Tuesday 26 March 2019

For whom the bells toll: ringing in the new and remembering the old

Cartoon 3112
Cartoon 3112
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

In 2017, I want not just to criticise but to admire occasionally. When something is worth appreciation, it ought to be recognised. Let me begin with the Angelus bell, which marks out a handful of quiet moments every day.

In this televisual age, we associate it most with the 6pm televised Angelus on RTÉ One. The one-minute interlude has been screened daily since 1962, and for those of us who grew up in Ireland, it is the soundscape to our lives - what a lot of Angelus bells we've heard rung.

I'd like to propose that the Angelus should be rung just one extra time every year, at midnight on New Year's Eve. That minute, which signals a period of reflection, seems an appropriate way to transition between the old year and the new - far more suitable than tuning in to a telly countdown involving a manic presenter and an excitement-whipped audience.

German laureate Thomas Mann said about our approach to time: "Time has no divisions to mark its divisions, there is never a thunder-storm or blare of trumpets to announce the beginning of a new month or year.

''Even when a new century begins it is only we mortals who ring bells and fire off pistols."

He could have added blaring car horns and party poppers, because there is a human impulse to make noise at midnight on New Year's Eve. But a silent pause is important, too.

I like to see in the new year at midnight by opening the front door and stepping into the street. It strikes me as appropriate to be outdoors to welcome the coming year - an echo of our close connection with the land. And when neighbours do likewise, it acts as a reminder that we are a community. While we like to regard ourselves as individuals, we are part of a group.

The Angelus was recorded at Dublin's Pro-Cathedral, but the bells are not particularly associated with any one clock or bell tower. Instead, they are representative.

Of what? Our common Christian heritage, some may say. And those undeniably are its origins. However, the Christian tradition of ringing bells to remind people to pray is similar to the Islamic practice, while bells feature in celebrations and ceremonies worldwide in various cultures.

For me, bells symbolise the value both of silence - that stillness they cause when they peal - and communication. A bell has a tongue - it speaks to us. We refer to a bell going off in our head when an epiphany or moment of clarity occurs.

Bells have both figurative and practical uses. The sound of bells travels quite a distance: even in noisy urban settings, their peal can be heard above other distractions. Before modern communication methods, and a time when clocks were found everywhere, including on mobile devices, bells told our ancestors the time.

In churches, they announce weddings, funerals and summon the faithful to service. In countries, they celebrate freedom - consider the use of bells to set a tone of joy and gratitude for deliverance from enemies at the close of Tchaikovsky's '1812 Overture'.

They have also been used extensively to sound an alarm. In World War II in Britain, church bells were silenced: they would ring only to warn of invasion.

For a new year countdown, the stately sound of Big Ben's bongs takes some beating. The iconic London bell, which has been chiming the hour since 1859, will fall silent for three years from 2017 as essential repairs are carried out, although it will toll for important occasions such as New Year and Remembrance Day.

Which brings me to an eight-year-old English girl named Phoebe Hanson, who was so horrified at learning Big Ben would be out of action that she wrote to the BBC volunteering herself as a stand-in. She would go on air and make the bong noise at the required times, she said.

How's that for a child's eye view of the world? The imaginative nature of her suggestion - its appealing simplicity - is a reminder of our tendency to over-complicate in the adult world.

A tactful reply from a BBC editor was in no way dismissive, while suggesting the workload might interfere with her lessons and eat into her sleeping time because the bongs are transmitted live. (A microphone is installed inside the clock tower, connected to Broadcasting House.)

As for our own bongs, ringing the Angelus bells at midnight on radio and TV when the old year gives way to the new would offer a prompt to reflection: an opportunity to consider what was achieved in 2016 and what remains outstanding in 2017 and beyond.

After all, this season is a period when many of us take time to remember those we have lost from our family circle during the previous year, and be thankful for those we have gained.

This year I'll be honouring the tradition of setting a spare place at my New Year's Eve dinner table for absent loved ones.

From time to time, some voices are raised saying the Angelus should be discontinued, as part of an admittedly important drive to separate Church and State. However, more people see it as an audible and visual symbol of our shared heritage and common cultural values.

The Angelus is no longer overtly religious. In 2009, RTÉ toned down the Annunciation imagery, and instead broadcasts images of a couple feeding swans, a fisherman at sea in his trawler, and so on.

The "pause for prayer" averages more than 300,000 viewers on RTÉ One - whether they are tuning in deliberately, or waiting for the 'Six One News' is debatable. But that hiatus directs us towards contemplation or meditation.

RTÉ has referred to the Angelus as "a moment of grace and peace"; and while we may quibble that we can take time out to consider grace and peace any time we like without the national broadcaster prompting us, the reality is that usually we wouldn't do so.

Finally, in 'War and Peace' Tolstoy has a character recommend that travellers should sit in quiet deliberation for a short time before embarking on any journey.

What lies ahead of all of us in 2017 is a journey.

What better way to start it than with an Angelus bell?

Irish Independent

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