The old rustic fiddle

By Anne Quirke

On a sunny Sunday afternoon in March last year, I was heading home from Roscommon to Ballinahiskera, Killimor, Co. Galway, to take my mother, Philomena Quirke (nee Dervan) out to lunch.

On that journey, I started thinking about a fiddle that my grandfather, Martin Dervan from Coolfin, Abbey, Co. Galway, had made, and how even though as a child I never played music I loved looking at it and kept it on a sideboard with the bow in our sitting room at home.

My granddad was a carpenter by trade and only ever made one fiddle. Sadly, I never met him, so maybe the fiddle made me feel close to him or maybe it would later inspire me to learn how to play a musical instrument!

Over the years I never knew where this fiddle ended up, so now, driving home I had a bee in my bonnet about finding it. I searched our old home house – now derelict and fighting off the cobwebs – and eventually found it in an upstairs bedroom in the bottom of a wardrobe. It had seen better days. It was stringless and pegless, it had a broken scroll and a broken f-hole, some woodworm holes and a little water damage, but nonetheless, I was very excited to find it again!

Initially, I thought to myself I’ll clean it off and polish it, put some old pegs and strings on it and hang it on a wall somewhere in my house in memory of my granddad. But as I was cleaning it, I couldn’t help but wonder when he made this beautiful instrument, and if he made it for someone? Curiosity got the better of me, so I used the light on my phone and looked through the broken f-hole to see if anything was written inside – and there it was, pencil on paper! I couldn’t believe it!

I was reading my granddad’s handwriting, which read, ‘May 1953. Phil Dervan. M. Dervan’. It’s strange, but seeing and reading this made me feel a closeness to him. So, by my calculations, my mum would have been aged 8 when he made the fiddle for her, what a lucky little girl! I was super-excited to tell my mum this great news and, in that moment, I decided that this beautifully hand-crafted instrument needed to be professionally restored back to playing condition, so I rang my friend Paul Doyle, a Luthier based in Galway.

Paul was delighted to be able to help. According to Paul the craftsmanship involved in making this instrument was excellent, considering that in 1953, my grandfather would have had limited tools and no patterns. He may have used a textbook for a pattern or just copied another fiddle. Paul informed me of the interesting local Irish wood Martin used to make the fiddle. The top is Douglas fir, the neck is beech, it has a pine fret board and that beautiful flamed pattern on the back is sycamore, as are the sides. Paul spent the summer months restoring the fiddle and bringing it back to life.

Martin Dervan grew up on a farm in Coolfin, Abbey, Co. Galway with his parents Michael and Margaret, brothers John and Michael and sisters Mary and Bridget. His passion for working with wood was evident from an early age. He converted a cow shed at the back of his parents’ house into a workshop, and so began his carpentry career. He married Kathleen Galvin from Clonfert, Co. Galway in 1936. They moved to Birr, Co. Offaly, where he continued his wooden creations, making furniture, stairs and pony traps, while Kathleen kept lodgers. Nine years later their only child Philomena (my mother) was born. Around 1958, the family moved to Ballinasloe, Co. Galway, where once again Martin set up his workshop in an outbuilding and Kathleen continued to keep lodgers such as ESB workers, terrazzo tile workers who worked on the stairways in Portiuncula Hospital, rent collectors, etc.

Sadly, one morning in December 1962 tragedy struck the Dervan family. When Martin was walking into town, he was hit by a car crossing the road close to his home on Bridge Street, Ballinasloe, Co. Galway. He was 68 years old and died at the scene. This was a devastating shock for his wife Kathleen and their 17-year-old daughter, Philomena. Times were tough back then, but thankfully Kathleen Dervan was a resourceful and resilient woman. Soon after Martin’s death, Kathleen went into Portiuncula Hospital and landed herself a job in the kitchen as a cook.

Now a widow, Kathleen continued with the lodging business and before long she was making the surgical gowns in the hospital. Kathleen had a passion for sewing and had a cast-iron Singer sewing machine in her house, that she managed, with help I’m sure, to bring into the hospital, where she set up shop and started mending and making theatre gowns.

Tragically for Phil and the Quirke family, history repeated itself many years later, when sadly her only son Noel died in May 1996 when he was hit by a car crossing the road to his friend’s 21st birthday party, just outside the village of Killimor. He was only 20 years old and died at the scene. This was a devastating blow for all of us. Phil’s mother Kathleen had only passed away the previous year, at age 98.

Martin clearly passed on his woodworking gift to his grandson Noel as he also had an eye for perfection when it came to working with wood. Noel’s memory lives on in many ways in our lives but especially in our home house in Ballinahiskera, where there’s a beautiful mahogany corner stand that he made in secondary school.

Last summer, mum and I called to Martin’s home house in Coolfin, where his nephew Michael Dervan was living. Michael referred to Martin as being a lovely quiet man and confirmed that he was gifted with wood. He shared many fond memories of Martin and remembered that he had made a fiddle many years ago. I was delighted to be able to show Michael some photographs of the restored fiddle on my phone, which he enjoyed viewing. Michael recalled that Martin’s woodworking tools were given to him as a gift from my grandmother, Kathleen. A lovely gesture to keep the family woodworking tradition alive, a task that Michael certainly lived up to!

Martin’s memory and talent have been brought to life again with the restoration of his beautiful and carefully handcrafted instrument. His memory will live on forever in the music that flows from the hands that will play his fiddle! I have no doubt that the presence of this instrument in our house when I was growing up somehow inspired me to learn to play guitar and ukulele. No pressure, but I think I might just have to learn a tune or two on the fiddle in honour of my granddad, Martin Dervan!