The chimes they are a-changing – Frank McNally on the joys of listening to church bells at night

Chimes are a variation on a theme used by clocks and doorbells the world over

A mixed blessing of living in central Dublin, as I do, is that sleepless nights are often accompanied (if not caused) by the sound of cathedral bells floating on the breeze.

Sometimes, the noise issue aside, this can add an unwanted element of suspense to attempts to regain unconsciousness.

I’ll be lying awake suddenly – no doubt because of a previous set of dings or dongs – when a familiar four-note sequence (in the key of B major), “B, D#, C#, F#”, announces from the direction of Christ Church that is now a quarter past the hour.

Yes, but which hour, my restless mind will ask, even as I tell it to shut up and go back to sleep. Then, 15 minutes later, with sleep still elusive, the bells will return to embellish the theme, this time building it up into an eight-note motif: “B, D#, C#, F#/B, C#, D#, B”.


Now I know it’s half past something, but what? Despite myself, I have been drawn into an unfolding drama. I will be wide awake by the time – another quarter hour later – the bells recapitulate the earlier theme and further develop it into a 12-note tune: “B, D#, C#, F#/B, C#, D#, B/D#, B, C#, F#”.

There is no chance of sleep now until I find out how this plot turns out. I begin to hope that, when the time is finally revealed, it will be late enough – 5am at least, maybe 6 – to get up and make an early start to another day.

So the tension builds, until at the top of the hour, the bells go for broke with the full 16-note fanfare: “B, D#, C#, F#/B, C#, D#, B/D#, B, C#, F#/F#, C#, D#, B”.

Then at last they get to the point via a series of monotone notes (also B, but an octave lower): “Bong ... bong ... bong ... bong ...”. I always hold my breath at this point, hoping for another bong or two. But no, the rest is silence and I realise with a sigh it’s still only 4am.


The chimes of Christ Church are a variation on a theme used by clocks and doorbells the world over.

The best-known version is the “Westminster Quarters” (so called from the palace thereof), which are really the Cambridge Quarters, having been first composed for a university church in that city in 1793.

But Dublin may have a proprietorial share in the phenomenon because according to some musicologists, the Cambridge composer (whose identity is disputed) used as his inspiration a set of variations on the aria I Know That My Redeemer Liveth, from Handel’s Messiah.

And that, as surely everyone knows by now, was first performed at the Musick Hall in Fishamble Street, next door to Christchurch, on April 13th, 1742.

The latest anniversary was marked only last weekend, as usual, with the Dublin Handelian Orchestra and Our Lady’s Choral Society performing the Messiah on the footpath outside, in atrocious conditions.


That reminds me that this year also marks the 65th anniversary of the misplacement of a plaque marking Handel’s original concert.

The bronze memorial was created by the great sculptor and letter-cutter Michael Biggs (1928–1993). And I’m assuming its current location, over a basement window at street level, partly obscured by railings, is the same one he complained about in a letter to this newspaper on October 6th, 1959.

“Dear Sir,” he wrote then: “Lest anyone think that I, as sculptor of the bronze plaque to George Frideric Handel, unveiled yesterday In Fishamble Street, had anything to do with placing it in its present ridiculous position, I should like to state that I am not responsible, and that, in fact, it was designed for a position, chosen by myself, twenty yards higher up the street and ten feet from the ground.”


Although rarely sung, the Westminster Chimes and their variations have words too. The version on a plaque beside Big Ben runs as follows: “All through this hour/Lord be my guide/That by thy Power/No foot shall slide.”

The curiously-worded last line must be a prayer against departure from the path of righteousness. And odd as it seems, you would think that, if the chant were to be adapted for use in sport, this bit at least might have been retained.

Sliding feet are a well-known hazard in football, for example. Just last month, one of them – under his standing leg – prevented Ireland’s Evan Ferguson scoring a penalty against Belgium.

But when Portsmouth Football Club (nicknamed “Pompey”) adopted the chimes as an anthem more than a century ago, it came up with its own lyrics, which I quote here in all their glory: “Play up Pompey/Just one more goal/Make tracks! What ho!/Hallo! Hallo!”

That must be a candidate for the most boring English football chant of all time. But no doubt it has its uses – for example, when counting sheep doesn’t work.

Next time I’m lying awake at 4am, listening to the bells, I may try singing it repeatedly in my head.