The Organs and Organists of the Cathedral Church of Saint Patrick, Armagh, 1482-1998

Book launched in the Robinson Library, Armagh, Saturday 19 June 1999

Armagh Book A history to mark the completion of the rebuilding of the organ and to record over 500 years of the existence of such an instrument in this ancient cathedral.

The book traces the history of the various instruments used in the cathedral and associated buildings from the earliest records in the 15th Century to the present day. Short biographies of the 21 organists who have held this prestigious post since 1634 are included. Also included are many of the other colourful characters associated with the cathedral and these help to give an insight into the day to day running of the foundation which St Patrick himself founded in AD 445.

The author, Alistair Giffin McCartney, was born in Belfast on 1st January 1973. He was educated at Campbell College, Belfast and later obtained a degree from Queen's University, Belfast in Chemistry and Computer Science. His early musical interests have led to a strong association with the choir and organ of St Mark's Church Dundela. Currently working in organbuilding, he is actively involved in researching the history of the organ, in particular, on the island of Ireland.

FOREWORD - The Most Reverend Dr R H A Eames, Archbishop of Armagh, Primate of All Ireland

St Patrick's Cathedral, Armagh, holds a very special place in the history and affection of all in the Church of Ireland. Its long life of witness and worship has been an inspiration to generations of worshippers and to the wider community. That witness and worship has involved all that is best in our liturgy. Each day worship of Almighty God is offered within the Cathedral and visitors from all over the world as well as members of the local congregation appreciate the quality of worship offered.

This book draws our attention to the long list of organists and choirmasters who have been an integral and vital part of our witness. Their contribution has played an important role in all that St Patrick's Cathedral stands for. We are rightly proud and thankful for that service.

I gladly commend this book as a most valuable contribution to the knowledge and history of St Patrick's Cathedral.

+ Robert Armagh

FOREWORD - The Very Reverend H Cassidy, Dean of Armagh

The recent rebuild and restoration of the organ in St Patrick's Cathedral has provided a unique opportunity to delve into the archives and to trace the history of the Cathedral's rich tradition of church music. We are indeed grateful to Alistair McCartney whose painstaking research has resulted in the production of this most interesting and informative survey of the Cathedral organ and its story. Beginning with the earliest reference to an organ in the Cathedral in 1482 we can in these pages glimpse something of the development and changes that took place over the past six centuries as well as gaining an insight into the many colourful personalities associated with the Cathedral's life and witness.

The inclusion of notes about the organists of Armagh Cathedral since the Charter of Charles I constituting the College of Vicars Choral adds a valuable postscript to the survey. It is my earnest hope that the story of the restored organ in Armagh will help the reader to appreciate the central place of music in promoting the Cathedral's primary purpose - the worship of Almighty God.

H Cassidy


A short account follows highlighting some of the interesting points contained in the book.

St Patrick's Cathedral stands on the site where, in 445 St Patrick is believed to have erected a church. The cathedral was successively pillaged and burned on many occasions for the next 1200 years. The present building dates mainly from the 1834-40 restoration but it incorporates much of the enlarged 1268 cathedral.

Music has played a significant part in the history of the cathedral, possibly since its foundation. By 10th century, or perhaps as early as the 8th, a body of singers or secular clergy who performed the musical parts of the services in the cathedral - known as the Culdees. The dissolution of the religious houses in Ireland in 1541 resulted in the Armagh Culdees being broken up, but the choral foundation was re-established almost 100 years later by Charters from King Charles establishing a College or Corporation of Vicars Choral and Organist, consisting eight Vicars Choral and an Organist - this forms the basis of the present choir.

Armagh seems to have been one of the earliest places in Ireland to have had an organ. There appears to have been at least seven different organs since 1482, some surviving only a few years and others very much longer. The instrument which was installed in 1840, has survived the longest, although by now it has been enlarged to three times its original size.

The first organ built by John Lawless of Kilkenny in 1482 probably lasted at least until 1566 when the City of Armagh including the cathedral was burned. The second organ was built around time of 1634 Royal Charter and was probably destroyed in the Civil War of 1641-42, when the cathedral was burned. It cannot have been in use for more than eight years at the time of its destruction.

The third organ was built in time of Archbishop Margetson (1663-1678) and remained until the Williamite War in 1688 when the Protestants garrisoned the cathedral. They demolished the organ, destroyed the pews, and spared nothing but the font. This instrument had a life-span of between ten and twenty-five years.

The fourth organ was probably installed by 1711 when William Toole was appointed organist and an additional fifth organ was added by Archbishop Lindsay about 1721 and is said to have been a "Father Smith".

