Church bells to signal solidarity with immigrants

Racism and xenophobia are growing around the world and must be stopped

On Sunday, March 19th, the bells of Christ Church Cathedral, Waterford, will ring out a challenge to all whipped-up suspicion about immigrants and refugees in the western world. Known locally as the "Joy Bells", they have been silent for 18 months due to repairs.

Former president of Ireland Dr Mary McAleese will launch the bells that morning and their peal will proclaim a very clear message which we hope will be echoed across this land and beyond.

That the bells will ring on St Patrick’s weekend is appropriate; he was the stranger brought to this island as slave but who returned later in life to transform our history, bringing the Gospel of Christ, the gospel of love.

St Patrick’s Day is known across the world wherever the Irish have gone seeking sanctuary, opportunity and a new life. Issues of being the stranger and welcoming the stranger have been central to our cultural and often-troubled history.


I am the daughter of a Swede who came here to Ireland to work on the “Kathleen Falls to Finglas” hydro-electrification scheme. He was a Lutheran widower with two children who married my Donegal Catholic mother and made his life here. It was a brave action for Patsy Rooney and Martin Jansson to marry in Bundoran in November 1952 when “mixed” marriages were universally frowned upon. Yet despite his then exotic Swedish lilting accent, he met nothing but friendship and kindness all his life.

Cultural mix

As a nation we have come a long way from the horrible religious divide of the 1950s. To be reared in a household with two faiths, two nationalities and even two families was truly enriching.

A few weeks ago, we noted that our cathedral community in Waterford is made up of 12 different nationalities and people from Roman Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox and Anabaptist backgrounds. The enhancement of all our lives by this diversity cannot be quantified. It is simply a joy. We are journeying together in faith and learning from each other’s uniqueness, daily.

In stark contrast, the rising cacophony of racism and xenophobia across the world is alarming; it frightens so many immigrants, and people are at a loss as to how to challenge this hate.

How can all who value tolerance and respect for others affirm our shared humanity and voice a message of welcome when xenophobia is gaining momentum? Sometimes symbolic actions can say it all.

In the summer of 2014, a fascist demonstration was organised in the area surrounding the Lutheran cathedral in Västerås, Sweden. As the rally began, the cathedral bells tolled loud and clear over the city, drowning out the sounds of hate and racism.

Those bells inspired the people of Västerås to write letters of solidarity and welcome to immigrants and pin them to the doors of the cathedral. The bells stirred up and empowered the goodness in people and provided it with voice and opportunity.

Few people have used symbolic action with the effectiveness of former Mary McAleese. Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Ireland in 2011 towards the end of her presidency built more bridges between people and our two nations than could ever have been imagined. And it was a time of great joy.

Migrant misery

Racism and xenophobia generate misery far and wide; in those who hold these views, and their victims. Like that prophetic action in Västerås, it is time for a united voice that will give heart to immigrants and victims of racist hatred in our midst who desperately need to hear a message of love and welcome.

We are inviting churches and communities at home and abroad to ring their bells on March 19th at 11am (if possible) so that, in ringing out across fields, towns and cities, they proclaim that every woman and man is equal in dignity, beloved of God and welcome among us.

It has been quite a while since the Joy Bells have rung out over Waterford and the people of the city are looking forward to their return. It has been quite a while since the joy and flourishing inherent in our welcoming the immigrant has been affirmed in the public realm in Ireland.

So from the Joy Bells ringing out from Christ Church Cathedral Waterford on March 19th at 11am, a simple and essential message will echo far and wide: one of solidarity, respect and love. Join us if you can.

Very Rev Maria Jansson is Church of Ireland Dean of Waterford.