Crafted with love: Northern Ireland guitar makers take centre on world stage

By Francis Gorman
BBC News NI

Northern Ireland can punch above its weight in sport and entertainment, but it is also known on the world stage for its guitar makers.

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Music to the ears: Northern Ireland has honed a reputation for hand-crafted guitars

That story starts with George Lowden. He put local guitars on the global map.

“When I started in 1974, I had no idea where it would lead,” he said.

“If someone had said to me, ‘In 40 years’ time, your guitars are going to be selling all over the world,’ I would have laughed.”

George now employs about 20 people in Downpatrick, County Down, making high-end instruments that sell for thousands of pounds.

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George Lowden put local guitars on the global map

It is a successful business, but he feels the government could do more to help with apprenticeships.

“If I was building something else other than guitars, then I would be able to find young people to bring in to apprentice who would already have had some basic training, “he said.

“It’s very hard to do that because the woodworking industry and the cabinet-making industry in Northern Ireland have virtually died out.”

Avalon guitars in Newtownards is another name on the global guitar stage.

Company boss Stephen McIlwrath said they take pride in their hand-crafted product.

“The Irish guitar makers are really sticking to the principles of hand crafting,” he said.

“A guitar maker is different from a machine. He has a brain; he has eyes; he has ears. He can see what he is doing to the wood. He can hear what he is producing.

“You are really getting a much better quality instrument rather than the machine-made stuff.”

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Michael Britt found his dream job at Avalon in Newtownards

Avalon shares the building with a guitar school called the Lagan Lutherie School, run by Sam Irwin.

One of the students is Michael Britt from San Diego. He gave up the day job as a government inspector in the Navy to follow his dream. It brought him to Newtownards.

“I looked up the best lutherie schools in the world and this was one of the top ten schools that came up,” he said.

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Hand crafting a guitar in Antrim

In Antrim, Dermot McIlroy has been making his own guitars for about 16 years. He used to be a carpenter but he got fed up getting paid off every winter. Now, he is busy all year round.

“In January, I will make calls to the shops around the world,” he said.

“I’ll ask what they want for the next year or two. They give me orders right through for the next several years and then that is the order book closed and we know that we are in full employment.

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Dermot McIlroy set up his company in Antrim 16 years ago

“That’s the way it has worked for the last 16 years.”

The instruments these three companies make are not cheap.

They can cost thousands of pounds but the high price is a reflection of a high quality and reputation in the world of guitars.

Source: BBC Business