Trevor Laffan: Timing is everything for great bell-ringers of Cobh Cathedral

Trevor Laffan: Timing is everything for great bell-ringers of Cobh Cathedral

MAESTRO: Adrian Gebruers (right) at the Cobh Cathedral organ during the World Carillon Federation congress in Cobh in 2002.

I WAS out walking in Cobh last week when I came across a couple on the quayside, leaning on a railing. They were watching a navy ship preparing for departure.

There was lots of activity taking place as the sailors untied ropes, heaved to, raised gang planks and shouted ‘splice the main sail’ and ‘have at ye me hearties’.

I made up that bit, but you get the picture.

They were doing what sailors do to get moving and as I watched the scene unfolding, I wondered if the crew members knew who the spectator was.

The man in question was Adrian Gebruers, and while that name might not mean much to people outside Cobh, many will be familiar with his work.

He is the Carillonneur attached to Cobh Cathedral. For the uninitiated and musically challenged among us, that means he is the guy who plays the tunes on the Cathedral bells.

That’s a simplistic description of what he does, but there’s nothing simple about playing this instrument. It’s nothing like a regular piano.

Adrian hits the keys with the side of his hand almost as if he is trying to give each one a karate chop. He slides from side to side on his chair to reach the various keys, so it’s physically demanding, and before he even starts playing, he has to climb a couple of hundred concrete steps just to reach the instrument.

This is no mean feat for a man no longer in the first flush of youth.

I approached him and I was delighted to see that both he and his wife are in fine fettle. Adrian has made a significant musical contribution to the town of Cobh over the years and that shouldn’t surprise us because his father before him did the same thing.

Staf Gebruers was originally from Antwerp in Belgium. He came from a musical family and by the age of 16 he was already showing promise. He was conducting his own youth choir by then and went on to study at the Antwerp Conservatoire.

In 1922, he was appointed carillonneur of his own parish church and Assistant City Carillonneur of Antwerp Cathedral.

Bishop Robert Browne of Cloyne offered him the position of Carillonneur, Organist and Choirmaster of St Colman’s Cathedral in Cobh, and thankfully, he took up the role in 1924 and held onto that position for more than 40 years.

He was a gifted conductor and was director of numerous choirs, including the Irish Naval Service Choir, the Verolme Cork Dockyard Male Voice Choir, and the Cork City Choral Society.

But it is probably an unlikely piece of music that the majority of the people of Cobh associate him with.

Laurel and Hardy paid a visit to Cobh in 1953. They were coming to the end of their great careers and the famous comic duo was heading to Cobh to begin a tour of Ireland and the UK for one last fling.

On the morning of September 9 that year, the liner SS America dropped anchor in Cork Harbour and Stan and Ollie boarded the tender to come ashore.

It was reported in the Cork Examiner at the time that Stan Laurel gazed in awe at the many thousands of people who had gathered on the quayside to welcome them. They were amazed at the sight of hundreds of boats blowing whistles and fog horns and people screaming. They weren’t expecting it because the trip to Cobh was supposed to be a low-key affair.

As they landed in Cobh, they were blown away when Staf Gebruers began to play the Laurel and Hardy theme tune, the Cuckoo Song, on the Cathedral bells and the sound boomed out across the town.

They were so impressed with the welcome that they insisted on being taken directly to the cathedral to “thank the bell-ringers” for the momentous welcome.

Adrian was only ten years old at the time, but he remembers the day the stars arrived.

“When Ollie went to take my father’s hand to thank him, the accumulated emotion of that whole morning seemed to suddenly spill over the poor man and words failed him. Tears began to roll down his cheeks as he engulfed Dad in his not inconsiderable embrace.” 

Hardy was over 22 stone in weight.

I know how Ollie felt because I was overwhelmed too when I first met the great Staf Gebruers and the memory of that meeting has stayed with me for almost 50 years.

For as long as I can remember, I have been a punctual person. I hate being late for anything, so I always turn up to every appointment long before I need to be there and then hang around until the appropriate time. It’s obsessive and it annoys me but there’s nothing I can do about it.

It makes no difference whether it’s a serious engagement or just meeting someone for a pint, I have to be early.

I have never understood where this hatred of being late originated, but I had a revelation recently that may shed some light on it, and it came to me after that chance encounter with Adrian Gebruers.

Back in the late ’60s when I was a young lad in primary school, we were encouraged to join a junior version of the Cobh Cathedral Choir. I took myself off to the Cathedral one dark, winter’s evening to sign up.

I got my times confused and when I arrived, I came face to face with Staf Gebruers, the choir master. He wasn’t impressed with my timekeeping, and he promptly sent me home.

That has stuck in my mind and I reckon it’s why I’ve never been late for anything since. It’s all down to Staf: The man who played the Cuckoo Song for Laurel and Hardy.

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