Learning the ropes of change-ringing


‘DON’T LOOK up! Look straight ahead!” says Martin Hough, who is trying to teach me how to be a change-ringer. I get distracted and look up at the rope as it disappears through the hole in the ceiling and it’s suddenly jerked out of my hands by the force of the bell. Hough looks a bit disappointed.

“Martin is a very good teacher,” I hear someone else say a little later. “He never tells you what you’ve done is good if it’s not good.” “You’re very good Isabella!” Hough says on cue to Isabella O’Donovan, who is nine years old, has to reach the rope by standing on a box and rings with the determined, 1,000-yard stare of an expert. He never tells me I’m good.

I’m at the West Cork Ringing Festival in Abbeystrewry Church in Skibbereen, an event established eight years ago by Oxfordshire-born Diana Pitcher to teach aspiring locals how to ring the six tuned bells that were installed there in 2002. Now, each year, change-ringers from all over Ireland and England arrive to ring the bells of Skibbereen, Rosscarbery and Bandon as they were meant to be rung.

Sitting in the wood-lined ringing chamber, just below the bell chamber and accessible by a recently-installed iron staircase outside, I watch a team of experts. Led by calls from Martin Hough, six ringers, including Diana Pitcher, work closely together to ring the changes on the six bells, their concentrating faces and busy arms belying the melodious sound coming from over their heads. “Three to two!” Hough calls, or “Two to four!” or “Treble to two!”, and they seamlessly change the pattern of the ring.

It’s not a sound Irish people will be hugely familiar with, as most Irish church towers tend to have one mournful bell (some curmudgeons in Skibbereen say they prefer the church’s old bell). There are only 35 towers on the whole island with bells for change-ringing.

“I was a bell ringer in England and I missed it when I moved here,” says Pitcher. “So I twisted arms of people I knew and we did some fundraising and got the bells installed. The whole installation cost around £50,000 punts at the time and I started training people how to ring bells.” Hampshire man Martin Hough was one of the people who helped install them and he was also instrumental in restoring the long-silent bells of St Fachtna’s in Rosscarbery. Soon after, he and his wife moved over to west Cork for good. He and Diana Pitcher are trying to turn the area into a “lost pocket of change-ringing.” Ringing all potential patterns on a set of bells is called ringing “a peal”. It takes about 3½ hours. Hough once rang for nine hours, 47 minutes in Newport on the Isle of Wight. “We were doing it to get the record length of a method called Lincolnshire Royal,” he says.

“Lunatics!” says his wife Jane Johnston, who has been change-ringing since she was 11. “There are a lot of people who want to ring the most towers, or the longest time or the heaviest bell or the quickest ring.” Many, however, seem content to ring quarter peals (this takes about 45 minutes) or memorised patterns called “methods” and they enjoy visiting other towers and bell-ringing communities.

Alistair Jameson has been heavily involved with change-ringing in Hillsborough, Co Down, for 60 years and is here with his wife Daryl on what another bell-ringer jokingly refers to as “a bell tower crawl”.

In Hillsborough, as here in Skibbereen, the bell ringers ring as a call to prayer, but also for special occasions – weddings, births or when a local sports team wins a game. Meanwhile, seasoned ringers also enter competitions run by the Irish Association of Change Ringers. Though the bells sound lovely, Jameson doesn’t consider it to be music.

“Well we can’t play the Czech national anthem,” he says with a laugh, and tells me that when a Czech sports team had stayed locally, Diana Pitcher was asked to play their anthem on the bells.

“It’s a rhythmical thing rather than a musical thing. A good ring will be a rhythmic ring: a nice even ringing of the bells. You know when it’s good. You can feel it. You get into a groove.”

Over the course of the morning bell-ringers come and go. Some head off to Rosscarbery and St Peter’s in Bandon to teach novices there. Others chat in the sun on the steel staircase leading up to the tower.

There’s a lot of discussion of the timbre and quality of different bells and the accessibility of different towers. It’s widely agreed that June Kelly’s home tower in St John’s Lane in Dublin (one of only three Catholic churches in Ireland with resident change-ringers) is the scariest to climb. “Oh it’s fine!” she says. “You just don’t look down!” Niamh Hickey, a Cork-born chemistry PhD student, was completely unaware of change-ringing in west Cork until she took it up in Cardiff where she studies. In her four years ringing she has already rung a few full peals. “You end up with tired hands and numb feet but you can really lose yourself in it,” she says. “There’s a commonly told story about the ringer who was ringing a peal and fell asleep and dreamed he was ringing a peal, only to wake and find he was ringing a peal.”

This is unlikely to happen to me. When I’m called in for another lesson I lose control of the bell once again and it feels like my arms are getting jerked out of their sockets. “If this was a bigger bell it would have pulled you off your feet and across the room,” says Martin Hough. “I’ve seen it happen.” “Bell-ringing is a blood sport,” jokes Tadgh O’Donovan, father of the aforementioned Isabella.

“Ah, I’ve heard some horrendous stories,” says Hough. “But I haven’t seen any serious injuries first-hand. Anyway, away you go,” he says and hands me the rope.

Tradition rings true“

I suppose it all began in the late 1500s and early 1600s,” says Martin Hough, a seasoned ringer and installer of bells. “The gentry would tip the church verger to let them into the tower to see how high they could swing the bells. They didn’t have telly and radio in those days. You made your own entertainment.

“They bet one another they could swing their bells higher than the next person . . . Then they worked out that you didn’t have to ring them in one order, that you could change the order. Hence the name ‘change-ringing’ and hence the expression ‘ringing the changes’. There are 720 different changes you can ring on six bells. An extra bell will give you 5,040 and eight bells will give you 40,320.”

“It’s an English thing really,” says Diana Pitcher, the woman behind the West Cork Ringing Festival. “It started in Anglican churches and there are about 50,000 bell ringers in England. In the whole of the 32 counties there are maybe 300 ringers and there are only 35 towers in Ireland with ringable bells [for change-ringing]. In the county of Devon alone there are 386 towers.”