“St. Patrick’s contains the heaviest bell rung in Ireland, weighing in at 2.25 tons, while Christchurch contains the largest quantity of bells rung in full-circle.”
For Dublin 8 dwellers with a penchant for Sunday strolling, the late-morning outpourings of the St. Patrick’s Cathedral bell-tower will register as both fond and familiar. Those full-bodied melodies have soundtracked the neighbourhood scenery for countless decades; they were once responsible for keeping citizens’ schedules in check. Yet even amidst the backdrop of an ever-modernising city – the cathedral’s perch is increasingly surrounded by signs of booming construction – it still proves an indispensable attribute of our urban soundscape. But is any thought given to the invisible hands industriously grasping the cathedral’s bell ropes?
For the majority of members in St. Patrick’s Cathedral Society of Amateur Change Ringers, the behind-the-scenes of bell-ringing never entered their consciousness before word-of-mouth (and twist of fate) finally drew their attention. Comprised of around 25 members across three bell-ringing sessions – Sunday morning, Sunday afternoon and Tuesday evening – its participants make for an eclectic, sociable assemblage. Refreshingly, religious orientation (or lack thereof) doesn’t dictate the selection of members – nor is it asked during their registration process. The society’s community-driven ethos is palpable, so too is the passion for upholding the true art form of bell-ringing, a process much more multi-faceted than might be imagined.
Perhaps the most erudite member of the current gathering is Robert MacDonald, an English-born bell aficionado who happily waxes lyrical on centuries’ worth of bell-ringing chronicles. Having honed his craft during his formative years before joining the Change Ringers four years ago, MacDonald’s expertise places him in apt company with bell-ringing master Derek McEndoo, whose involvement with the cathedral spans some 50 years. During our conversations over the course of one Sunday morning session, it becomes readily apparent that the cathedral’s ringing chamber is far from a relic of times past, but rather an Irish representative of an art form still flourishing across the globe.
En route to the ringing chamber, McEndoo acquaints me with the bell-tower’s turbulent history. Some 20 years after the structure was first built, in 1370, it violently collapsed onto the western end of the cathedral – a comforting thought as we snake our way up the 75 steep steps of a spiral staircase. Upon safe arrival, the pre-ringing procedure begins: full-circle bells, those found in the cathedral, being awakened from the downwards resting position via increasingly large swings. Like much of bell-ringing methodology, the practise of full-circle ringing (which spawned change ringing) originated in 16th century England, immediately after the Reformation, when it was discovered how to control the speed of a ringing bell. This formed the catalyst for an infinite number of new sequences or methods (and therefore new melodies) to be composed over the centuries that followed, all of which are officially certified by an overarching bell-ringers association and added to the hundreds upon hundreds of pre-existing entries. St. Patrick’s Cathedral bells sound under the ‘Erin Triples’ sequence, but the piece de resistance, in MacDonald’s eyes, is ‘Cambridge Major’ – a method only achievable through years and years of dedicated practise.
On the cusp of morning service, eight participants take their places beside an equal number of bell-ropes, while the remaining members hang back in reserve and are switched out over the course of ringing. As MacDonald explains, “the cathedral has 15 bells in total, with 12 typically rung, and these were gifted to the church in the late 1890s by Edward Guinness. His father Benjamin had restored the cathedral 30 years prior, and so after his passing Edward wanted to mark his father’s contribution.” Following a quick-fire briefing of terms foreign to any non bell-ringer’s ears, the change ringers launch straight into the most seamlessly- and meticulously-choreographed sequence, tirelessly executed and alternated over 45 minutes.
The synchronicity of these ringing sessions makes the observation a near-hypnotic experience. The ripple-effect of cascading ropes testifies to the natural rhythm of each ringer, coupled with the melding of immersive melodies reverberating through the chamber’s stone walls. My spectating is peppered with discourse from the society’s longest-standing members, whose participation stretch from 10 to 20 years. As mentioned, almost all attendees have stumbled upon the Change Ringers by chance – often through referral of friends, which in turn encourages them to spread the word. For the Irish-born-and-bred who grew up around the cathedral’s outer reaches, getting the chance to re-create the sounds of their childhood seems too unique an opportunity to pass up. There’s an equally healthy smattering of international members, however, whose native territories stretch from Brazil to Japan and all else in between.
