Ringing in a Holy Year with 'live' Angelus
As the Holy Year of 1950 approached, officials at Radio Eireann (as it was then) were considering ways in which the station could mark the occasion. During the late Forties, the Secretary of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs, Leon O Broin, had discussed the idea of a daily spoken broadcast Angelus with Dr John Charles McQuaid, the Archbishop of Dublin. Charles Kelly, then the Director of Radio Eireann, was also consulted but he was not in favour. After further discussion, they concluded that "the introduction of speech would be a mistake and they should experiment further simply with a bell".
Initially, they considered using a gramophone recording of an Angelus bell; that would be easier to manage and there would be no wind-noise, birdsong, and mechanical noises. There was also the issue of the punctuality of a human bell-ringer. However, despite these setbacks, the decision was made to go ahead and to broadcast a "live" bell.
The task began to find a suitable bell-tower where a microphone could be safely installed. In 1950, only one church in Dublin had an electrically operated bell, the Franciscan Church in Merchant's Quay. The church was inspected by JM Ferguson, the Radio Eireann engineer, but it was quickly made clear that Dr McQuaid wanted the Pro-Cathedral bell to be used.
Leon O Broin told Charles Kelly that the archbishop "is inclined to insist on the relays being taken from the Pro-Cathedral; so we may take our cue from that". Charles Kelly had also listened to the Pro-Cathedral bell and found it had a "nice quality and pitch. The matter has reached the stage where the principle of doing the thing is agreed and how it can be done is one for engineering minds".
Dr McQuaid, who had an interest in horology, had also asked that the first stroke of the bell should be at 6pm precisely. That meant automation and a foolproof clock system. The engineers set to work and a ringing mechanism was discussed and designed. As to the number of strokes of the bell, Archbishop McQuaid had directed that the sequence 3-3-3-9 was the correct format allowing for the recitation of the prayers.
In August 1949 the Irish Press reported that "about next December the sound of the Angelus bell will follow the 6pm time signal from Radio Eireann". On Wednesday May 23, 1950, the minister announced that arrangements were being made to have the Angelus rung over the air each evening at 6pm.
Equipment was installed in the Pro-Cathedral for the operation of the bell automatically. It was controlled by a master clock in the GPO. While the mechanism rang the bell twice daily, only evening peals were broadcast in the beginning. But it is now rung at noon and 6pm.
Delays in delivery of the mechanism meant the January 1950 deadline was not met. It was decided the next most appropriate date was the Feast of the Assumption on August 15. The blessing was attended by Radio Eireann chiefs.
The Angelus was first broadcast on Tuesday, August 15, 1950. It has been broadcast almost every day in the 60 years since then. When television began on January 1, 1962, the "Angelus bell" was played from a tape and was accompanied by old master paintings of the Annunciation.
Periodically the broadcast Angelus becomes the focus of public controversy, but it can claim its place along with the news and the weather forecast as the longest running fixture on RTE.