Exhibition in Cork is another string to his bow

Noel Burke will be among violin and bow makers showcasing their work in an exciting new exhibition in Cork
Exhibition in Cork is another string to his bow
Noel Burke bow maker

Tell us about yourself;

I was born in London to parents from Dromore West and Mass Hill in Sligo. My mum and dad moved to London in the late 1940s and reared a family there.

We spent a lot of our summers in Sligo as kids and I always knew I’d live in Ireland one day.

I was ten years living in Westport in Mayo before I moved to Carlow in 2006, and I still live and work in the town.

I became a bow maker more by accident than design, after a chance meeting at a wedding in Paris. My brother, fiddler Kevin Burke, had asked me along and it led to my moving to Seattle, WA, in 1989 to start an apprenticeship in bow making with Charles Espey. After a year working with Charles I moved to Paris and became apprentice to Stephane Thomachot. I stayed two years in Stephane’s workshop and stayed a further three years in Paris, making and restoring old French bows, and after a couple of years living in Cremona in Italy I moved to Ireland in 1996.

Where were you born?

Bexley Hospital in Kent.

Where do you live?

Carlow town.


Both my parents came from large families in rural Sligo and my father in particular was stone mad about Irish music. We all played so we grew up in a very Irish household, even though it was in London.

Best friend?

My best friend was violin maker Neil Ertz. We were at college together and exhibited our work together for decades. He died very suddenly one morning in his workshop in Edinburgh in 2016 from a brain aneurysm. He was 50. It was a massive education living through Neil’s death and it’s strange to say but I still feel close to him, even though he’s not around any more.

Earliest childhood memory?

Leaving London in the Renault 4, mum, dad, and my brother and sister and myself in the back, and heading to Holyhead for the ferry to Dun Laoghaire. It was a massive trip in those days and once we got off the ferry in Ireland there was the long drive up to Dromore in Sligo. There was no N4 in those days so that was a massive drive too.

Those long summers in Sligo were very special for a kid from London and there were always tears when the day finally came for us to leave for home again and school. We used to go off and hide in the bushes, thinking we wouldn’t have to leave if they couldn’t find us!

Noel Burke bow maker at work.
Noel Burke bow maker at work.

Person you most admire?

Probably my first bow making teacher, Charles Espey. He is a remarkable man in many ways. His influence on the trade of bow making is massive and he has a string of award winning students to his name. He is also a photographer whose work has been published in the National Geographic magazine, an accomplished film maker, a botanist, and he lives a very simple life in a little wooden house he built with his partner Rita in the woods up in Washington State. A very inspiring man and the sole reason I became a bow maker.

Person who most irritates you?

Politicians. Fix the health system in Ireland. And the housing crisis. In such a wealthy country with such a small population, it seems tragic we cannot better look after our citizens when they get sick or fall on hard times.

Where was your most memorable holiday?

Bali, Indonesia. Such a gentle people and such a deep culture. And for me the best wood carvers in the world. All boys in Bali learn to carve ebony and a local wood similar to poplar. They are very spiritual people and their work is seen as a way of worshipping their gods. It takes 25 years to become a master carver but many of them carve their whole lives and never achieve the accolade of master.

Favourite TV programme?

Currently I’m watching Lillihammer with Steven Van Zandt.

Favourite radio show?

I loved Simply Folk presented by Ruth Smith when it was on. She introduced me to lots of great music I wasn’t aware of before.

Your signature dish if cooking?

Wild mushroom risotto is a throwback to my days living in Italy.

Favourite restaurant?

The Fish Kitchen in Bantry. I try to eat there every day while I am in Bantry but I’ve never managed it. It’s such a popular place, a table needs to be booked in advance and I’m not that organised!

Last book you read?

Mrs Moreau’s Warbler by Stephen Moss. It tells how the birds around us got their names.

Best book you read?

That’s a tough one. I just had a look at my bookcase and if I could only keep one book it’d probably be The complete ‘Strand’ facsimile edition of The Illustrated Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I loved those stories as a boy and I still do.

Last album/CD/download you bought?

The last CD I bought was a 71-song boxset of highlights from the career of James Brown. It goes way back to his earliest recordings in the 1950s and it’s stunning. I find it incredible that all that music was created by a guy that never had a music lesson in his life.

Favourite song?

Into The Mystic by Van Morrison.

One person you would like to see in concert?

Paul McCartney.

Do you have a pet?

Yes. I’m a single dad with a ten- year-old daughter and our pets are called Amy and Alfie. They’re two guinea pigs that stroll around in a 5ft by 2 1/2ft open topped cage on the living room floor. They have a mezzanine floor and are arguably the best fed inhabitants of the house!!

Morning person or night owl?

All my life I was a night owl, a barfly, but since I’ve kids I’m a morning person.

Your proudest moment?

Definitely the birth of my kids.

Spendthrift or saver?


Name one thing you would improve in your area in which you live?

I’d lower the rates so the many shops that have closed down in the town since I moved here would open up again.

What makes you happy?

Making a great bow or being at a great concert.

How would you like to be remembered?

As a great bow maker.

What else are you up to at the moment?

I am currently involved in organising an exhibition of contemporary violin and bow making as part of the West Cork Chamber Music Festival in Bantry. We are particularly excited this year to have world renowned bow makers Stephane Thomachot, Klaus Grünke and Gregor Walbrodt exhibiting with us.

Violin maker and leading world authority on Flemish violin making, Jan Strick will be exhibiting also and giving a lecture on the history of violin making in Europe. We are seven violin makers and seven bow makers in total and we’ll be making and exhibiting our work in the Old Cinema in Bantry for the duration of the festival, which runs from Friday, June 28 to Sunday, July 8.

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