Thursday 15 November 2018

For whom the bell tolls

Today the Angelus bells fall silent to mark Good Friday. Damien Corless looks back at the history of an Irish institution

The Angelus
The Angelus

Today, Good Friday, and tomorrow, Holy Saturday, the Angelus bells of churches across the land will fall silent.

RTE broke with the tradition of muting the bells only three years ago, arguing that the pause for prayer or reflection belongs to society as a whole rather than a single faith.

But while the bells will be heard on the airwaves, churches will stay silent to mark the period of mourning between Christ's crucifixion and his rising from the dead.

The prayer itself 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 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 worst effects of evil spirits and storms, and especially hail, which could devastate crops in the fields.

In the early days of Irish broadcasting, Good Friday was traditionally observed with a schedule entirely made up of solemn music and prayer. All advertising was banned from the airwaves for the day.

However, there was no Angelus on Radio Eireann for the first 24 years of its existence, and when the idea arrived to ring the bells on the radio, it came from the State, not the church.

This year the Angelus celebrates its 65th birthday on the national broadcaster, with no sign of retirement looming. In fact, along with the news and weather, the Angelus is the only survivor from the opening day of Irish television.

RTE first broadcast the Angelus bells on the Feast Of The Assumption 1950. As the Holy Year of 1950 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 Eireann didn't like the spoken word idea.

After negotiations between the Department, Radio Eireann and Dublin's Archbishop McQuaid, it was decided to 'experiment' with the Angelus bell.

As was his custom, Archbishop McQuaid took over the show. 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 work meant the original start date of New Year's Day 1950 was missed by months. When the first broadcast belatedly went out, virtually every member of Radio Eireann's top brass attended the Church and State joint-venture.

While the Angelus now sounded at a fixed time on the radio, there was no uniformity across rural Ireland for years to come. Up until 1916 Ireland officially ran on Dublin Mean Time (DMT), which was 25 minutes behind GMT, but many townlands ignored DMT in favour of their own local time.

When the London government imposed British Summer Time in 1916 to save daylight for the war effort, much of rural Ireland simply ignored this too. When the Dail debated whether to keep Summer Time shortly after independence, one TD argued that nobody paid any attention to it in the west, adding that it would confuse the cattle in the fields.

The sounding of the Angelus bells became the meat in the sandwich of these disputes that ran into the 60s.

In 1924, as the Dail debated, among other things, the ban on pubs opening on Good Friday, Labour's John Lyons told the chamber: "I was once in the town of Athlone and I heard the Angelus ring there. I then motored to Moate, 10 miles away, and I heard the Angelus ringing there. I then went on a few miles to Tubber and I heard it ring for the third time."

By 1948 little had changed. As the Dail again debated scrapping Summer Time one TD spoke of Westmeath's time zones, saying: "They were fairly advanced people in Mullingar.

"They fell in with the advanced hour. A man happened to be travelling on his bicycle from Mullingar to Moate.

"In Moate they did not put on the hour. He left Mullingar at 12. It was still 12 o'clock when he got to Moate. Then he went on to Ballymore, where they believed in holding on to the 25 minutes (of DMT), and it was still 12 o'clock. He said the Angelus three times - but maybe that was all to the good."

In 1950, Ireland joined the fascist dictatorship of Franco's Spain as one of the only two State broadcasters sounding the call to prayer. Spain has since dropped it from State radio.

A publicly funded Italian station does broadcast the Pope reciting the Angelus every Sunday, while private and church-owned stations air it in Mexico, Germany, Poland, Canada, the US and the Philippines.

Although RTE is regularly criticised for broadcasting what one critic called "a bizarre party political broadcast" for Catholicism, the Angelus is observed by several branches of Protestantism.

The arrival of the commercial station TV3 in 1998 caused some within RTE to call for dropping the 6pm Angelus to prevent the rival teatime news programme getting a 60-second start.

There was no ding-dong debate on the issue - management just said no.

Irish Independent

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