I started to play the violin at seven or eight years of age. My maternal grandmother’s family were all musically talented, and as my older sister Bernice was already playing the piano, my grandmother decided that I should play the violin. I remember my father buying me my first instrument and bringing it home. I unenthusiastically removed it from the case and made an attempt to play it. It sounded dreadful. It definitely wasn’t love at first sight, but like so many unpromising beginnings, my love for it grew.
Mother Cecily was the resident music teacher in Loreto College Crumlin where I attended school, and I remember happily gathering up my school bag during lessons and escaping the classroom twice weekly for music tutorials of 45 minutes duration. It was many years before music as a subject became an extra-curricular activity which took place after school hours. But while I was I with Mother Cecily I didn’t spend too much time wondering what I missing back in the classroom.
Cecily was an ancient tiny nun, who wore glasses that magnified her eyes so much, that she resembled an owl. She was passionate about music, and most of her pupils adored her. As time went by, I also learned how to read music, as each lesson included musical theory, sight reading and information on great composers and musical artists. I spent many happy hours in her little music room and as I progressed I entered and won several competitions and Feis Ceoil’s.
By the time I was twelve years of age, I was old enough to join the school orchestra. We performed at various events throughout the school year and competed with other schools in orchestral competitions. A couple of years later when we teamed up with the Castleknock College Boys School orchestra, there was a sudden flurry of teen aged Loreto girls who begged to join the orchestra never having played an instrument before, pleading with Mother Cecily that they could quickly learn to play the triangle or other percussion instruments. Cecily gently insisted that they would have to know how to read music in order to become part of the orchestra, and many hopes were dashed, as being part of this musical ensemble suddenly became very cool amongst my peers.
Travelling out to the boarding school in Castleknock by hired bus every other Saturday was always an adventure, and after practice when Mother Cecily and Father Fehily went to take tea, we had an hour or two to gallivant and hang out with the lovely boys of Castleknock in the grounds of the college. I remember this period in my life as being great fun and I kept in contact with a few of those boys throughout my teen and early adult years.
My father had only one sibling, his brother Tommy who had never married. He was a skilled carpenter like my dad, but he enjoyed making musical instruments as a hobby. One Christmas he presented me with a beautiful handmade violin. It was remarkable. Each peg had mother of pearl and nine carat gold embedded in the wood, and the fingerboard featured an unusual treble clef motif in Ivory. The back of the violin was exquisitely inlaid with a mother of pearl rose whose petals held various hues and colours. It was absolutely unique. Tommy had spent almost a year, sourcing materials and crafting this precious gift for me and I had never owned anything so beautiful.
It didn’t come with a case, and when my father and I went to the music shop Mc Cullagh Piggott’s to buy one, we realised that the instrument was slightly larger than a standard violin so we couldn’t get a case to fit.
When I returned to school after the holidays, I carried the instrument in a makeshift soft bag that I had cobbled out of old jumpers. When Mother Cecily saw it, she rooted out an old ungainly wooden handmade case that looked like a coffin but the new instrument fitted inside perfectly.
As my violin was slightly bigger than a standard one Mother Cecily used me as a viola player when the need arose. We simply switched strings and I became the ‘viola section’ of the orchestra. The viola is the second instrument in the string family, graduating on to the cello, and finally to the double base. Being part of the violin section of the orchestra, I performed with several other players, but when my violin became a viola, I was always playing solo. I enjoyed the deeper tones that the alternative strings produced, and I also enjoyed the magical status that my violin held. It was a two in one and very special.
Because the wooden case was cumbersome and very heavy, I left it on a rack in a school corridor with other instruments and practised at home on my old violin. Leaving instruments on the rack in school was a common practice, and although they stood in a busy corridor, these instruments were out of bounds to pupils and were never touched or moved. On our trips out to Castleknock, it was simply lifted and placed on the bus, along with all the other violins, cellos, flutes, clarinets, oboes and various percussion instruments that were also often left on the rack.
Uncle Tommy only visited our house about twice a year, but the violin was always brought out and I performed for him. He enjoyed classical music and it was a shared subject that we could talk about. I was an awkward teenager, and he was a bachelor with limited experience of kids, so the instrument and the music gave us opportunities to chat and to enjoy each other’s company.
One Saturday in early summer I went into the school to collect my violin as I had a competition later that day. I went to the rack and opened the case, but the violin was not inside. It had been stolen sometime between the previous day when I had had a lesson and that morning when I called to collect it.
Despite a thorough search of the entire school the violin never turned up. Fliers were sent around, and every teacher asked every class if anyone knew what had happened to my violin. No one came forward and the instrument was never found. Sadly the nuns refused to take responsibility for its loss. I felt so bad. My mother believed that I was at fault and had somehow ‘lost it’ or left it on the bus (as I had done a few years previously with the older violin, which was recovered from the C.I.E lost property office a day later).
When Uncle Tommy came to visit that Christmas, my father and mother lied to him and told him that the violin was in school in the “big case” over the holidays, as they believed that it would break his heart to find out that it had been stolen. I still remember playing my dishonest musical renditions for him on the old violin that Christmas. I felt guilty with every note that I produced and cut short the performance that I usually basked in.
He died the following spring never knowing that it was gone. The heart of playing the violin left me after that, and despite still having my older instrument I subsequently left the orchestra. The old violin was eventually passed onto a younger cousin, along with the sheet music, books, music stand, and other paraphernalia associated with it.
After I left school I took my musical knowledge and got a job in Walton’s music store in Dublin where I worked very happily for over four years. Over the course of those years, many second hand violins were brought in to the shop to trade up to newer instruments. I kept my eyes out, and all the sales staff knew the story of the stolen violin. But I’ve never seen it again.
I sometimes trawl through the Internet in the hope that I might stumble across it. I don’t know what I would do if I found it, I just know that I would recognise it in an instant as there could never be another one like it.
Destiny can often be about still appreciating things that are given with love long after they have gone.