An Phoblacht 2 - 2022 small

5 March 1998 Edition

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The bells, the bells

By Eoghan Mac Cormaic

There is, apparently, no debate within RTÉ about the Angelus. Neither, it seems, is there any debate within the Church of Ireland about the Angelus. The temptation then, is to leave well enough alone. If RTÉ, premier purveyor of pealing prayer calls, and Archbishop Eames, spokesperson for all the rest of the country who are not normally associated with the Bells, don't want to talk about it, why should we? Yet we should. In a pluralist state the bells should toll for all of us, not just some.

Hands up who remembers Quasimodo, pre Disney, when Charles Laughton crouched and swung around the spire of Notre Dame. `The bells' he told Esmerelda, `the bells have made me deaf'. And it seems they're still deafening some people, or at the very least, dulling their perception that the bells' time is up.

Of course the ringing of the bells isn't sectarian, as such, but the practice hasn't always been immune from politics. I'm not particularly anti-Angelus. In my days as a bell-ringing altar boy I wasn't too fond of the 8.00am toll. On a winter's morning the belfry was a chilly place to ring out the sweet tones announcing the sacred Ave. Cold comfort I can tell you.

The last time the bells were silenced in Derry was during the Troubles in 1922-23, after the setting up of the northern state when sectarian conflict erupted across the north. Local memory has tales of lengthy gun battles being fought in Bishop Street, on the old Carlisle Bridge, around the Fountain and from the Waterside overlooking the Foyle. The bishop of Derry at the time apparently decided to make his contribution to easing tension by ordering that for the duration of the conflict the bells of the Angelus would not be rung.

One morning a local Catholic man, on his way to work, met and passed a neighbour, a B Special coming off duty from the night shift. They greeted each other, and the civilian began descending the steps at Fountain Hill. Shots rang out and he fell, dying. Some local people took him into a doorway in Duke Street and first aid was given, but it was to no avail. He died in the doorway, managing to say before he died, however, that his neighbour had shot him.

The neighbour was charged with murder and duly taken to Belfast to be tried, saying that he wouldn't get a fair trial in Catholic Derry. Evidence was given by a doctor that he had attended a dying man on Duke Street at eight o'clock in the morning. Evidence was given of the dying man's last words accusing the B Special. It seemed a clear cut case but then the B Special offered his defence. He had been going into his house - half a mile from the shooting - at eight o'clock on the dot, he said. He was asked how he could be so sure. ``I could hear the Angelus bells ringing' he replied. Case dismissed.

I think my first memory of the Angelus is probably secular rather than religious, musical rather than clanging.

`No pipe did hum, nor battle drum did sound its loud tattoo

but the Angelus bells o'er the Liffey swell, rang out in the Foggy Dew'.

Now I wouldn't for a minute try to make any actual association between the Angelus bells and the Easter Rising, but in song at least that association will always be there. And if Archbishop Eames really wants to shift the Angelus from the airwaves, maybe he should hum his complaint to the tune of the Foggy Dew. The revisionists in RTÉ wouldn't be long in giving the bells short shift then, I can tell you.

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