Dad Playing One of His Violins — Still Needing a Coat of Varnish

Ireland and Dad’s Lost Decades

Sometimes the best laid plans go awry. I had started on what I thought was going to be my first memoir piece about my Dad and his interest in tropical fish. An odd sounding topic I’ll admit, but that was a time, in the early 1970s when I was closest to him, as together we had a shared fascination in all things aquaria. However, the more I attempted to write that story, the more I realized I had to explore the Ireland of his youth . Ultimately, it was those years that were foundational to the man I knew as a child and I realized I had to come to some understanding of those difficult years before I could right more lucidly on the events that followed. And so for those of you, like me, that did not know much of the Ireland of the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, I hope you find this interesting

In Kinsealy, the place where I grew up, my Dad’s workshop is starting to sag, ivy has sought out the weaknesses of the shed and is invading the now dusty refuge that he built for himself. It has been silent for over eight years, a place where he spent much of the final years of his life probing the secrets of Stadavarius. This quest for the secrets of the violin, one of the last undertakings of Dad’s life, was typical of him. He was undaunted by the challenge of making a perfect violin, indeed he relished the opportunity to investigate, understand, analyze, craft, sculpt and learn.

Dad’s Violin Workshop Invaded by Ivy

I think of him now in somewhat grandiose terms, a combination of a Renaissance man and the gentlemen tinkerers of the Scientific Revolution. He certainly would have resisted the “gentleman” moniker, likely too much of an Anglo-Elite term, he also would have ridiculed any notions that tagged him as a modern day polymath. The truth is though, he subscribed instinctively, almost monkishly, to a life of learning, wholly consistent with those long past eras and while he would have pushed against any such classification, it is a fair description of the father that I knew. An aspect of the man, that I think on frequently, and the vestiges of which I like to believe pulse through my veins.

After I went to America, periodically I’d get a phone call from Dad with a request to track down some obscure luthier tool. Maybe a Japanese micro plane that could not be located in Ireland but was available through American catalog companies. While this was the dawn of the Internet age which would have enabled him to order directly from suppliers, he seemed to prefer giving me the catalog details so I could handle that uninteresting complexity on his behalf. Secretly, I think he liked to impress his fellow Irish makers with this access to American suppliers through his helpfully place son.

Dad was not shy about coopting people into his efforts. Once, I was directed on a mission to see if I could track down archival information from the Rembert Wurlitzer Company, a New York based firm which had specialized in the very finest violins. The company not only dealt in violins, but also ran a renowned repair department that was trusted by the owners of these instruments when delicate and expensive repairs were needed. It seems Dad had gotten wind of a rumor that the repair business had cracked the recipe for a restorative violin varnish more consistent with that of Stradavarius and he wanted to replicate the secret sauce for his own instruments. I came up empty on that quest as the company had been out of business for decades and nobody I contacted, could direct me to the associated archives or tell me if they even existed. I remember reminding him of that effort years later, he shrugged it off casually stating that he felt that he had solved the matter to his own satisfaction and the importance of varnishes was likely overstated. I was bemused, thinking that he had little understanding of the effort that I had made on his behalf, but that’s how he was.

I can’t speak to the quality of his violins. I expect I will never truly know their merits. Academic audiophiles are not hunting down a Fred Nutty violin to do a sound comparison with the legendary instruments crafted by the genius luthier’s of Cremona. Nor would Dad have worried about such comparisons, he set his own standards without a care for the cognoscenti and continued to work slowly on this project as his energy waned and age depleted his vigor. He learned as he went along, producing about one violin a year. I don’t know the exact count, on those made, as most were sold. They are tagged inside the violin body and those curious enough to squint through the instrument’s F-holes will find a label there with his precise signature. Hopefully these instruments, a small body of work, are making their way through the world, providing pleasure to listeners and opportunities for others to learn the beauty of music.

