The Times We Lived In: Bellringers ding-dong merrily on high

Published: December 30th, 1988. Photograph by Jack McManus

Much has changed in Dublin in recent years: but not everything. The bells of St Patrick’s Cathedral have been ringing for 800 years, contributing some merry musical notes to a city soundscape which is now almost totally dominated by ding-dongs of a less harmonious variety.

In December 1988, Lorna Siggins climbed the 70-odd steps of the cathedral’s west tower to meet the secretary of the St Patrick’s Society of Amateur Change-Ringers, and to watch “the last ringing peal in Ireland at work”.

The article pings and jingles with jolly campanology-related facts. There are 14 bells in the cathedral’s belfry. The oldest two date from 1670; a further dozen were presented by the Earl of Iveagh in 1897. The heaviest weighs 2¼ tons, the lightest a quarter of a ton.

The photograph, by contrast, is enigmatic and strange. In fact, if you wanted to set up a picture that conveys the notion of a ritual that is about to go horribly wrong, this is how you might go about it.

Capture the solemn expressions of the bellringers. Emphasise the presence of all those sinister-looking ropes, and the darkness of the tower. And what on earth is that – gulp – black bell doing on the floor in the centre of the circle?

Teamwork

Oh, look, I've probably been watching too many episodes of Midsomer Murders. In real life, the article reveals bellringers to be a cheerful, ecumenical and not at all ritualistic bunch. And the art itself isn't terribly arcane or difficult – apparently, it's all about teamwork and a good sense of rhythm.

But there is that historical dimension too; helping to keep a tradition alive. It seems that the bell-tower churches of Ireland – of which there are quite a few, with several in Dublin city centre and one in Dundrum, as well as Cork, Kilkenny and elsewhere around the country – are keen to encourage new ringers to get involved. If it, ahem, chimes with you as a potential new activity for the new year, check it out on bellringingireland.org.

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