One memory is clearer than all the others from Jim Bohan's childhood in Leitrim, Ireland: watching his cousin build a violin. Bohan, now 88, was 7 years old at the time.
"It put a stamp in the side of my head and I could never get rid of it," he says, "I kept thinking about it."
Bohan came to New Haven in 1949 and quickly met up with a violin player he had known in Ireland named Jim McGuinness. They were roommates, and Bohan joined the New Haven Gaelic Football & Hurling Club, which McGuinness co-founded. "He was 10 years older than me and he was like my boss," says Bohan.
Sometime around 1970, Bohan told McGuinness he was going to build a violin. He says his friend shot back: "How the hell would you build a violin?" Bohan reflects, "That was the challenge right there."
He went to a music shop that was located on State Street at the time. The man at the store almost refused to give him the wood for instrument. Bohan recalls the man's skepticism, "'You're going to build a violin for the first time. You think you'll be able to do that? Do you play one?'"
Bohan replied, "The worst thing I can do is fail. This cost me a few bucks. So what?" Perhaps the idea wasn't too far fetched. Bohan worked in the nuclear field, but he came from a carpenter family. A lot of his handiwork can still be seen at the Irish American Community Center in East Haven, including large beams that hold up the ceiling. Nonetheless, the consensus seemed to be that a violin was just too specialized.
"I thought it was kind of impossible," says Mary Bohan, who had married Jim a couple of years before, "but the impossible proved me wrong. When I'd seen two pieces of wood coming in a block and it turned out to be a violin, it was amazing."
It wasn't quick though. Bohan worked on the violin for several years, ultimately finishing it in his current home in Old Saybrook. He says he consulted a book for the measurements — which, if off by 5 thousandths of a inch, could ruin the sound — but his main guide was the memory of what he had seen his cousin do in the 1930s.
In part, the work on the violin was slow because Bohan took on another project midway through. He finished his basement in Old Saybrook himself, including beautiful handmade cabinets. "I'm the kind of guy that I don't hire anyone to do anything," he says. "I figure it out and do it." He takes a wearier tone when talking about the unforgiving material of the violin. "Scooping out that curly maple," he says, shaking his head, "it's hard stuff."
When the violin was done, Bohan took it back to New Haven to show it off. He says the shopkeep remembered him and "couldn't believe it." McGuinness, who has since died, played the instrument and told him, "Not only did you do it. It's a great violin."
Since then, Bohan has made three more violins, all of which he still has, as well as an acoustic guitar and bass which he gave to his daughter. He says he's fixed dozens of violins over the years for anyone who asked. He never charged — the sense of accomplishment was enough. He's taught violin making workshops at the Connecticut Irish Festival and Old Saybrook High School.
Recently, a friend of the Bohans found three old violins in her sister's house when she died. She gave them to Bohan, and he plans to repair them and donate them for children to use when finished. He'll do the work where he did the others: at a work bench in his garage, a couple of feet in front of where he parks his car, surrounded by dozens of tiny, specialized tools.
Just as McGuinness' doubt fired him up before, Bohan's wife offers a challenge this time to motivate him. "I'm not sure if his hands are nimble enough," says Mary Bohan. "He might surprise me though.''