Sound of the past - and the future

 

A small Co Cork church has just installed a 17th century replica mechanical pipe organ - the first of its kind in Ireland. The ‘Bugatti of organs’, which took five years to build and cost more than €350,000, is a testament to master craftsmanship and community effort, writes BRIAN O’CONNELL

THE ORGAN builder calls it the “Bugatti of organs”, and yet, peering into the small Anglican church in Crosshaven, you’d almost pass it by without a second look. There, wedged between two stained glass windows, tall but not domineering, stands a carefully crafted replica of what was probably one of the most advanced pieces of human engineering of the pre-enlightened era. While piped organs are still a common feature of many churches, when they begin to expire and join the great ecclesiastical choir in the sky, the majority of parishes plug in and go electric. Not so in Crosshaven, where it just didn’t seem right to replace the old pipe organ with a Yamaha.

Holy Trinity Church has historical form in that it was designed and built by William Burges, also known for the wonderfully gothic St Fin Barre’s Cathedral in Cork city, therefore past sensitivities needed to be respected. When they set about restoring the old church, parishioners engaged one of Europe’s foremost organ builders, Dutch craftsman Henk van Eeken, to build a classically styled mechanical-action pipe organ.

The resulting instrument took nearly five years to make, cost more than €350,000 and required in the region of 6,000 work hours. The finished detail is incredible, from the 678 shining new pipes to the Turkish boxwood keys and castellated features, perfectly fitting in tune with its surroundings.

Organ consultant Mark Duley, who was hired to oversee the project, says the organ is significant on an international level. “Van Eeken is one of the world’s foremost organ builders working with historical construction techniques,” he says. “It’s the first organ of its type in Ireland. The culture here is generally to rebuild older organs and parishes rarely make decisions to build new ones. It is a major addition to the cultural scene in Ireland.”

At Duley’s first meeting with the parish committee in 2006, he put a range of options to them. Much to his surprise and delight, they went with the most ambitious and costly choice. The church’s previous organ dated from the beginning of the 20th century and was in bad shape. “It is very unusual. Normally parishes spend as little as they have to [to restore an existing organ] and then someone has to spend that amount again in a short space of time,” says Duley, “This is a long term option.”

Duley was in Crosshaven recently when the new organ was launched during a dedication service. Secretary of the parish, Nick Musgrave, is clearly proud of the achievements of this little community in Cork, which contains as few as 200 families and yet now boasts one of the most interesting organs in the country. “The commissioning of an organ in the life of a church takes place once in every 150 years,” Musgrave says. “We are the generation I guess who have saddled ourselves with this task and it has been very worthwhile. but I have to say at times it was a monumental undertaking.”

As we speak, another parishioner, Gunnar Karlsson, slides his fingers over the keys and opens out the organ doors to reveal a shining set of pipes. Musgrave begins to work the hand pump that allows for the flow of air through the organ. The sound bellows and seduces, notes whip into crevasses in the church or hang and glide before reluctantly crawling out under the doors.

The new rector, Isobel Jackson, says the organ – a true community project – has already had an impact on singing at Sunday worship. Locals got behind the fundraising effort, with school children sponsoring pipes of the organ for €20 each. Parishioners also took delivery of the organ parts before it was assembled on site and a range of events took place last month to celebrate its arrival.

So what makes this organ so special? Well, if you’ll excuse the phrase, the devil is in the detail. “The best of the organs in Europe were built in the 17th century probably,” says Gunnar Karlsson, “for example, a modern organ builder would use normal tin and lead alloys. The pipes in this organ are cast on sand and there are trace elements of rare metals that would have been found in the pipes of the 17th century. They couldn’t purify it back then but it has been found it was actually beneficial for the sound. The organ builder ordered special lumps of the right alloy from Sweden.”

Jackson adds: “When van Eeken made the sheets for the pipes, they had to sit for one year and then they scraped them away and finally made the pipes by smouldering them together. So it took over a year alone for the pipes to be made. Even the keys on the organ are made out of boxwood, which comes from Turkey and is something like Irish bog oak. The organ builder will tell you the organ came in blocks of wood, blocks of lead and blocks of tin and this is what they have created out of it.”

The organ came from a workshop in Holland where it was prefabricated, disassembled and shipped to Crosshaven. “Parish members unloaded it,” Musgrave says, “and laid it inside the church. It was all done in one week. The container arrived on a Monday afternoon and so did the two Dutchmen who were to assemble it. We all helped them with scaffolding and ladders and they had left on the Saturday morning with the organ complete.”

Plans are afoot to hold part of the Pipeworks Organ Festival in the church next summer. This would see some of the best contemporary international organists trying out the pipes. The project has received support from the Heritage Council and Cork County Council among others.

Given that plans for the new organ were put in place several years ago, when church envelopes were slightly more padded, was it difficult to secure the funding needed for the project? “I think everyone recognised it was a very ambitious project,” says Musgrave, “there was great vision and the timing was very right. In the early 2000s, Ireland was doing very well and there was no tomorrow in that sense. Thankfully we stuck with it and the money was raised with great energy and enthusiasm in the parish and the wider community.”

Indeed, church architect William Burges had little time for economics getting in the way of culture. When writing to the Bishop of Cork in 1877, he made the following observation: “Good art is far too rare and far too precious ever to be cheap.”