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Cobh Carillon Playing

Short summary

The 49-bell Carillon of St Colman’s Cathedral in Cobh, County Cork. This is the only such musical instrument in the Republic of Ireland.

A carillon is played from a console, consisting of a keyboard and a pedalboard, located within the bell tower. Not unlike an organ console, the carillon keyboard consists of round wooden batons corresponding to the black and white keys while the pedals are shorter than those in an organ. Carillon bells are cast bronze and very precisely tuned. They do not swing or move in any way. The bell clappers, which are connected by direct mechanical linkage to the console, move to strike the bells. Hence, this is a percussion instrument which is completely touch responsive to give the carillonneur full capability for every musical expression from a gentle whisper to a thundering fortissimo.


Background information

The carillon originated some 500 years ago in the lowlands of Belgium, The Netherlands and northern France and largely remained confined to that part of mainland Europe until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There are now carillons throughout northern Europe and North America but still very few in the southern hemisphere.

Whereas there is a growing body of music specifically composed for the carillon, other genres of music can be arranged to be played on the instrument, be it folk, classical, religious or modern.

Carillon-playing is not the same as bell ringing with ropes, where one person causes a bell to swing and hence ring in combination with other bells similarly rung.

When originally installed in 1916, the Cobh Carillon was then one of the first carillons in modern times to be accurately tuned, this skill having been lost for some centuries until rediscovered by the English clergyman Canon A. B. Simpson (1828-1900). In addition, the carillon in Cobh is internationally recognised as being one of the finest both from the point of view of the timbre of the bells and its acoustical setting. It has a range of four chromatic octaves and the total weight of the bells is over 26 tons, making it the largest carillon in these islands. Originally cast by the English bell-founders John Taylor & Co. of Loughborough, in 1998 it was restored and modernised by the Dutch bell-founders Royal Eijsbouts, made possible thanks to E.U. funding.

Practice and practitioners

Bishop Robert Browne (1844-1935) of the Diocese of Cloyne was responsible for bringing the instrument to Ireland when he decided to make a carillon the crowning glory of his new cathedral in Cobh. However, it wasn’t until 1924 that he finally succeeded in engaging a carillonneur to play the instrument. Prior to coming to Cobh, Staf Gebruers (1902-1970) had been Assistant Carillonneur of Our Lady’s Cathedral in Antwerp and one of the earliest students of Jef Denyn (1862-1941), the man responsible for the modern revival of interest in the carillon and the founder of the world’s first carillon school. In time, he passed on the knowledge of carillon-playing to his son, Adrian, who subsequently also studied at the Carillon School in Mechelen. In 1998, the then and first Minister for Arts, Michael D. Higgins, was very anxious that what in Ireland, at least, is a minority and at-risk tradition of carillon-playing, be kept alive by passing it on to the next generation. To this end, Adrian Gebruers initiated a programme of carillon studies at U.C.C. The American Ireland Fund generously added their support by presenting a state-of-the-art carillon simulator to the university. This work continues and is now being extended to second level students. All this notwithstanding, the fact remains that in Ireland carillon-playing continues to be very much a minority art form and hence faces an uncertain future and is very much dependent on the up-and-coming younger generation of musicians taking an interest in this form of bell music.

From the outset, the Cathedral authorities have been foremost in supporting the tradition of carillon-playing through the creation of the post of Cathedral Carillonneur and in the ongoing maintenance of the instrument. In 1995, responsibility for the management and promotion of the instrument was passed on to the Cobh Carillon Committee.

In 2018, the annual Cobh Summer Carillon Recital Season celebrated its 91st year. This features not only the Cobh Cathedral Carillonneur but also leading international performers from Europe, North America and Australasia. The Arts Council and the Cork County Council have recognised the cultural importance and significance of this event with their financial support over many years.

Development, transmission and safeguarding

The tradition of carillon-playing in Ireland was established by Staf Gebruers in 1924 and in time passed on to his son, Adrian. In turn, Adrian Gebruers, with the encouragement of Michael D. Higgins, Minister for Arts at the time, initiated a programme of carillon studies at U.C.C. This involves a lecture series on campanology in general and the carillon in particular under the title “Bells Through the Ages” and tuition in carillon playing on the carillon simulator, generously donated to U.C.C. by the American Ireland Fund, and on the actual instrument at St Colman’s Cathedral in Cobh.

End of term practicals in carillon performance take place in Cobh examined by Adrian Gebruers with either the Professor of Music or Head of Department. Two volumes mainly for the use of students edited by Adrian Gebruers have been published as part of the Cobh Carillon Music Series consisting of original carillon compositions by Irish composers – Michael Bowles (1909-1998), David Harold Cox, Aloys Fleischmann (1910-1992), Staf Gebruers (1902-1970) – and carillon arrangements of Irish music. Every opportunity is availed of to promote and explain carillon playing to young and old alike during formal carillon recitals and Cobh Cathedral tours and in the media.

In November 2014, UNESCO added Belgium’s carillon culture to its register of intangible cultural heritage.

Over the years, there have been numerous articles and other references in the print and electronic media to carillon-playing at Cobh. A few of the more recent include –

From Flanders Fields to the Emerald Isle: How the Flemish Carillon Acquired an Irish Voice (Adrian Gebruers) Ireland and Belgium, Past Connections and Continuing Ties (Published by the Embassy of Ireland in Belgium, 2014).

Singing Bronze – A History of Carillon Music (Luc Rombouts) – Published by Lipsius Leuven Belgium, 2014).

St Colman’s Cathedral Cobh – Heritage Churches of County Cork (Published by the Cork County County Council, 2015).

Contact organisation

St Colman’s Cathedral in Cobh,

The website of St Colman’s Carillon – http://www.carilloncobh.com/

FACEBOOK – Cobh Cathedral Carillon @Cobh49bellcarillon


Location Cobh, Co Cork
Categories Performing arts
Social practices, rituals and festive events
Oral traditions and expressions, including language
Keywords Carillon, keyboard, percussion, bells, carillonneur, Belgium, UNESCO
Contact organisation St Colman’s Cathedral in Cobh,
The website of St Colman’s Carillon – http://www.carilloncobh.com/
FACEBOOK – Cobh Cathedral Carillon @Cobh49bellcarillon