Cremona: A Spiritual Home for Dad

Dad retained a couple of his violins, one of which was his preferred instrument with which he travelled frequently. He sat in on the weekly traditional Irish music session at Oscar Taylors in the nearby town of Malahide. Sadly that establishment is now gone, but it was there that he went with his preferred violin and where he would play his beloved, “Ashokan Farewell”. I don’t know where he picked up that tune, but he was bemused when I told him that the melody was of comparatively recent origin having been composed by Jay Ungar, a Jewish fiddler from the Bronx in New York. Apparently Unger had composed the memorable piece in 1982 when he wanted to capture the sense of loss felt at the end of happy times at the summer music camps he hosted in the Ashokan area of New York’s Catskill Mountains. Some two years after the composition, Ken Burns was looking for music for his epic documentary on the American Civil War and he came upon Ungar’s recording. The rest was history as they say and the melody would become the signature tune of the Burn’s television masterwork and my Dad’s regular session playing.

My niece Rosa Nutty, who has helped me with the music on this podcast series, was kind enough to put her own spin on the piece with lyrics from Grian MacGregor…

<You’ll have to listen to the podcast to hear Rosa’s rendition>

With my thanks to Rosa, I know her Grandpa would have enjoyed and admired that rendition. For more on Rosa’s music, please visit RosaNutty.com

When friends and family came to bid Dad a final farewell at his funeral mass in the tiny church of St Nicholas of Myra in Kinsealy, they saw his coffin resting before the altar, undecorated except for an unvarnished, unstrung, and incomplete violin which he had struggled to finish in his last days. Never entirely satisfied with his efforts, the mute instrument told the story of a life dedicated to discovery, learning and the pursuit of knowledge.

St Nicholas of Myra, Kinsealy

A birch tree, with startling white bark stands outside Dad’s sagging workshop. Unlike the workshop, it stands gleaming and vigorous and like the violins he sent out into the world, the tree is a glimmering legacy of his work. This special tree is the Trinity Birch and likely would no longer grace gardens across both Ireland and England without his innovative efforts. It seems appropriate that the birch and the violin workshop continue to stand close to each other as they form the bookends of the working life of a man devoted to knowledge, whose first love was plants.

The Trinity Birch, Dad’s workshop in background

Over the years, there would be many other passions and these would leave their mark on the family property in Kinsealy. There is the fish house which once contained some 20 aquariums long since sold; the aviaries where Cardinals, Fantail Doves and Bantam Hens were raised, the now overgrown cold water outdoor ponds once home to a collection of spectacular Japanese Koi and a few teetering beehives remain, their inhabitants still working away without human intervention.

Everywhere in the crumbling echoes of Dad’s past, there are reminders of the centrality of plants, the mature overgrown gardens, a substantial potting shed, once the center of the family business; a long greenhouse missing many of its glass panes and water frames stuffed with un-thinned aquatic plants. There is a smaller greenhouse still in good condition. In the last years of his life, at the age of 85, he had reclaimed and reglazed the moldering structure after years of neglect so that he could grow a collection of galanthus know as snowdrops to common folk like me. And so it was with him over the years, he’d peel off into other interests, exhaust his curiosity and then return to plants whose seasonal rhythms always provided new opportunities for learning.

25 Victoria Road, Clontarf — Dad’s childhood home

Recently, talking with my sister Ann, I asked if she knew where this love of plants came from? Ann remarked that she understood that our grandmother, Nana Emma Behan Nutty, had been an active gardener and might have been the source of the original interest. Given the fraught relationship Dad had with his mother, it was a surprising answer. My brother Stiofán, recollects that he grew vegetables with his father in the back garden of the family property on Victoria Road in Clontarf. This back garden cultivation, may have been triggered by the economic hardships associated with the Great Depression and the subsequent WWII years. Regardless, wherever the interest came from, Dad chose to carve out his space in the plant world, but he did so in a non traditional manner, in a way that was to cause him much pain and frustration.

