Conor Russell: Keeping the violin-making tradition alive

Bantry-bound Conor Russell busy in his workshop. Picture: Denis Minihane
Bantry-bound Conor Russell busy in his workshop. Picture: Denis Minihane

DURING his music lesson, a string broke on young Conor Russell’s violin. A minor setback, and a common experience of every student. What happened next set a life-long course for Russell who is now one of Ireland’s most established violinmakers, or luthiers, as they are known in the trade.

“On the way home, my dad called into Willy Hofmann’s to replace the string. I saw the workshop and I fell in love with it. As soon as I got home I wrote and asked him for an apprenticeship. It was all I ever wanted to do.”

Russell worked closely with Hofmann throughout his student days at the Cork School of Music and spent almost a decade sharing a workshop until his retirement in 1997. He joins the coterie of makers who will be exhibiting their work during the West Cork Chamber Music Festival. This year, Russell will be giving a talk on the history of violin making in Ireland.

By the time he died in 2003 Willy Hofmann had become a household name among Irish musicians. Like Russell, thousands of musicians sought his expertise for all things string related whether to replace broken strings, buy a new instrument, or to keep up running repairs. Born in Dublin, he was the last of five generations of craftsmen who could trace his roots back to the Musikwinkel, the heartland of instrument manufacture in Saxony.

Hofmann served as an apprentice to his father Georg Wilhelm who came to Dublin to open a violin shop in 1906. Sought after for the quality of his craftsmanship, he was respected internationally for an encyclopaedic knowledge of the violin and many enjoyed his dry wit.

If Hofmann Senior was the first full time maker and restorer, there were a small group of amateur luthiers active in the capital. It is reputed that when Edward Keenan, a wheelmaker in Dublin first encountered the violin in the closing years of the 19th century, it had such a profound effect on him that he felt compelled to take up the craft of violin making.

His great grandson, Mark Keenan who now runs his own violin workshop in Co Offaly explains. “By 1913 he had made at least eleven violins and won first prize in the RDS instrument making competition.”

Strangely enough it was the outbreak of World War that gave his instrument making career a boost. When a young officer, Joshua Watson was called up, he left his Stradivarius in the care of Robert Cathcart a friend of Keenan’s.

Edward made the most of the opportunity to study the instrument making several copies, one of which was bought by Watson himself when he returned from the war.

Like most working in this niche craft, Russell favours time honoured traditional techniques.

“I could walk into a workshop from a few hundred years ago and sit down and make a violin. What has changed in the last 30 years is the sharing of knowledge and Bantry is great for that. To spend a week meeting with other makers and studying the work of others is wonderful. I do believe that there are violins being made today as fine as have ever been made.”

The exhibition in Bantry features 15 makers from both Ireland and abroad and presents a rare opportunity to try the instruments and bows of makers whose work is recognised and appreciated internationally.


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