Wesley Boyd: RTE fails to grasp the Angelus nettle once again

Daily broadcasting of Catholic prayer inappropriate in secular Republic

The man largely responsible for getting the Angelus on RTÉ (or Radio Éireann, as it then was) Archbishop of Dublin John Charles McQuaid

The man largely responsible for getting the Angelus on RTÉ (or Radio Éireann, as it then was) Archbishop of Dublin John Charles McQuaid

 

Noel Curran, who has announced that he is standing down as director general of RTÉ, after a stressful but successful five-year run, has failed to grasp the sensitive nettle of the Angelus.

Instead he has approved a wishy-washy new television version which is trying hard to make the Angelus not the Angelus. The chimes will also continue to be heard on RTÉ Radio 1.

He is not the first director general to shirk the issue. I served as a member of RTÉ’s board of management, under no fewer than six directors general while I was director of news from 1974 to 1990.

On a number of occasions at board meetings I questioned whether the broadcasting of the Angelus, a Catholic call to prayer, was in conformity with the Broadcasting Act’s terms and spirit and relevant to a modern, secular Irish society.

The answers, even from those around the table who professed to be agnostic or liberal-minded, were always the same: it was more trouble than it was worth to remove it; it was only a time signal to remind people that the news was on the way; none of the Protestant churches objected to it; it did no harm; it was a comfort to old people; it gave people time to reflect; and so on and so on.

Apathy and indifference

The Act, under which all broadcasting stations in Ireland operate, states that news “be reported and presented in an objective and impartial manner and without any expression of the broadcaster’s own views”.

Who would trust the veracity of a station broadcasting on the turmoil in the Middle East if its news bulletin was immediately preceded by a muezzin reciting the Islamic call to prayer from the minaret of a mosque? Does RTÉ not express a certain religious viewpoint by broadcasting the Angelus before news bulletins?

The chimes may bring comfort to the pensioner in Ballyhaunis but they hardly enhance the credibility of RTÉ to the unionist in Ballymena.

Then consider this contradiction: the Act lays it down that “a broadcaster shall not broadcast an advertisement which addresses the issue of the merits or otherwise of adhering to any religious faith or belief or of becoming a member of any religion or religious organisation”.

Yet RTÉ gives what is virtually a free advertisement to the Catholic Church by transmitting at peak times on radio and television that church’s unique call to prayer.

Prayer of thanksgiving

general Christian

In talks with the archbishop and officials of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs and Radio Éireann it was agreed the Angelus be broadcast to mark the Holy Year of 1950. At first it was considered playing a gramophone recording but McQuaid insisted the bell of the Pro-Cathedral must be broadcast live, with the first of the18 peals heard precisely at the start of the hour.

This task presented considerable technical difficulties. The start of the Holy Year was missed and the Angelus was first broadcast on the Feast of the Assumption, August 15th, 1950. At a reception to mark the occasion McQuaid expressed the hope that “all who heard the Angelus bell – in particular our people at home and exiles throughout the world – will recite the Angelus, in union with Our Blessed Lady, as a prayer of thanksgiving for the grace of the incarnation.”

There is no evidence that the archbishop wanted the broadcasting of the Angelus to continue beyond the Holy Year but his pious disciples in Radio Éireann decided to let it run and happily adapted it for transmission on the new television service in 1961.

In a somewhat defensive statement announcing the new version of the Angelus, RTÉ said it was the longest-running and most-watched religious programme. (It claims an audience of 318,000 viewers). RTÉ also acknowledged: “It is also, possibly, the most controversial. For some, the reflective slot, which airs for just one minute in every 1,440 per day and on only one RTÉ television channel, is as much part of Ireland’s unique cultural identity as the harp on your passport. For others, it is an anachronism – a reminder of more homogeneously and observantly Christian times.”

RTÉ should also acknowledge that the times they are a-changing for Christians and others on this island. The harp on the passport is now carried by an increasingly multi- ethnic, multifaith population. Ireland is a secular state. It is time the national broadcaster fell into line.

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