Baron George Minne: Outstanding musician, gifted teacher and true gentleman
BARON George Minne was organist and choir master at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Armagh from 1959 until his retirement in 2005.
He was the last of a select group of Belgian and German musicians who were encouraged during the early to mid-20th century by Irish archbishops to come to Ireland to revitalise, lead and perform sacred music in the country’s Catholic churches and cathedrals.
Recently graduated with first prizes in organ and piano from the Ghent Royal Conservatoire, George arrived in Ireland in 1952. His first post was in the parish of St Senan in Roscrea.
He brought with him a deep appreciation from his family upbringing of art, music and beauty – his grandfather, also George, was an internationally renowned sculptor, given the hereditary title Baron of St Martens Latem by royal order in the early 1930s.
George moved to a new appointment in the parish of Kilrush in 1956 where one of his first tasks was to give a recital on the new organ at St Cronan’s Church.
It was said that the people of Kilrush were transfixed upon hearing for the first time Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor.
He said he felt deeply honoured and privileged to be appointed organist and choral director to Armagh Cathedral, the seat of the church in Ireland.
Archbishop Eamon Martin, who celebrated requiem Mass for George, saw it differently.
“In truth, the privilege and honour was all ours. He was not only an outstanding musician, but also a gifted teacher and a true gentleman who, together with his wife Jeannie and his lovely family, were to bring such joy, inspiration and beauty to this parish and cathedral.
"In the ensuing decades, five cardinals came and went; but George’s music, always suitable for its time, continued to grace occasions of both joy and sadness,” the Archbishop told the congregation.
An organ scholar with exceptional technical skills, George’s love for music began as a teenage accordionist when he was also cycling around Nazi-occupied Ghent delivering messages to members of the resistance.
He then started learning the piano and organ and embarked on his studies and learned from the masters. One of his proudest memories is turning the pages for the legendary French composer and organist Francis Poulenc during many of his recitals.
He was a distinguished academic and his knowledge of music from ancient origins to the 21st century was encyclopaedic. He loved the graceful austerity of Gregorian chant, the later sacred music of the renaissance and the works of Bach, and he taught the choir the complex choral works of Palestrina, Josquin, Tallis and many others madrigals as well as the works of Sean O Riada and Irish traditional songs and hymns.
He developed a new tradition of organ and choir music through a disciplined regime of regular rehearsals. The choir soon became acknowledged as one of the best in Ireland.
He and his Church of Ireland counterpart, Martin White, became close friends and occasionally stood in for each other. Martin played the opening and closing pieces at George’s requiem Mass.
George was able to spot gifts and talents in others and taught music to possibly thousands of pupils over more than 60 years.
In his teaching in St Catherine’s and St Patrick’s Colleges in Armagh and in the rehearsal room he influenced the lives of many young people and adults and gave them a love for music.
Musician Barry Devlin maintains that his band, Horslips, might never have happened had it not been for the music he learned from George.
His infectious enthusiasm gave many the confidence they needed to overcome their nervousness to sing and play. One of his pupils recently said: “You always walked away from him with a smile and an extra skip in your step as he always complimented you a thousand times. Such a kind generous, talented big-hearted man."
George travelled around in his little red Citroen 2CV to give recitals on new and old instruments long after his retirement. His early recitals were often broadcast on Radio Eireann and along with some of the other greats of his time, he introduced the people of Ireland to the finest of musical repertoire.
His recitals from St Teresa’s Church in Dublin’s Clarendon Street and in Ballywalter during Lord Dunleith’s Music in May organ festival in the 1970s are recognised as typical of his versatility and inspiring playing.
Archbishop Martin agreed to fund the recent reinstallation of the Kenneth Jones chamber organ in the cathedral’s transept. “I asked George if he would like to play it and he looked at me as if to say, 'Do I what?!' And at the age of 93 he jumped on to the organ seat, posture perfect, and played as if he was 50 years younger!”
He recorded a double CD on the great organ in 2000 to mark the millennium. Tracks from the collection are regular played on radio stations including BBC Radio 3.
George was also a renowned carillonneur and loved to climb the 105 steps to the cathedral bell tower where among the hymns he would play the Bard of Armagh, My Lagan Love, the Derry Air and other popular tunes. His last trip up those steps was to play the bells (completely isolated) for Easter 2020.
His contribution to music was recognised by Pope John Paul II with the award of the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice medal in 2004, but his legacy will continue to be quietly acknowledged and celebrated in the stories and memories of countless people in Armagh and throughout Ireland whose lives he touched for the better.
Baron George Minne died aged 96 on October 23. He is survived by his sister Therese, wife Jeannie, sons Joris and Patrick, daughters Carine and Sheelagh and grandchildren Carlo, Charlotte, Clare, Joel and Ruairi.