There is black and white footage of Jimi Hendrix playing a violin, not with a bow, but just plucking it like a guitar, experimenting with it. The young Galway based musician Daithí Ó Drónaí uses his violin to play trad and left-field indie pop. Stéphane Grappelli was as comfortable playing with Paul Simon and Frankie Gavin as he was playing jazz.
The violin has come long way from its origins in Renaissance Italy to where it is possibly the only instrument that can rival the guitar and piano as one which can sit comfortably within any genre of music. It is this quality which attracts so many to play it.
Paul Bradly is one of those people, but he not only plays the instrument, he makes violins for a living, and their related instruments the viola and the cello at his workshop in Roscahill. He is a walking history of the instrument and has a near mystical fascination with it.
Paul is originally from Bessbrook, Co Armagh and it was while growing up there that he first became interested in the violin and in working with wood.
“When I was growing up I’d hear fiddle playing all the time. My older brothers played fiddle and my uncle played the fiddle,” he tells me as we sit for the interview on a Tuesday afternoon. “The fiddle player and storyteller Owney O’Neill would often come to the house to play the fiddle and tell stories about the fairies. He was a strong believer in the fairies and his stories were set in the landscape of the locality.”
Growing up in such an environment meant it was not long before Paul took up the instrument himself. He was already playing tin whistle and the bodhrán at age six and seven, before graduating to the fiddle by the time he was eight.
“The fiddle held a mystery for me as a child,” he says. “You could look inside it through the soundholes and there was this darkness inside and I would wonder how this sound came out of this darkness. There was the smell of the wood and varnish and the age of the instrument. And the sound of the fiddle is right up close to your ear and your body, that was unique to any other instrument, you feel enveloped by that.”
Being so intrigued by how the sound ‘came out’ of the violin eventually led him to want to know how they were put together.
“I was surrounded by talk about fiddle making for a long time,” he says. “I was always interested in how it was made. A friend of my brothers’ in Newry started to make fiddles and I was eager to see him at work. I also had a keen interest in woodwork as my father and older brothers were wood workers. I used to help my father in the workshop on small jobs.”
Eventually Paul came from ‘The Orchard County’ to County Galway, settling here in 1998. Like so many others before (and after him ) he originally came just to visit but ended up staying. “I came here to visit friends and play music and decided it would be a good place to live and make fiddles,” he says. “I liked the environment and I like the people.”
Galway and Armagh may seem like two counties with very little in common, but Paul has a great passion for Irish history and points out that the two have a strong connection going back more than 200 years.
“There is a Galway-Armagh connection,” he says. “In 1795, after the Battle of the Diamond, near Loughgall in Co Armagh, which resulted in the formation of the Orange Lodge, 7,000 native Irish left and settled along the west of Ireland. Those that came to Galway chiefly settled in the Slieve Aughty Mountains. They were known as the Ultaí and I have heard it said by people there who can speak Irish that the Ulster Irish the Ultaí spoke left a mark on the way people spoke Irish in that part of Galway.”
Returning to the violin, what goes into the making of the instrument? What kind of process does Paul have to undertake to turn wood, ebony, and strings into the finished product?
“You have a wooden shape called a mould or form and it is in the shape of a figure eight,” he says. “In the central part of the eight are positioned four inserts/cutouts where four corner blocks can be glued on. The corner blocks are the foundation of the instrument and they are connected to the shape that the four corners of the fiddle have. At the two ends of the eight are the neck block and bottom block.
“The walls of the instrument, called the ribs, are made from strips of maple about 1mm thick. The front is made of spruce. The fingerboard is made from ebony. Once you have established the shape by bending the ribs and gluing them to the box, you can then use this to trace the outlines of the front and back onto the maple and the spruce.
“Then you can outline the front and back and the outside shape which are finalised by use of gouges and minature/thumb plains and metal scrapers. The purfling is outlined on the front and back and it will be hollowed to the correct thickness and neck and scroll are fashioned using gouges and files.
“The ribs are removed from the form and the corner blocks remain inside the fiddle. The front and back are glued to the rib structure and the finger board is glued to the neck. The neck is fitted to the neck block, it is varnished, the pegs are fitted, as is the sound post and bridge, and the strings.”
How long would this process take? “The woodwork takes about five weeks, the varnishing two weeks to a month, so overall to make one violin takes two/three months,” he says.
Talking about fiddles and violins prompts the question - what is the difference between a fiddle and a violin?
“That’s the most asked question,” says Paul, “but it’s a case of it’s a fiddle when it’s trad and folk music and a violin when it’s classical, but there can be a bit more to it than that.
“A fiddle was maintained by its owner and not by a violin maker. It was less expensive to do it that way and as they maintained it and repaired it that individual instrument developed a sound that was unique to that player. The violin was the instrument of wealthier people and their employer or violin maker would take care of the repairs.”
It is impossible to imagine Irish traditional music without the fiddle. It is as essential to the music as the uileen pipes, the bodhrán, the harp, or the tin-whistle, so when did the instrument first appear in the country?
“There is a reference to fiddlers in Shakespeare’s Macbeth which was written in about 1603,” says Paul “so the arrival of the fiddle would have come about that time. The first fiddle makers arrived into Britain from Tyrol in modern Austria in around the early 1600s and established the Tyrolese style of violin making.
“The violin was reluctantly accepted into the houses of nobility as it was originally seen as an ungentlemanly instrument, eventually gaining respectability through the many compositions which major composers were writing for it. In Ireland, more than anything else, the arrive of the fiddle coincided with a rise in the mass production of the instrument, so they were cheaply available.”
Paul is an in-demand violin maker, a teacher who gives workshops at the annual Willie Clancy Summer School in Milltown Malbay, and he performs live in Tigh Chóilí’s every Wednesday night. He has also released the solo album Atlantic Roar (1997 ) and is currently working on a second album which will include a mixture of music and selections from Paul’s poetry.
“The album will include a number of poems about traditional music and in particular about fiddle playing,” he says. “The theme of the album is the idea of having a new voice and so tunes will be played on a new fiddle I have made and one poem will refer to fiddle making. I hope to have it out in October.”
Yet the question has to be asked, as a performing musicians, teacher, poet, and with his job/passion as an instrument maker, how does he find the time to do it all?
“I don’t find the time,” he laughs. “It’s like starting a very long novel and eternally being in the middle of it. I’m not a very good time organiser, but playing music is something I do for a living and I teach music and I feel the need to do them and in the music, poetry, and fiddle making, you are trying to find out what is inside and what might be there within you.”