THE silence of late at the steeples of Cork’s St Fin Barre’s Cathedral may largely being go unnoticed; just a new normal.
But the sombre silence is apt, as the cathedral’s tower master and lead campanologist, George Roberts, passed away after a short illness last Friday.
Not all ringing out of churches is a scratchy recording being blasted over loudspeakers, and George would be the first to set you straight on that.
He was a campanologist, a bell ringer; one of about 300 across the country. And, like most long-serving campanologists, he loved his craft and enjoyed nothing more than encouraging others to follow suit.
We met last July, when I was working on a project about the craft of circular bell ringing, and George was the go-to guy for campanology insights. This style of ringing is practiced at St Fin Barre’s Cathedral, which is one of only 37 bell towers maintaining this tradition in the Republic of Ireland today.
George’s passion for ringing, and for teaching others to ring, was integral to keeping the craft alive in Cork.
“I’ve been lucky enough to be tower captain here, which means trying to push people in doing new things, pushing beyond the elementary level, which is quite easy to learn,” George said.
“And, on the whole, learning new patterns keeps us challenged.”
Bell ringing attracts people from all backgrounds. “Computer coders like bell ringing because you can use code to write the music,” George said.
“Mathematicians like it because it follows the rules of group theory, and there are people who like it just because of the sound it makes. It doesn’t matter why you like doing it. You can be used in the bell tower at some level to pull a bell rope, make the noise, and keep this going. Every tower in the country needs more recruits.”
George’s journey into bell-ringing began on a Sunday in 1975, when he spotted a friend’s bike set against the cathedral wall.
“I joined the St Finbarr’s scout troops when I was 11 or 12,” George said.
“A few years later, when I was 14, I came up here (to the St Fin Barre’s tower) with some friends on a recruiting tour. One of my friends that day, the current Church of Ireland bishop, Paul Colton, stayed and learned how to ring.
“Two weeks later, I saw his bike outside and I went in. I don’t know why; I just decided, on the spur of the moment, to go and join him, and I’ve been ringing ever since.”
His longtime friend and colleague, Rev Cliff Jeffers, from Skibbereen, remembering George, said: “He had a great sense of humour, great skill as a ringer, and always encouraged you to progress within your ability. He never made anyone feel small. He lightened the practice sessions in such a big way. Such great humour, and he will be a great loss to the ringing community.”
Before the pandemic, the ringers, led by George, rang every Sunday for service and followed it up with a Wednesday-evening practice session.
Fellow campanologist and good friend, Guy St Leger, said: “George was the tower master at various points over the years. He will be a big loss to the tower, but we’ll just have to keep going.
“We learned how to ring at the same time, and have been great friends ever since. He was totally committed to ringing and was very good at it; a very competent ringer. Well able to ring the more advanced methods.
“He could ring anything; patterns that no-one else could ring. He was always trying to encourage new people and tried to show young people the ropes,” Mr St Leger said.
“It is hard to get people to commit, but he was always preaching the gospel of ringing and was a key figure in the St Fin Barre’s tower. He was a great proponent for people who might like to join; people from other walks of life.
“He happily showed people around the tower and cathedral with enthusiasm. He saw it a bit like a sport.”
The day I met George, we spoke about churches that automate their ringing.
I remember him telling me, with a touch of dismay, that from his bedroom window, he could see a set of speakers hang from the wall of a local church for the very purpose of playing recordings of bell sounds.
And I felt that seeing those speakers every day had, in some way, fuelled his drive to keep the real thing going at St Finbarr’s. He was extremely proud of his role as tower captain.
I recall him saying: “We are the external voice of this building. The choir are the internal voice, but they can be only heard over a short distance; using our big tuning forks, which is all a bell is, we can be heard all over the city; everybody comes out of here in a good mood.”
George met his wife, Deirdre, through bell ringing and they had two children, Oliver and Gillian, who are both in their 20s.
His funeral took place today in St Fin Barre’s and it was streamed live through the cathedral’s website.