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

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

St Patrick’s bellringers, December 1988. 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. Photograph: Jack McManus

St Patrick’s bellringers, December 1988. 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. Photograph: 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?

St Patrick’s bellringers, December 1988: Jack McManus’s full photograph
St Patrick’s bellringers, December 1988: Jack McManus’s full photograph

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.

You can buy this photograph and other Irish Times images at irishtimes.com/photosales

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