While I know a good deal about Dad’s childhood, his early adulthood is a mystery to me. Given his age, I expect he finished his secondary school education around 1943 when he would have turned 18. He had attended the Gaelic speaking school, Coláiste Mhuire, located on Parnell Square in the heart of Dublin. The years subsequent to that, between 1943 and 1958, when he met my Mom are a mystery except for the occasional nugget that he dropped in passing moments. What accounted for this silence and how is it to be explained? Most men are given to telling the foundational stories of their young adulthood and yet my Dad was silent about much of this time. I imagine that lack of anecdote came from a life lived through a difficult era which he preferred to forget.

Coláiste Mhuire, Parnell Square. The School Moved to Cabra in 2003

My siblings and I have gleaned some fragmentary facts about the period. Dad apparently enrolled in University College Dublin (UCD). He also seems to have spent time at the Albert College in Glasnevin which was home to the UCD agricultural department. Whether he was pursuing a degree in agriculture at “The Albert” or received technical training or employment there at a slightly later date is unknown. I contacted the UCD archives to see if they had any record of his enrollment and came up empty. What my siblings and I were given to understand is that Dad had failed to complete a Physics course and consequently gave up on the whole university degree thing. It seems he couldn’t understand why Physics was relevant to his interests and consequently couldn’t bring himself to absorb information that seemed unneeded and was definitely unwanted from his perspective.

Dad circa 1944

In speaking with my Mom, about this time, she understood that his interest in pursuing a third level education was lukewarm at best. On finishing Coláiste Mhuire, he’d requested his parents loan him money for a green house for their back garden rather than spend money on college tuition. These were the years of WWII, known as “The Emergency” in Ireland and Dad had taken note of the high price of tomatoes driven by the absence of imports making the cultivation of the crop under glass highly lucrative. The payback of the loan would have been quick, but the request was dismissed by my Nana and off to a failing college experience he went.

Nana’s insistence on attending college was likely grounded in the reasonable understanding that a degree would open doors for her son and that proved to be prescient as Dad was ultimately shut out of many opportunities for want of academic credentials. What Nana failed to understand though, was that she had a gifted son who likely felt suffocated by a traditional, conservative and a sometimes physically, brutal academic environment. Equally she failed to appreciate Dad was every bit as stubborn as she and any attempts to bend him to her will would not yield a sought for outcome. Dad had just escaped the confines of Coláiste Mhuire and the ministrations of The Christian Brothers who were rarely commended for their gentle encouragement of students. Chances are, he was wary of another educational institution which would hem in his restless mind and proscribe his natural learning instincts.

Dad circa 1950

There is a picture of Dad likely taken around this time. It haunts me. The photo shows him as a young man probably taken on a busy O’Connell St in the heart of Dublin in the 1940s. In the background, suited and homburg hatted men stride busily along the street. A curly headed, beribboned girl strolls arm linked with her mother. Dad walks alone, bare headed, wearing the over sized jacket and even baggier trousers of a working man. His striking looks are evident. There is a hint of a smile, but what pierces me is a certain degree of blankness, maybe a little lost, turned in upon himself.

Like many young people at the time he may have been struggling to find a way forward. The Irish economy was in poor shape and indeed the general election of 1948, which would have been proximate to the photo, was fought on the grounds of a stagnating economy. For 16 years the ruling party, Fianna Fáil, under the leadership of the New York born Eamon de Valera, had dominated the Irish political landscape, winning five consecutive elections. De Valera had reshaped the nascent country, drafting Ireland’s 2nd constitution which removed many of the legal ties to Britain created by the predecessor Free State constitution and hated by his more fervent republican followers.

Time Magazine 1932 de Valera Cover

While de Valera satisfied those supporters who wished to eradicate the ties to Britain, he did so at the expense of economic growth. It would be unfair to lay the blame of economic stagnation in totality on de Valera and Fianna Fáil. He had assumed power in 1932 at the height of the Great Depression which preceded the formation of his government and was a product of global irrational exuberance which had little to do with an impoverished Ireland. However almost immediately, on assuming power, de Valera decided to discontinue the payment of Land Annuity debt obligations to Britain and the consequences were severe. Britain consumed 90% of Ireland’s exports at the time and so when a retaliatory tariff of 20% was imposed on Irish agricultural products, the impact was palpable on the largely agrarian society.

