people often asked me to check out pianos, and I sat down and played this brand-new Boston piano.
"I thought, 'This is really nice', and decided to buy it. I went home and told Paul that I had bought a new piano, and he said, 'So, you'll be getting rid of the old one?'" Una recalls.
But she had no intention of parting with her beloved old Steinway, which dates from 1896 and had been bought for her by her father. She wanted the two, thus the need for a bigger house.
Una has good reason for having two pianos – she is, after all, one of our premier pianists, and often performs and records with other pianists. Though she has many other strings to her bow – she lectures in performance at Dundalk Institute of Technology, and is constantly researching Irish composers, recording their works and making radio documentaries about them for lyric fm – first and foremost, Una is a pianist and has been ever since her childhood in Belfast. Her father was a businessman and her mother an opera singer/piano teacher, and Una, her sister, Fionnuala, and her three brothers were all encouraged to play an instrument.
"I was watching a programme recently about Chinese women and the way they push their children. I wouldn't say my mother was a Tiger Mother, but we had to practise every day. I wanted to play on the street, like my friends, but practising was part of our routine.
"I played the harp, the bassoon and the flute as well," she reminisces. "Maybe, at the beginning, I didn't want to be doing it, but we had a marvellous teacher, Rhona Marshall, who came from Dublin to Belfast to teach us, and then, as teenagers, we came down to Dublin for lessons. I loved it all."
Her sister, Fionnuala, opted for the violin, and her brother, Vincent, the cello; both are acclaimed professionals. Una chose the piano as her main instrument – an ideal combination, as the siblings had their own trio for a while.
After school, Una studied music at Queen's University in Belfast, and then went to Vienna, where she continued her studies and taught the piano.
After six years there, she decided to come home, and got a job in Cork. It was here that she met Kildare man, Paul. Paul, who's also from a family steeped in music, was working in Cork, as were his brothers. "His father, TC Kelly, is a well-known composer, one brother, John, was CEO of the Irish Chamber Orchestra, and another brother, Gerry, runs the Cork Pops Orchestra. His wife, Evelyn Grant, is a flautist. We met through them, though I can't remember where. I know he was floating around," Una recalls with a smile.
In 1990, they moved to Dublin for Paul's work, and Una became a radio producer with RTE, before embarking on a PhD. "I always had a thing, and it's still my dream, to set up a digital archive of Irish composers," she says. "If you ask teachers about Irish music, the standard answer is, 'We don't have any Irish composers.'
"But there were many. Part of it is the fact that, if you wanted to be successful, you had to leave Ireland, and many left in the 19th Century." Una enthuses about John Field, who is practically a god in Russia, and William Vincent Wallace, who was hugely successful in America.
Over the years, Una has researched the work of many Irish composers, finding out about them and looking for their compositions, and has worked on books and CDs relating to them.
"How do we promote Irish composers if there are no recordings?" she asks, adding, "I've done 14 world-premier recordings." Her valuable contribution has been recognised nationally and, as well as her PhD, she has an honorary doctorate from Queen's.
Chief among her achievements are the reproduction of an album of William Vincent Wallace, whose drawing-room music she adores. She's currently researching the 124 Irish Melodies of Thomas Moore. "Songs like The Last Rose of Summer and The Meeting of the Waters. There are thousands of books about his life, so I'm writing about the songs themselves as background for singers," Una explains.
She is a regular at Wexford Festival Opera and, this October, she will do a show titled Irish Fantasy: A Family Affair. To Una, it's mainly about getting the message out there, and, as she notes, "Wexford is a wonderful opportunity, as people come from all over the world to the festival."
Around the same time that composers such as William Vincent Wallace were at work, so, too, was the builder of Una's house, which she and Paul share with their daughters, who are all in their 20s. Rachel is a singer who is fast gaining an international reputation; Rebecca is studying architecture, and Hannah is doing visual communications.
The builder was Edward Carson's father, who was an engineer, and who, in 1865, built 12 houses – his thing was big, square, sturdy houses. Una and her family lived in Ranelagh, until Una decided she had to have a house big enough for two grand pianos. Fortunately, Paul is in the building business, so, when they decided to buy their current house in 2001, he knew what he was taking on.
"When we bought the house, it was a shell. It had been turned into flats, but it hadn't been lived in. There was water in the basement and it needed huge work. We came to see it, and Paul said, 'I think we should buy it.' I thought he was completely crazy," Una says.
There was dry rot, the roof needed work, the basement had to be dug out, all the electrics had to be done, but, as Una says in her soft Northern accent, "You're sinking money into it, but at least when you do it yourself, you know it's done right." There were many positives. Unlike most period townhouses, it has no returns and so is full of light.
Also, many of the original mouldings remained. One of the original mantlepieces is now in the back reception room with the pianos, while another period marble mantelpiece was sourced for the front room.
While they were doing the renovation, they extended the basement, where the kitchen is, and where both Una and Paul have studies. Una then decorated the whole house in heritage colours, and furnished it with a mix of modern pieces and antiques inherited from her family home in Belfast. The house is also full of paintings, among the most prominent are two portraits in the hall. One is of her father and the other of her mother – a fitting homage for setting her off on her illustrious career.
Sunday Indo Life Magazine