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RTE and the Angelus: Daily bells still chime with me

RTE's broadcasting of the Angelus has been described as an anachronism; a throwback to the confessional Ireland of the mid-20th century. But Paul Hopkins finds the simple, quiet minute a day allows him time to reflect and take stock

By Paul Hopkins

Published 01/07/2015

RTE may have changed in many ways, but still finds time to sound the Angelus
RTE may have changed in many ways, but still finds time to sound the Angelus
RTE studio in 1979
RTE studio today

Right, let us pause for the Angelus, my father would say, the fork-full of beans on toast suspended midway to my mouth, my younger brother kicking me under the table. And so we paused. Froze. Perfectly still, like the painted picture on the old black-and-white telly in the dining-room corner, the image of Madonna and Child, or some other religious depiction that accompanied the peal of the bells as the Angelus rang out the length and breadth of Holy Catholic Ireland courtesy of the then fledgling Radio Teilifis Eireann.

I bet God doesn't stop eating his tea just 'cos the Angelus is ringing, I thought, as my brother made another swipe at my shin, and I inwardly asked forgiveness for my blasphemy. Meantime, that lifetime ago, in the seemingly comforting cocoon of a dominant Catholic and predominantly rural Ireland of the 1950s and 60s, the country of comely maidens at the crossroads, of lamented dead freedom fighters and plenty of pledges of plenary indulgences - the removal in this life of punishment due to sinners in the next - Ireland virtually came to a standstill for one whole minute three times a day, morning, noon and evening, for the ringing of the Angelus.

I am reminded of this still from my life, and mention it only because the Silly Season is upon us, that time of the year dreaded by those who ply their trade in the world of media when, with courts and governments in summer recess, news appears - though we often learn different - to be thin on the ground.

The tragedies of the recent days notwithstanding, the Silly Season has truly arrived in the Republic when senators, before departing for holidays, discuss in earnest the dangers of not culling Dublin's seagull population, and Atheist Ireland once again calls for the national broadcaster, RTE, to discontinue "ringing" the Angelus because it is an affront to an increasing secular and/or multi-religious society.

An anachronism, they argue - a reminder of more homogenously and observantly Christian times.

At the very least, Atheist Ireland - a loose consortium of like-minded non-believers founded in 2006 and a member of Atheist Alliance International - believes RTE should change the name of the Angelus.

In a statement the organisation's chairperson, the writer and activist Michael Nugent, said: "We believe that changing the title would be an important first step to creating a genuinely inclusive and religiously neutral moment of reflection."

The head of religious programmes at RTE had previously said the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland had ruled it is totally defensible to retain the 18 peals of the Angelus bell during the "moment of reflection", as well as continuing to call it the Angelus.

Roger Childs says he has not consulted other religious denominations in drawing up the organisation's plans to revamp the Angelus, except in an anecdotal way. He said religious leaders are "broadly supportive of having a reflective space". Mr Childs said he has asked the creative community to come up with forms of films that would be accessible to people of all faiths and none.

He acknowledged that the chimes are the Angelus chimes, but said they are part of the landscape of Irish society and he does not feel that they are coercive, or intrusive.

"The daily 'Angelus' broadcast on RTE One is by far RTE's longest-running and most watched religious programme."

He also acknowledged: "It is also, possibly, the most controversial. For some, the reflective slot, which airs for just one minute in every 1,440 a day and on only one RTE television channel, is as much part of Ireland's unique cultural identity as the harp on your passport."

So far, so obvious, but at the weekend Atheist Ireland received a follow-up from RTE in which the broadcaster stated: "We have given careful consideration to your argument about the term 'Angelus' and will take further soundings to determine whether that title remains the best one for today's Ireland."

Mr Nugent said: "Changing the title should be the first of several changes to make the moment inclusive."

But he added: "We remain concerned about other aspects of the Angelus, and of RTE's response to our complaints."

So, it's a case of "as we were", just as during last year's Silly Season, and the year previous and so forth.

The Angelus (from the Latin for angel) is a Catholic devotion commemorating the Mystery of the Incarnation when Gabriel, "an angel of the Lord", declared unto Mary that by miraculous conception she would bear and bring forth into the world the Son of God.

The devotion, accompanied by the ringing of a bell, was traditionally recited in Catholic churches, convents, and monasteries three times daily: 6am, noon and 6pm. Many churches in the south still follow the devotion, and some, though a dwindling number, practise it at home. The devotion is also used by some Anglican and Lutheran churches.

It is an old devotion that was already well established 700 years ago, initially in Italian monasteries and, significantly, those of the Franciscan order of monks. Rather than celebrate the Incarnation, the older usages seem to have commemorated the Resurrection of Christ in the morning, his suffering at noon and, then, the annunciation in the evening. In 1269 the saint Bonaventure urged the faithful to adopt the custom of the Franciscans, saying three Hail Marys as the bell was rung.

Its origins as a daily devotion of sorts by the national broadcaster go back to 1948 and Leon O Broin, the then secretary of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs, who oversaw broadcasting. He discussed the idea of a daily spoken Angelus with the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, the infamous John Charles McQuaid (below). The idea was rejected, but an alternative of experimenting with the sound of a bell was considered. Once the principle of the broadcast was agreed, how it was to be done was purely an engineering matter.

If the "ringing" of the Angelus across the length and breadth of Ireland once, and for centuries, defined the majority part of the island as "holy and Catholic" and delineated a people belonging "to the one, true Church", then the peal of the bells also inspired great artistic works from old masters, most notably The Angelus by French painter Jean-François Millet, completed in 1859.

Its bells moved poets like American Francis Bret Harte, to such lines as "Bells of the Past, whose long-forgotten music/Still fills the wide expanse,/Tingeing the sober twilight of the Present/With color and romance".

And Joyce's Ulysses references it in Molly Bloom's monologue talking of "we'll soon have the nuns ringing the Angelus… the odd priest or two for his night office".

Atheist Ireland obviously does not share the passions of such humble artists. That the Silly Season's annual "concern" - as if we didn't have enough real bread-and-butter issues to contend with - about RTE's playing of the Angelus began this year's debate in last week's pages of the Irish Times calls to mind a cartoon from that lofty organ published back in the 1990s.

It was in the middle of the Drumcree crises and showed an RTE continuity announcer declare: "Next, Six One News with more from the failed sectarian statelet of the North... but first the Angelus." Succinctly, it says it all.

For centuries, an integral part of the mythos and vernacular of Roman Catholicism, the relevance today of the Angelus - and, in particular, as part and parcel of a national broadcaster's daily output, and its continuous use and adherence to by a Catholic jihadi that would have us return to sackcloth and ashes and those plenary indulgences of old - can best be described as an anachronism.

And a harmless one at that. For from my own point of view, and far from an advocate of tenets Catholic, I like it. If not exactly relevant to me as "a call to prayer", it is nonetheless peaceful, calming and wholly unintrusive. A simple, quiet minute or so in a day that allows time to reflect and take stock. To, as someone in the Bible wrote, be still and know that I am God.

Of all of the things grossly offensive about Ireland's unhealthy relationship with Catholicism, surely to God the Angelus is the least of them.

Paul Hopkins is a Dublin-based commentator

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