A Question of Taste: Noel Burke, bow maker

Noel Burke was born in London to Sligo parents.

A Question of Taste: Noel Burke, bow maker

Noel Burke was born in London to Sligo parents.

“We spent summers over there as kids and I always felt myself to be more Irish than English,” he says.

A bow maker based in Carlow, he is currently involved in organising an exhibition of contemporary violin and bow making as part of the West Cork Chamber Music Festival in Bantry (June 28 to July 7).

Best book you’ve read recently:

The Unknown Craftsman by Soetsu Yanagi. It is a fascinating insight into the Japanese aesthetic and how we perceive beauty.

Best recent gig you’ve seen:

Bob Dylan in the Konzerthaus in Vienna. I’ve always been Dylan fan and taking my 21-year-old son Kian to his first Dylan concert in such an historic venue was special.

Current music listening:

A 1971 song collection of highlights from the career of James Brown called Startime. It goes back to his very first recordings in the 1950s and is stunning.

First ever piece of music to really move you:

Hearing the traditional Irish flute played for the first time.

I was only five or six and the great flute player, the late PJ Crotty from Moyasta in Clare, came to our house in London to rehearse with my brother, fiddle player Kevin Burke, for a production of The Playboy of the Western World.

I’ll never forget seeing him open the case and putting those strange black pieces of wood together and the sound when he blew into it.

I’d never heard anything like the power of that thick woody sound.

When he saw my reaction he actually thought he’d frightened me and he apologised! It had a marked effect on me and I still play the flute to this day.

TV viewing:

Line of Duty. Great writing and acting and Adrian Dunbar in the lead is a class act as always. And the recent ITV drama Hatton Garden, with Timothy Spall leading a stellar cast.


BBC Radio 4. I’ve found myself living in all sorts of places around the world in an effort to learn my trade and Radio 4 on long wave, or the World Service were often the only English speaking broadcast I could get.

Bow making is a solitary trade and I’ve really enjoyed the company it provides in the workshop. It’s like a very old friend.

Best celebrity encounter:

The time the English violin maker Roger Hargrave invited me along to spend a morning visiting the great American violinist Ruggiero Ricci in his apartment in Salzburg.

Usually the most memorable thing about meeting famous players, for me as a bow maker, is the bows I see but in this case it was meeting the man himself.

His stories about violin playing, his life in music the different violins and bows he’d played, and life in general were priceless and all delivered with a roguish and a cutting wit.

I remember when I got back to my hotel room I wrote down a load of what he’d said in case I’d ever forget it.

You can portal back to any period of human cultural history?

1870 Paris. The bow at this time was going through a transition after having remained largely unchanged for the previous 100 years and Paris was the heart of it.

Having spent the last thirty years trying to reproduce their bows, I’d love to have been around at that time to meet and better understand the bow makers working in Paris at that time.

What’s it like when you see one of your bows used?

I can get pretty emotional about it. It has reduced me to tears on several occasions.

Bow makers think about the bow and appreciate it from a completely different standpoint than the musician and the bow can never really come to life and work its magic until it is placed in the hands of a great player.

Dream festival bill:

Bob Dylan, The Bothy Band and Amy Winehouse.

Do you have any interesting ancestors or family?

My brother Kevin is a fabulous fiddle player. And my mum and dad.

They both came from large families in rural Sligo and left it for London in the late 1940s.

For me as a kid from London, I always felt privileged to be introduced to the world they came from and the people that inhabited it.

You are king for a day — what’s your first decree?

I asked my ten-year-old daughter what would be the first thing she would do if she were queen of Ireland for a day and she said, “Fix the Dáil.” Out of the mouths of babes…

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