FROM the workshop behind his Letterkenny home, a talented and highly reputable luthier named Fitz Howard is busy hand-crafting another of his guitars.
Howard’s signature sound has led to him working closely with Altan’s Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh’s while the late Henry McCullough, the only Irishman to play Woodstock, and who joined Paul McCartney in Wings was another client.
Two years ago he undertook the fiddle restoration of the instrument owned by Irish nationalist, poet, journalist, and a leader of the 1916 Easter Rising Joseph Mary Plunkett.
Fitz is a former senior engineer with Donegal County Council who retired from his post two years ago. It’s been my passion – a serious hobby – for more than thirty years,” he said.
During his time with the Council he was given the port-folio for the decentralisation of the Council’s ‘one stop shop’ offices while he also worked on water schemes in Moville and Crolly.
“I was lucky that there was money around at that time,” he said.
A native of Cork, Fitz first came to Donegal to work as a site engineer with Thomas McMahon Ltd on the building of a factory alongside the former Watson Hire premises which burned down in a fire last month.
“I was always interested in fixing and building. I used to get a lot of music magazines from America. I would tear out pages and put them into a folder. It was a time before google. I also bought a lot of books.
“The first thing I did was experiment on my own guitar when I was fourteen and wrecked it. I decided that I would be better off working on other people’s instruments,” he laughed.
Fitz, interestingly, does not play an instrument.
“I’ve been lucky enough to work on a guitar that played at Woodstock – Henry McCullough’s – while I also restored James Plunkett’s violin which is now in a museum in Tipperary.
“I’ve also restored the late Arty McGlynn’s guitar that he used in his first few albums while Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh’s fiddle was damaged in a bad accident – there was a big restoration job done on that,” he recalled.
After building and restoring numerous instruments over the past thirty years, Fitz hasn’t determined which part of the process he enjoys more – designing or producing – during a period of work that can be spread over several months.
“Some instruments may not be that old altogether but the musician has an emotional attachment to it. Whenever they call into the workshop I might spend a day chatting to them. It’s always lovely to work on some of the nicer instruments,” he said.
He name checks the Martin Guitar as being one of the best acoustic guitars in the world alongside the Gibson and Fender electric guitars but he believes that a Northern Ireland manufacturer is up there with the very best.
“George Lowden’s workmanship probably surpasses a lot of well established guitar makers in the world,” he said.
Local musician Ted Ponsonby, whose specialities include acoustic and electric guitars, and the Dobro resonator, is another client while Fitz worked on one of Clannad’s guitars before their recent world tour which was cut short due to Covid.
“Walking the dog is my passion during the day and I’ll come into the workshop as I feel like it. Listening to music is also a passion. I love Seamus Maguire’s work with the West Ocean String Quartet (he too is a client) while I also like Marc Black’s new CD,” he said.
While clients are willing to pay extra for a custom built, signature sound, Fitz insists that he is not about to become Ireland’s next millionaire.
“I remember building one guitar back in the nineties over the same period of time that Brendan Gildea (building contractor) built thirteen houses behind my house. That puts it into perspective.
“There’s no great monetary value to some of the instruments but there’s always an emotional attachment that’s hard to describe. Sometimes they would prefer to be leaving off their wife with me rather than their instrument,” he laughed.
“Sometimes, it may be an instrument that was owned by a grand father or a late uncle and it’s been up in the attic or thrown to one side and they want to know if I can bring it back to life again.
“Work on Mairead’s fiddle took about twelve months while James Plunkett’s took maybe eighteen months. It’s a real labour of love,” he said.
Fitz and his wife Maria have four sons. David and Peter are both music teachers in Manchester, Jeremy is General Manager of the Regional Cultural Centre in Letterkenny while Jamie works in Optum. Both Jeremy and Jamie also build guitars.
Meanwhile, bouzouki players Nikos Petsakos (Greece) and Martin Coyle (Ireland) will be performing a short concert at Fitz Howard’s Instrument Workshop on Friday 31st July, 8pm.
It will be premiering on the Regional Cultural Centre Facebook, YouTube and Instagram pages.