This Anglo Irish Trade War would persist up to 1938, the eve of WWII. In retrospect, the willingness of the Irish government to engage in an economic war with a vastly larger economic power feels foolhardy. However de Valera may have been relying on the ideological cohesion of an electorate deeply rooted in an antipathy to their island neighbor. This rally call for a shared economic sacrifice against the “Old Enemy”, created a space where de Valera instigated a protectionist trade policy in an attempt to build up a strong internal market for Irish goods and agriculture. The protectionist impulse would persist through multiple governments for almost three decades. The results, unsurprisingly, were poor, given the absence of sufficient investment capital to build up domestic industry. The small scale of the Irish market, with a population of less than 3 million, lacked heft to sustain the production and consumption of a diverse range of goods and products. It was only in the 1960s when Ireland moved towards a more outward oriented trade, that the country would emerge from the resultant economic miasma.

Anti British Trade War Cartoon — Irish Press

These trade policies coupled with Ireland’s WWII neutrality stance had left the country isolated. Much of the rest of Europe began to rebuild rapidly under the auspices of the 1948 American Marshall Plan. Ireland did receive limited funding from the plan, but America’s generosity was muted by the legacy of diplomatic frustration associated with de Valera’s WWII neutrality stance. The tepid Irish recovery from the Great Depression, the privations of the war years and continued adherence to trade protectionism produced, in the 1950s, what is known as the island’s “Lost Decade”. Irish emigration had been effectively shut down in the 1930s and ‘40s, however once that option returned there was an explosion of departure from the country, specifically from rural regions and an estimated 414,000 people left the Republic between 1951 and ‘61 which comes close to a staggering 15% of the population. Many of those who left were never to return and were lost to the country forever.

This closed off Ireland, was the country of Dad’s early life and while options were thin on the ground, he chose to pursue his interests while paying cursory fealty to the conservative expectations and restrictions that surrounded him. My Sister Ann told me that his time at The Albert proved to be productive based on how little time he spent there!! Apparently the agricultural work, education or whatever he was doing there, was not to his liking, he was really more interested in ornamental plants and so at every chance he made his way to the National Botanic Gardens which were a little more than a mile from The Albert.

The Albert College now part of Dublin City University (DCU)

On his escapist visits to “The Bots” he seems to have ingratiated himself with the gardeners whose heavy lifting, in the background, has made this spectacular Dublin institution a worthy place to visit for over 200 years. The gardeners did much of their grunt work in a place called “The Pits” away from the public eye and it was there that Dad spent time and cajoled secrets from the older men who had accumulated their plant lore through decades of trial and error. Ultimately this was how Dad preferred to learn, he was a devotee to oral transmission and practical experience. He was not averse to books, but constantly compared what he read and heard to what he had validated for himself in the real word.

The Palm House at the National Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin
Dad on his Vespa

How long Dad spent at The Albert and The Bots is unknown to me, but he seems to have picked up enough education and/or experience to have secured a job with the Irish government’s Department of Agriculture doing some kind of allotment scheme work. Whether this work started in the 1940s or ‘50s is unclear. Dad rarely talked about the actual work that he did. I know he seems to have been primarily based in Boyle in Roscommon at this time. My brother Stiofán advised that his professional obligations involved both the consulting and education of small agricultural growers in the area. Dad, travelling on a Vespa, appears to have ranged broadly around Ireland’s North West counties of Roscommon, Leitrim, Sligo and as far North as Donegal.

Stiofán also remarked that Dad’s job seems to have had the stellar virtue of a short work day which enabled him to pursue his raging passion for fly fishing. There are stories, I recall, of fishing on the trout packed lakes near his Boyle digs. The Loughs of Arrow and Key cropped up frequently in his reminiscences and as in The Bots, he seems to have connected with a group of older men who stalked the lakes and taught him what flys worked and when they worked best, on their local waters. I know my Dad repeated their names often to me, but they escape my memory. They are long gone now, but I thank them for their kindness to a young man.

