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Dublin: 7 °C Wednesday 16 October, 2019

'You can pick up a song in a week': Why Irish people love the ukulele

We talked to the founder of the Ukulele Hooley event, Tony Boland.

The ukulele jam at the Ukulele Hooley last year.
The ukulele jam at the Ukulele Hooley last year.
Image: Aoife Byrne

TEN YEARS AGO, Tony Boland wanted to buy himself a ukulele – but there were none to be found

“Up to that stage you couldn’t even buy a ukulele in Ireland,” he recalls. “When I went to buy one I had to buy it online from Hawaii.”

But it was the start of a big love, and Boland went on to set up Ireland’s first ukulele group, in Glasthule, followed by the Ukulele Hooley festival. The ninth festival will take place next weekend.

One person who won’t be heading to the event is the Pope, as the Hooley takes place during the pontiff’s visit. “I’ve no idea why he chose to go into competition with us,” jokes Boland. But that won’t put off the fans who flock to the seaside down for live music and workshops.

He himself was inspired to pick up the instrument after hearing Dave Fanning interview one of the members of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain on the radio.

“That was about 2007, and I’d never heard of them before but when I heard these guys playing I thought it was absolutely fantastic and I couldn’t believe they were getting these sounds out of the ukulele.”

When Boland set up the ukulele club, it was all thanks to the internet that he was able to gather members.

“We found each other and we met here in Dun Laoghaire, and that really began the whole thing about the ukulele in Ireland,” says Boland. “That was August 2008 and here we are 10 years later and I think there isn’t literally a town in the country that doesn’t have a ukulele club for people of all ages that meet once a week. It just spread.”

Arklow Ukulele Players

A social instrument

Boland puts the ukulele’s popularity down to it being “a social instrument as well as a lovely musical instrument”, alongside the fact it is very portable.

“And people can pick it up, play a few chords and get a song in about week,” he says. “But after that then it takes hard graft to get better than that.”

He and the festival co-founders were inspired to set up an international ukulele festival in Ireland after attending a festival dedicated to the instrument in Belgium.

The first one was held in Ireland in 2009, and it became an annual event – Boland says it’s the biggest and longest-running ukulele festival in Europe. “People come from all over the world to it every year,” he says. “One of the greatest things about it is people love getting together to play the ukulele. Last year we had a great ukulele jam in the park and there were over 2,000 ukulele players.”

Boland explains that the ukulele was originally designed in Hawaii, based on a Spanish instrument. It grew in popularity in the late 1800s, and then spread to the US where it took off from 1916.

He credits the popularity of the ukulele also to the proliferation of ukulele lessons on YouTube. Boland has spent most of life in music and TV (he set up Planet Pictures, which produced the Big Breakfast for Channel 4). When he retired, he returned to Ireland. That’s when his love for the ukulele blossomed.

Garda Uke Pic

“I was 65 when I took it up – I had never played an instrument in my life,” he says. “I love it – I collect old vintage ones now.”

“Our group in Dun Laoghaire, there would be people of all ages. I am now 75 but there are people who are coming along of all ages,” adds Boland. “Our first meeting, a guy came down from Belfast who was 15 and his dad had to drive him down. I know a couple of 92-year-old ukulele players.

What it does is it allowed all those middle-aged and elderly people who played guitar in bands and in groups [to play again], they’ve picked up the ukulele now.

He expects an average of 20,000 people to visit the People’s Park in Dun Laoghaire throughout the weekend of the Ukulele Hooley.

The event next weekend will include workshops for new players and players who want to improve their skills, a uke bus busk where players will travel around Dun Laoghaire and play songs, an open mic event, and a big concert on Sunday 26 August at the People’s Park in Dun Laoghaire – featuring seven hours of playing.

This year’s event has a jungle theme, meaning that you can expect to hear a big gang of uke players strumming along to songs like Eye of the Tiger and The Lion Sleeps Tonight.

For more details, visit the Ukulele Hooley website.

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