Archbishop Robinson, came to Armagh in 1765 and immediately re-instated the boys' section, repaired the building and purchased a new organ built by John Snetzler of London. At this time the cathedral was divided into 2 parts with the Snetzler organ in the nave and the old organ in the quire. The renovation of the cathedral building during 1834-1840 necessitated removal of the Snetzler organ which was dismantled and placed over the Palace stables for safe keeping. In 1842 J W Walker & Sons of London installed it in the Tontine Rooms in English Street for the Armagh Musical Society. It was eventually sold to Donegall Square Methodist Church, Belfast, in 1849 and installed with "latest improvements" by J W Walker & Sons, at a cost of 70. the official opening in the Donegall Square Church was on Sunday 2 September 1849 and that evening a fire in the building destroyed the organ and the roof.

The Music Hall of the cathedral possibly had the old organ of c.1711 or 1721 were installed for choir practices and concerts. In 1919 it was moved across the road to Church House (Synod Hall) but has now since disappeared.

The seventh organ which is the basis of the present instrument was built by J W Walker & Sons in 1840. There were 21 stops, 1302 pipes and G compasses. It stood on a screen of Bath Stone in south transept, divided in two identical cases on the gallery. The console was probably placed centrally between the two cases. It was moved in 1854 to the north transept where the organist's communication with the choir was by Speaking Tubes. It is amazing that after only fourteen years use, the 3 keyboards were recovered with "new thick Ivory - the former being worn nearly through." The pedal-board was also replaced. Evidently this organ must have received astronomical usage.

Walker's carried out rebuilds in 1870, 1876 & 1899, each time enlarging the organ with extra stops including 32' pedal pipes. The console was moved to floor level and converted to the modern C compass.

Evans & Barr of Belfast rebuilt the organ in 1928, added over 12 new stops including a Tuba and replaced the old mechanical tracker mechanism with electro-pneumatic action. By now the organ contained most of the fashionable ideas in organbuilding at that time.

Walkers again carried out rebuilds in 1954 and 1970 including a new detached console and new electrical system. Later Martin White the present organist himself installed 2 stops and carried out some repairs. But the organ was beginning to show signs of deterioration in the main mechanism. Despite essential repairs carried out in 1989 a major rebuild was required which was finally undertaken in 1996-7 by Wells-Kennedy Partnership Ltd of Lisburn, costing 131,000 + VAT.

Prior to this rebuild the layout of the interior of the organ was found to be a mess of ancillary chests, the main soundboards were at a lower level than the front pipes and the historic organ cases of 1840 had in essence sunk into oblivion in the dark depths of the organ chamber.

Wells-Kennedy moved the historic cases to under the arches on the north and south sides of the crossing, added 3 new bar and slider soundboards and raised the level of the Swell, Great and Choir Organs by approximately 8 feet. A completely new building frame was supplied and solid state switching added incorporating a new digital multilevel combination capture system with sequencer. The romantic character of the sound was retained but specific pipework was added to provide balance in accordance with modern day organ design. This pipework included new Great Mixtures, Trumpet, Swell Sesquialtera, Choir Principal, Nazard, Gemshorn, Tierce and Quint. The Tuba was moved to the south side case from where its sound is able to project well into the building. A wooden Pedal Contra Trombone 32' was added and is the first such stop to be installed in the whole of Ireland.

The organ was dedicated on Advent Sunday 1996 by Archbishop Eames and now has 56 speaking stops, 14 couplers, 2 tremulants, Cimbelstern and 3371 pipes. It is now the seventh largest in the whole of Ireland.


Of the 21 organists who have held this office since 1634, many have had links with St Patrick's & Christ Church Cathedrals in Dublin.

One of the most notable was John Clarke (later Clarke-Whitfeld) who was organist in Armagh from 1794-1797 and later moved to hold a similar post at St John's and Trinity Colleges Cambridge & Hereford Cathedral.

Frederick William Horncastle (1816-1822) holds the unique fame of having been dismissed from office of organist "on account of the turbulence, contention, insolence and contumacy"

Robert Turle (1822-1872) was the younger brother of James Turle (later organist of Westminster Abbey) and was responsible for the training and musical education of several very distinguished composers, singers and instrumentalists. There is a memorial in the cathedral to his 50 years work as organist of Armagh.

The book is in A5 paperback format, 112 pages with many illustrations and costs 7 sterling.
It is published by:

Friends of the Cathedral
St Patrick's Church of Ireland Cathedral
c/o The Public Library
Abbey Street
Armagh BT61 7DY
Northern Ireland

Telephone: (+44) 028 3752 3142

Postage and packing costs are :
UK 1st class1.50
UK 2nd class1.30

Return to Home Page