Organ Building in Northern Ireland

Andrea Rea peeps at NI's pipes and finds the 'King of Instruments' in good health

Headphone Icon LISTEN to Andrea Rea speaking with David McElderry of the Wells-Kennedy parnership as part of the CultureNorthernIreland podcast.



Northern Ireland is a musical place and also one where the Church is important to many people.

It isn’t surprising then, that the most musical part of a church, its organ, also matters very much to a dedicated number who play, sing in a choir or just enjoy organ music.

While the numbers of churches that have working pipe organs has dropped over time, there are still over 600 fully functioning organs right across the country.

Most are in churches, with notable exceptions like the large organ in the Ulster Hall and the newly-installed one in the Great Hall at Queen's University, Belfast, which came from Christ Church in College Square North.

Historically, organs are the backbone and heart of music in worship, but changes in religious practice and sheer force of economics have put pressure on congregations to economise and consider other options for their music making.

Often it is considered to be more economical to replace a pipe organ with electronic one, rather than undertake expensive repairs and restoration, even though there are organs in NI that are over 100 years old and still playable.

One argument is that an electronic organ doesn’t require the maintenance of a pipe organ.

Pipe organ enthusiasts will say that this is a false economy; that it is impossible to replace the sound of a real pipe organ with the electronic version.

One analogy would be using artificial flowers on special occasions instead of real ones. To this end, the Pipe Organ Preservation Trust was founded to promote the preservation and building of pipe organs in the UK.

The Trust awards grants to help fund the rescue of endangered pipe organs, as well as rehousing, restoration or replacement of these instruments. There’s a registered office of the Trust in Belfast.

Not surprisingly, there are also a number of businesses in NI involved in the work of preserving and repairing existing instruments, as well as building new ones. The largest and most active of these is the Wells-Kennedy Partnership in Lisburn.

Wells-Kennedy was established in 1966 by Christopher Gordon-Wells and Philip Kennedy, after the withdrawal from NI of an English organ building firm.

The two Directors of the company are both hands-on craftsmen and designers, and the firm employs an additional nine members of staff including four organ builders, a pipe maker, three assistants and an administrator.

The firm prides itself on a close-knit family atmosphere among the workers, most of whom have been trained within Wells-Kennedy itself, in much the same way as the old apprentice system.

The company’s operations began in the garage of Christopher Gordon-Wells’ house, but have moved several times and are now located at 83-87 Gregg Street in Lisburn, incorporating a former terraced house, bakery and stables. 

The buildings have been gradually expanded and renovated to accommodate a number of work spaces, including rooms for administration, keyboard making, pipe voicing and storage and a 26-foot-high building shop.

There’s also a metal shop which undertakes the making and repair of pipes for Wells-Kennedy’s own projects as well as work from elsewhere.

In the course of its work the firm has refurbished over 200 existing organs, has built more than 40 new instruments and currently looks after tuning and maintenance of over 300 others.

With every project, there are different parts of the inner workings of organs at various stages of completion.

Because pipe organs are large and complex instruments, many different skills are required in their construction, including joinery, fine carpentry, electrical, metal and mechanical work, and French polishing.

In one workshop, individual pipes are tuned and ‘voiced’, a process that involves carving the metal of the lip of the pipe and giving it the desired character of sound.

Other pipes are made of wood, while some are conical and incorporate a reed into the mechanism to give a trumpet or oboe sound.

Each group or ‘rank’ of pipes has a different quality of sound, and there can be several thousand pipes in one organ.

Recent projects undertaken by Wells-Kennedy include a rebuild of a very large organ in St Columb’s Cathedral in Derry and major work on the organ of Burnside Presbyterian Church in Portstewart.

There’s always a great sense of occasion when a new organ is dedicated or a refurbished instrument has its first outing.

The pipe organ is often called the King of Instruments. Its origins reach right back into the history of musical sound, back to when the first person blew across a bit of pipe or reed and made a noise.

Before symphony orchestras, there were organs. Many organists feel that playing the organ is the nearest you can come to being a symphony orchestra.

At Wells-Kennedy, they take a more practical view. It is a business, after all. But the passion for pipes that lies behind the business is what keeps the work going, and ultimately, the music playing.