A SUNDAY stroll around Cobh is often set against the backdrop of St Colman’s Cathedral as it blasts out an array of religious, folk, and classical tunes across the town and harbour.
You could be forgiven for thinking that what you’re hearing is automated. This is not so.
The sounds which emanate from St Colman’s steeples are that of a rather rare musical instrument called a carillon. Cobh Cathedral houses one of the only two such instruments on the island of Ireland; the other being in St Patrick’s Cathedral in Armagh.
A carillon is a musical instrument similar to an organ in appearance, but its keys are linked to clappers. They ring the inside of the Cathedrals forty-nine bells: each one playing its own unique note.
Carillon playing has roots in Belgium and the instrument’s arrival to St Colman’s during World War I is a whole story unto itself. It involves a local priest returning from mainland Europe who exclaimed that the one thing missing from St Colman’s Cathedral upon completion of its construction was a carillon.
The bells were fully installed by 1916 but they more or less lay idle until Staf Gebruers arrived in Cobh from Belgium in 1924. He was the Cathedral’s first official Carillonneur and remained so until his death in 1970 at which point his son Adrian took his place. Adrian is still the main carillonneur and the Gebruers are still rooted in Cobh and their connection to St Colman’s is as strong as ever.
Now, 17-year-old Ella Gebruers, great-granddaughter to the town’s original carillonneur is set to carry the torch and maintain the tradition at the East Cork Cathedral.
Ella has been playing the instrument since age nine and has joined her grandad during many a Sunday recital. Last Sunday, however, was her first recital where she played a number of tunes solo and, by all accounts, she played to a very high and professional standard.
The cathedral’s 94th recital season began in early June. The series of carillon concerts runs annually over the summer months and was begun by her great grandfather. The recital is heard all over Cobh.
So how does Ella feel about keeping the tradition alive at St Colman’s?
“It’s unreal to me that I’m still carrying on the tradition four generations later. I feel really proud to be carrying it on.
“I’m not yet 110% confident and I still get nervous before recitals. Grandad always says ‘practice, practice, practice,’ so it’s good to come down here a lot,” Ella said.
Ms Gebruers has played the piano for many years and uses it to practice her carillon technique.
But a couple of floors below the playing cabin there is a purpose-built practice console. It’s identical to a real carillon, though it is not connected to any bells. Instead, it makes the simulated sound of the carillon with each note played. Only the person playing it can hear it.
This is useful for more reasons than one.
“It is quite nerve wracking knowing that everyone can hear you (during recitals) but it’s very handy to have the console because no one can hear you practice,” Ms Gebruers continued.
Although on occasion Ella can forget she has an audience at all.
“Sometimes my teachers will say they heard me playing over Easter or Christmas or something but because I’m up there on my own, I can forget that people are listening.”
She enters sixth year next September and at the moment is thinking of studying something along the lines of biology. So, should Ella end up studying at a far-flung destination, will she find a playing cabin to play her favorite instrument?
At this point grandad Adrian chimes in to explain how the carillon community internationally is quite small.
“There are not that many of us (carillonneurs) around the world. We all know each other. It’s a rather exclusive club in a way. At the moment the world carillon congress is taking place in Connecticut. It’s all online of course. Most of the people at that congress, most of the people performing on video; I know them, and they know me. So, if Ella ends up in the likes of Sydney or New York, there’ll be carillons there and they will welcome her there, I’m sure. All Carillonneurs are in the same position. They are hoping the next generation will come along and continue playing it,” Adrian said. Ella reiterates that she is only too happy to continue playing the carillon well into the future.
She’s not the only Gebruers carrying on the tradition. Her sister Amy is two years older than her and is also a Carillonneur in the making.
Ella tells me that the family have a strong bond over the unique instrument. It’s an opportunity to speak to her grandad, they climb over 200 stairs together when Adrian gives her lessons and there’s a bit of time on either side of practice. She plays duets with her sister Amy when they play together.
So, at 17, who is Ella listening to in her spare time?
“I listen to a lot of current pop artists like Ariana Grande” she said.
Ella mentioned a few other artists names too but none of them were familiar to an old-timer like me. But if I were a betting man, I’d say among the religious, folk and classical music heard from St Colman’s, soon too will be a bit of current pop.