Wednesday 22 May 2019

My Favourite Room - Bill Dowdall: Music in the air

Bill Dowdall's home is big enough for him and his musical family, whose passionate daily practice led neighbours to think they were running a school on their quiet road. Edited by Mary O'Sullivan. Photography by Tony Gavin

Bill and Susan in the conservatory they added to their period home. They use it as a dining room when entertaining. On one side are steps to the living room and, on the other, doors leading to the garden. Photo: Tony Gavin.
Bill and Susan in the conservatory they added to their period home. They use it as a dining room when entertaining. On one side are steps to the living room and, on the other, doors leading to the garden. Photo: Tony Gavin.
Bill and Susan opted to have their bedroom at the top of the house, away from the din of the family practice. Photo: Tony Gavin.

Mary O'Sullivan

Bill Dowdall may have heard the American composer Kirke Mechem's well-known advice that one should "only become a musician if there is absolutely no other way you can make a living", but he clearly didn't take it too seriously.

And not only is Bill a musician, but so, too, are his wife, Susan, and his five children, although he says he did give each of the kids "the hard talk" when they opted to go down the music route.

They obviously ignored him. Of course, one benefit for Bill and Susan is that there's always someone for them to play with and they get together regularly for gigs. Bill's next concert is with his daughter, Lisa, who plays the viola. They are doing Music for Dublin Castle, at Dublin Castle, for the KBC Music in Great Irish Houses festival.

It's easy to see why the offspring ignored Bill's advice – neither he, nor Susan, were ever short of work. She's a busy freelance cellist and he's always been in full-time employment.

One of the most successful flautists in the country, he spent six years with the National Concert Orchestra, followed by 25 years with the National Symphony Orchestra. He's been with the Royal Irish Academy of Music for the last 10 years and is now head of the wind faculty there. "It carries the title of professor, but the academy is wonderfully informal and, if you use it, you get the mickey taken out of you," Bill says with a laugh.

Music may have been in the air around their kids, but, when Bill himself took up the flute, it was on a whim.

"I was born in Dublin, my dad died when I was quite young, and my mother and myself moved to the States when I was 12," he explains. "She thought it would offer better opportunities for me. We ended up in Cleveland and I joined the high school band accidentally.

"There was a queue for different activities," Bill says. "The football queue was a bit large-looking and cross-country seemed like too much effort, so I joined the band queue."

He goes on to say that he couldn't make a sound for a long time, which was dispiriting, but one specialist lesson later, and the discovery of a fault in his flute, and he was on a roll.

As a teenager, Bill found Cleveland exciting – "going to school was like being in Grease or Saturday Night Fever," he says – but he came back to Ireland for a holiday at 19 and decided he'd like to make his life here. "I found Ireland a freer society," Bill says. "You could walk into a pub and have all generations talking to each other, that wouldn't have happened in Cleveland."

Bill continued his studies in the States – he had a place in the prestigious Cleveland Institute of Music – and came back here two years later, in 1973, when he was offered the job in the National Concert Orchestra. In the meantime, he and Susan, a cellist, had met while in the institute. Susan was born in England and had moved to New Zealand when she was three, and then onto Cleveland when she was 17. Her mother was Irish but, according to Bill, he didn't know that when he set eyes on her.

He was attracted, he says, succinctly by "short skirt playing cello". However, when he got the job in Dublin, he "dumped" her, to use Susan's own word.

Bill protests that he was so taken with getting the job in the orchestra in Dublin that he just left. Susan's wise Irish mother suggested that she send him a Christmas card and, though it took months to land, its arrival prompted Bill to contact her and they got married shortly afterwards, in 1975.

The couple bought their first home in Firhouse, Dublin, but, as one girl after another arrived – they have four daughters, Sarah, Aoife, Lisa and Jenny – Bill realised that they couldn't continue in a three-bedroom house with one bathroom. "It was impossible. There were times when I had to use the neighbours' jacks," he grumbles.

Initially, when they decided to move, they were going to move further out of Dublin to a bigger house, but a fellow musician, Noel Eccles, told Bill he'd be mad. "He said, 'Do you want to spend your weekends driving kids to music lessons? Move nearer to town and give them bus fares.' So that's what we did."

In 1987 the family moved to their current home in Dublin 6 and, shortly after, their only son, Christopher, arrived.

One of the reasons they opted for this particular house is that it had five bedrooms and three bathrooms. The other was its excellent location. It's near town, yet on a secluded, quiet road – though the Dowdalls, in practice mode, may have punctured the silence a fair bit.

"This house was bedlam. Someone once called and asked if we had a music school here," Bill says with a laugh, adding, "It was good fun."

Double-fronted, it dates from the 1860s, and Bill derives particular pleasure from the fact that one of the past owners was a wine merchant. It seems Bill's partial to a glass and delights in the fact that when his children get married – Aoife, a violinist, tied the knot in Italy last year and Jenny, a cellist, will do so in Kilkenny next summer – his role is to choose and provide the wine.

The house wasn't in great nick when they bought it, but there was an upside – features such as the cornicings and mantlepieces hadn't been removed. They had to deal with a dilapidated roof and dry rot and, over the years, added the conservatory and the double doors from the kitchen onto their delightful garden, which they also renovated.

"The only drawback to the house is the size of the kitchen, but we wanted to develop the garden," Bill explains.

They turned one of the rooms into a music room, where pride of place goes to a baby grand piano, which means they can practise with a pianist.

"Myself and Christopher were at a vintage car rally and were drooling over a little sports car. A week later, we got the piano. The fellow who was putting in the piano was from Cork. I was moaning, 'Jaysus, it could have been a car', and he said, 'Ah shure, doesn't it have wheels?'" Bill says, putting on a Cork sing-song, before adding, "Susan and Jenny play the piano and, if you have a rehearsal, it's handy."

Bill and Lisa are currently rehearsing for their Dublin Castle concert. By a strange coincidence, Bill found out some years ago that a relative of his, another Dowdall, was a member of the orchestra in Dublin Castle, part of the drum and bugle corps, back in the 18th Century.

"He was either a trumpet player or a drummer. He came to prominence in 1723 because he fell off his horse many times, because he was overly emotional, if you know what I mean," Bill explains with a laugh.

There may have been a 300-year gap, but, as long as the Music in Great Irish Houses continues operating in Dublin Castle every year, and Bill and Susan's family continue playing, it looks as if there will be Dowdalls there again for the foreseeable future.

Bill and Lisa Dowdall will perform 'Music for Dublin Castle' in this year's KBC Great Music in Irish Houses festival, with David Adams on harpsichord, on Sunday, June 15, at 5pm at the Chapel Royal, Dublin Castle, D2

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