Going, going, dong: why bell tolls for traditional Angelus
RTÉ insists its new-look Angelus is for the masses, but not everyone agrees.
Speaking this week at the unveiling of RTÉ's new-look 6pm TV Angelus, Montrose executive Roger Childs quipped cheerfully "the chimes they are not a changing". The 18 traditional dongs will remain, but the visuals will chop and change to showcase the works of film-makers and other creative activities as diverse as bookbinding and topiary. Retitled 'The People's Angelus', the Friday slot will feature clips submitted by members of the public.
The Angelus in its traditional form celebrates God becoming flesh when Christ was conceived by the Virgin Mary. The angel of the title is Gabriel, who told Mary she was the chosen one. Around 1,000 years ago, the actual prayer grew out of the existing monastic custom of saying three Hail Marys as the evening bells pealed. The bells were put to other uses too. In medieval times they rang out to ward off the attacks of evil spirits, storms, and especially, hail, which could devastate crops in the fields in a grim period when the loss of a crop could condemn a population to harrowing famine and death.
The early reaction to this week's latest Montrose makeover from Ireland's religious communities has been overwhelmingly positive, as it was in 2009 when RTÉ first aired footage of a street artist sketching praying hands on a Dublin pavement. There was little opposition from the churches in 2012 either, when the station broke with its history of muting the bells on Good Friday. On those occasions, as again this week, by far the loudest dissent came from those who argue that the national broadcaster had no business merely tweaking with a presence that should be entirely banished from the public airwaves.
Leading that dissent was the campaigning group Atheist Ireland, whose chairman Michael Nugent maintains: "RTÉ think they're doing good in making this change but in fact they're making things worse. At least the old Angelus had the merit of being what it said it was, whereas now they're suggesting that everyone should pause to reflect on their lives under a Catholic call to prayer. What RTÉ should do is have a genuinely neutral pause for reflection that everybody can unite under rather than this hybrid.
"It's not the role of RTÉ, which is a public service broadcaster, to take a Catholic call to prayer and turn it into something else. This isn't a question of offence, this is a question of respect, and a lack of respect. What we want is for RTÉ to treat everyone equally.
"I think a pause for reflection is quite a nice idea and there's many things you could do. You could have a minute devoted to philosophers from different ages and backgrounds, or devoted to different groups who've worked to benefit society, or of music by an artist such as Turlough O'Carolan. There's a whole load of things you could do that would be genuinely inclusive."
RTÉ's standard response this week remains the same as it was in 2012 and 2009, and for that matter every time the issue has been raised over the decades. The Montrose mantra has always been that the Angelus provides a moment of welcome reflection for those of all faiths and none, and who'd want to argue with that? Or, as Senator Labhras O'Murchu put it more robustly in the Seanad in 2008 referring to the anti-Angelus lobby: "Those who start such debates within the media either have an agenda or want to create a controversy."
This echoed the view of the TD who railed in the Dáil in 1975 against a letter-writing campaign in the newspapers "from people expressing views against the admirable practice of playing the Angelus on both radio and television". Again the deputy's argument was that even unasked-for exposure "cannot do any harm" to anybody.
By that point, 1975, the debate had moved on a good deal from the early days of the Angelus on air. In 1953, three years after the bells first rang on radio, Cork Labour TD Daniel Desmond berated Radio Éireann for paying mere "lip service" to its spiritual obligations, urging: "Are we prepared, as a Christian and Catholic nation, to go the whole way and have the rosary said over the radio in addition to hearing the bells of the Angelus?"
RTÉ first broadcast the Angelus bells on the Feast Of The Assumption 1950, a year designated Holy by the Vatican. As Holy Year neared, the Department of Post & Telegraphs decided the national broadcaster should chime in with a contribution to the commemorations. The original proposal was to play a recital of the Angelus prayer but the boss of Radio Éireann didn't like the spoken word idea. After negotiations between the department, Radio Éireann and Dublin's Archbishop McQuaid, it was decided to 'experiment' with the Angelus bell unaccompanied.
As was his custom, Archbishop McQuaid took control. The simplest approach was to use a gramophone record for the broadcast of the Angelus, eliminating background noise and ensuring punctuality. Instead, the archbishop wanted real bells. The only electronically triggered bell that could guarantee good timing was installed in a Franciscan church on Merchant's Quay on the banks of the Liffey. However, McQuaid had no dominion over the Franciscan Order, so he insisted that his own Pro-Cathedral bell be automated. The conversion work meant the original start date of New Year's Day 1950 was missed by months. When launch day finally arrived at the end of March, Church and State came together to celebrate.
The reaction on social media this week to RTÉ's decision to tweak its Angelus rather than axe it, suggests that across an increasingly secular Irish society the twice-daily time-out is tolerated and even embraced as part of what we are. And not just of us.
Although not neutral on the issue, Sally McEllistrim of World Missions Ireland (WMI) would probably reflect the sentiment of many non-believers when she recalls: "Walking through the centre of Seoul this year on a WMI trip I heard the bells chime at 6pm. I turned to one of our group and he said 'yes, they peal out every evening'. It was lovely and surreal and emotional to hear it chiming amongst the teeming streets and the huge skyscrapers!"
She reflects: "The Angelus has been an intrinsic part of the Irish landscape, long, long before RTÉ began to transmit it. Its meaning, a call to pause and play, is absolutely beautiful and that is the important thing."