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Hells Bells!

This column was written for March 2002 and did not appear in The Dubliner … ever!
I had initially planned to write this column about that ambitious Cappuchin monk Father Theobald Matthew who turned Judas on his bartender and founded the Pioneers in 1838. I thought the month of St. Paddy’s might serve as a useful backdrop in which I could accuse the modern Irish, self included, of being a nation of ignorant, rabid, racist, spineless, good-for-nothing alkies, despite Father Theo’s best efforts. I might even have attracted the outraged finger-wagging that my editor and publisher are constantly beseeching me to stir up. But my curiosity about Father Theobald has been much sharpened since one of his kinsmen recently confided that the crusader was turfed out of Maynooth for throwing a wild party in the wee hours of the 1830s. So forgive me if I put the attack on hold while I conduct further research.

The kinsman in question was one Martin Kelly who, at the time of this cheerful revelation, happened to be three steps ahead of me. And I was three steps away from tumbling through a small dwarf door into the bell-ringing chamber of Christ Church Cathedral.

Martin had rung to invite me bell ringing earlier in the week. Bell ringing? Martin assured me it was a bewitching experience. I asked around. Anyone know anything about bell ringing? I drew one reply from a pal down in Borris. “The bell ringer in Hoare’s Bridge was caught with his auld lad in a Jack Russell, God’s truth”. Not exactly what I was looking for.

But it’d be a dull world if we were all the same and so I decided to take up Martin on his offer and rattle up to Dublin City and see what it’s like to ring bells of a Sunday morning. I enjoyed a Saturday night pretending to listen to old friends and ogling the increasingly beautiful sweethearts around about me. Living in the countryside can be a dangerous experience when it comes to aesthetics; even a trip to Abrakebabra can seem like stumbling into a Botticelli.

I wasn’t terribly hungover when I awoke. Only quite. A boiled egg and off. God what a pleasure it is to drive around the capital on a Sunday morning! There’s nobody about. The city is yours. It’s like 1976. Even those bloody clampers are taking time out. (Incidentally, not very PC I know, but why didn’t anyone send an envelope of dandruff to the clamping office during that anthrax scare? You’d have been elevated to Robin Hood superhero the instant you’d licked the postage stamp).

I parked the car by the old city walls, bid a telepathic good morning to the merry souls queuing up for woollen blankets and methadone shots outside the Franciscan friary, and handed myself over to Martin.

Now, class. Bells have been associated with Christian worship at least since the 5th century when Saint Paddy used a great big one to turn all the savage Celtic Kings into whimpering penitents. By the 17th century they were all the rage across the British Isles, donging merrily across rivers and meadows, perhaps to announce the birth of a Royal baby or an unexpected triumph on the distant battlefields of the continent. Cromwell and his Puritanical spoilsports outlawed bell ringing during their short-lived Republic. But it came back with a vengeance and they ain’t stopped ringing since. In Ireland there are 35 holy houses where bell ringing takes place. Most of these are in Ulster and none of these are in Connaught. There are four in downtown Dublin – St. Audeon’s, St. Augustine’s, St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Christ Church, home to the largest collection of bells in the land.

To be honest I was a little wary of getting too caught up in this bell ringing lark. It seemed to be an addictive, obsessional sport. As Martin took me on the rounds, I was introduced to the many echelons of bell ringing society. These boffins have a splendid jury-like randomness about their boffinity. All shapes. All sizes. And certainly all sexes. They are friendly, honest eyed, cheerful souls who meet up twice a week, once for practice, once for real time. They probably subscribe to The Ringing World, a weekly rag that offers up the very latest bell ringing medleys and quizzes its readers on their knowledge of bell weights and bronze manufacturers. They regard bell ringing as an exercise in self-therapy. It is also an important part of the Sunday morning civic ritual. They are a heroic breed in many ways. One or two of them award me a benevolent introductory smile. It is the type of smile that only the truly insane can wear. It keeps me on my guard.

So guarded that I convinced Martin to abet me in kidnapping two Brazilian senoritas, Luciana and Ana, spotted meandering pretty but purposeless by Strongbow’s tomb in the depths of Christ Church’s musty womb. At length the four of us were clambering and crouching our way up the twisty-stepped tower, around and around and around, our footsteps fuelled by the windy rumble of a church organ bellowing bosom-swelling orchestral dittys far beneath us. A service was about to commence.

At length we entered and beheld the Ringing Chamber. A badly white-washed room about the same size as a squash court rimmed by some 19 ropes cascading tautly through the ceiling. Martin instructed me to sit in the middle of the room, out of harm’s way, a honey flavoured Brazilian girl by either thigh. He then joins the bell ringers who are hard at work, yanking on a rope each, eyeballs bulging and vanishing with concentration as they obey the commands of the ringleader, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8, 1-3-5-7-2-4-6-8, until they’re all going for it, every single one of them, blue and red sally-rope lepping up and down, h’yup h’yup h’yup whoosh whoosh whoosh.

And up above our heads, the great bronze bells of Christchurch Cathedral are ringing their mid-morning melodies to the bleary eyed citizens of Dublin. It’s an extraordinary sound. Certainly from where I sat. One moment it is a glorious heaven sent harmony in which I drift off wondering what Luciana would look like in the nip. Then an L-plated ringer steps out of whack and we’re plunged into the darkest heart of a Vincent Price horror moment repeating itself interminably, bang bong bing bang bong, and the ropes start looking like gallows and the bell ringers grow horns and I feel very very dizzy up here in the sky and I’m about to spasmodically combust when, just as suddenly, the ringleader regains control and we’re back on track and the world is once again full of voluptuous angels who fly upon the Guinness soaked breeze.

I’ve always taken the sound of church bells for granted. It never crossed my mid that these Sunday morning rackets originated somewhere way up in the top of a tower with a half dozen maniacs bouncing up and down to their hearts content. But there you have it. We humans have always been better at hearing than we’ve been at listening.