St. Patrick’s Cathedral finds itself amongst a clustering of active full-circle bell-towers; from the notably ornate John’s Lane Church on Thomas Street to the heritage-filled Christchurch Cathedral. Given the relative scarcity of non-motorised bells on Irish shores, it’s all the more impressive that Dublin 8 churches have set domestic and international records for their traditional bell collections. St. Patrick’s contains the heaviest bell rung in Ireland, weighing in at 2.25 tons, while Christchurch (alongside claiming the title of Dublin’s oldest building) contains the largest quantity of bells rung in full-circle. A hop, skip and jump away is St Audeon’s, lauded for having the oldest ringing bells in the country – half of its perfectly-preserved collection dating back to 1423.
These accomplishments aside, Ireland doesn’t possess a fraction of the people power that England’s bell-ringing associations enjoy. There may be no shortage of enthusiasm amongst the society’s newcomers and well-established participants, but the turn-out for any given practise is always up in the air. “You have to be flexible, whether it’s 12 people you have turning up, or six, or even three – obstacles can get in the way. Getting the right numbers isn’t guaranteed, so it can be a struggle,” McEndoo states. What MacDonald and MacEndoo really yearn for is a “core group” that could immerse themselves, whole-heartedly, in mastering the art of change-ringing. MacDonald declares that “it’s because we don’t have enough core people here that bell-ringing methods aren’t being composed and obsessed over, like they are in England. It’s a challenge to make the necessary numbers in Ireland, whereas 45,000 active ringers are currently in England – and they still don’t consider that a sufficient amount. [Bell-ringing is] an important part of the community there, you can especially see that in small villages.” To assume that Ireland’s bell-ringing heritage is less solidified, or long-standing, than that of England’s would be a falsehood all the same: MacDonald reveals that “the English word ‘bell’ derives from the Irish word clog, rather than the other way around.”
So how long does it take for an absolute beginner to be trained into change-ringing? “Three to four months is the process in our society. You’ll stay right beside them for most of that time – you can’t trust that the bell-rope won’t go awry,” chuckles MacDonald. Even for connoisseurs of campanology such as himself, it’s a continual learning curve – one which strikes a curious balance between mathematics and creativity. Given the far-stretching global network of bell-ringing collectives, there is ample opportunity to connect and compare notes with fellow ringers. St. Patrick’s would regularly welcome in traveling associations to ring with them, mainly from English-speaking countries, and would subsequently return the favour – MacDonald and MacEndoo’s most recent expeditions were in England and Scotland. Intriguingly, Australia has cultivated a thriving domain for bell-ringing, with its associations frequently making the trip over to St. Patrick’s. American ringers, on the other hand, are few and far between – a small number of traditional bell-towers can be pinpointed in Texas – while South Africa has nurtured a compact but enthusiastic change-ringing community.
MacDonald’s statements that bell-ringing is an obsessive art form are no exaggeration: the tales of fanaticism that emerge from this sector are hard to wrap your head around. Change-ringing with two bells may only require two changes – from one to two, and two to one – but the amount of changes in a sequence vastly multiplies as more bells are added. The maximum number of changes you can achieve with eight bells is a staggering 43,000 – this was successfully done only once before in history, in 1962, over the course of 17 consecutive hours. No ringer could leave their ropes during that time , and such was their obsession with setting a new record that they clad themselves with nappies – a practise not so uncommon in bell-ringing’s colourful history.
For those toying with the idea of taking up this sonorous skill, rest assured – the St. Patrick’s Cathedral Society of Amateur Change Ringers isn’t quite so neurotic.
The Society of Amateur Change Ringers in St Patrick’s Cathedral meet for hourly practice sessions on Tuesday evenings (from 6:30pm), alongside bell-ringing gatherings on Sunday mornings (10:30am) and afternoons (2:30pm). Any curious, would-be change-ringers can get in touch via email@example.com or 086 300 8252.
Words: Amelia O’Mahony-Brady
Photos: Des Gallagher