Boyle Roscommon: Dad’s base during his allotment work years

As WWII drifted into the past, funding for the allotments scheme likely dried up as did Dad’s employment with the Department of Agriculture. My brother Ben recalls Dad remarking on a time of unemployment although the timing of all this is uncertain and whether this state persisted for months or years. There may have have been jobs other then this, but he did not speak of them. Around the time he met my Mother, Anne Hall, he’d worked for a while at Griffin’s in Limerick. My sister Ann recollects that he spoke of incredibly difficult working conditions, toiling in a shed where straw bales acted as the walls. Unfortunately the walls were part of the business inventory and were sold off as the winter progressed making working conditions harsher for the employees as the temperature dropped and deep winter approached. As a child I’d observed Dad working in trying conditions without complaint, he was a resilient man, but this Limerick experience was intolerable and he quit and moved back to his parent’s home in Bray, a small town on the southern outskirts of Dublin where his parents had moved after their early married years in Clontarf.

Around this time, when he met my Mother, he talked of following the emigration trail like many of his peers. New Zealand was on the table, no doubt bolstered by its superlative trout fishing, but Dad’s life was about to change as Ireland shifted from isolation to engagement and all this coincided with his meeting my Mother in 1958. Surprisingly, they met at a golf club dance in Bray. Unlike Mom, Dad was not the golfing type and seems to have attended the event as an escort for another young lady who appears to have been abandoned in short order. Shortly after that first evening, he called Mom at her job at the National University of Ireland (NUI) and they began to see each other regularly. Mom brought him love, stability and a kindness that was likely absent from his life and Dad’s life started to stabilize.

Eamon de Valera in 1955 towards the end of his tenure as Taoiseach (Prime Minister)

The upward curve of Ireland’s economy had begun. Changes that would ultimately yield the Celtic Tiger Ireland were in train, although my parents likely didn’t recognize the fact. Younger men of politics were pushing forward to redirect the course of the country and an aging 77 year old Eamon de Valera bowed to the pressure, opting to continue his roll in Ireland’s public life by serving as the country’s president, a largely ceremonial roll. He had dominated the political landscape for some 40 years and would serve two terms as president before finally retiring at the age of 90 in 1973.

In the year my parents met and de Valera’s penultimate year as Taoiseach, the Irish government passed the An Foras Taluntais act. This act, partially financed by the American Marshall Plan, established a network of research centers devoted to agriculture one of which included the Kinsealy Institute. Dad was hired as the new facility caretaker, a position which also included a nearby house. Employment at “The Institute” provided much needed economic stability and Dad would spend the rest of his professional working life there. While a research center would seem an ideal place of employment for somebody with a devotion to learning, it would prove to be an increasingly frustrating experience for Dad as the years passed.

The Kinsealy Agricultural Research Institute

I’m conscious of the fragmentary nature of my father’s history during these lost decades of the 1940s and ‘50s. In many respects, it can be easier to research someone long gone as the archival records they left behind are no longer shielded by privacy concerns. Dad would be 95 this year if he was still with us. There are no longer any of his immediate peers to tell us of the struggles they faced collectively in a newly independent Ireland. Many left the country never to return. Some did make it back, no doubt drawn by a love for the place and the comforting deep roots of connectivity. Those that returned brought fresh ideas and often hard earned wealth to help build a new, dramatically different Ireland from that of their youth. For those that never left, like Dad, some found a way overcoming a legacy of poverty and suffocating social conservatism. I admire their resilience and fortitude. They made a different, easier Ireland for me and I’m forever in their debt.

In the next episode, I’ll detail some of the original work Dad did at the Kinsealy Institute and how his innovative ideas would secure a stable future for his family while also causing him personal anguish and I will tell the story of the Trinity Birch that still stands guard over his silent violin workshop

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Martin Nutty

Martin Nutty

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