The dedicated men and women from St Thomas' Church who'll be making sure the bells ring out for Christmas
The bells of the magnificent old Belfast building will sound again this year to herald Yuletide festivities, having previously marked historic moments such as the Battle of the Somme, the Titanic sinking and VE Day. Fionola Meredith talks to the bell ringers about their intricate craft and why it means so much to them
At midnight on Christmas Eve, the eight bells of St Thomas' Church on Eglantine Avenue will ring out across the city, marking the first moments of Christmas Day, just as they have for generations past. Many people will hear the familiar chimes, but only a few will think of the eight men and women standing in a circle, in the chilly ringing chamber of St Thomas' tower, pulling the ropes in sequence to create the wild music of the bells.
"Bell ringing is an odd hobby," says Eric Thompson, the steeple keeper at St Thomas'. "It seems to go in parallel with the rest of your life." Climbing the spiral stone staircase of the tower, past narrow cobwebbed windows, I start to understand what he means. Once up in the chamber, the bell ringers are cloistered in a small world of their own, a world with its own special language, history and complex sets of mathematical rules.
Duncan Scarlett, the conductor and tower captain - aka, the man in charge - has been ringing at St Thomas' since 1953, and he says that it requires intense focus and precision to keep in time. "You are constantly concentrating. Even people who have been ringing for 50 or 60 years, you see their eyes and realise they are completely intent on what they are doing. One flicker, and you're away."
And of course if one person goes wrong during a complex peal, it can ruin the whole thing. "You can't repair it - once you go outside the precise pattern, it can't be reclaimed," says Mr Scarlett. He tells me about the traditional fine for a bad mistake, which he first encountered while bell ringing in Yorkshire: buying a round of pints for the other ringers.
St Thomas' Honorary Society of Bell Ringers has been in existence since 1871, the year the bells were mounted in the tower, donated by Robert Atkinson, a wealthy Belfast merchant. Cast by John Taylor and Co of Loughborough, they are considered one of the finest rings of eight bells in the whole of the British Isles, and many campanologists - as bell-ringing enthusiasts are known - come to visit them and try their hands on the ropes. The biggest bell, the tenor, is a tonne in weight, and bears a Latin inscription which translates as: "Robert Atkinson Esq. of Beaumont in this county gave me and my seven sisters to this Church in 1871 in honour of God and St Thomas".
Isn't it physically demanding to ring such huge bells? Duncan Scarlett says no. "It's not really about strength, not once you learn to control the bell. I've seen a girl of 11 or 12 ring the tenor bell here, and I know those who have been ringing until well into their 80s. If you're aged between eight and 75, you should be able to ring any kind of bell. One exception is the great bell in Liverpool cathedral - that one takes two people."
Standing in the bell chamber, watching Mr Thomas and Mr Scarlett rhythmically pulling the ropes, which alternately disappear through the ceiling to toll the bells above, you might imagine the noise would be overpowering, but it's surprisingly muted. "Yes, you'd think it would be loud," says Mr Scarlett, "but there's actually a lead floor between the bells and the ringers, which means it's often louder on the outside than it is on the inside."
There are many plaques and photographs in the chamber commemorating prize-winning rings and occasions from the past. 2011 was a particularly good year for St Thomas': the Society won two Northern District trophies, the Patterson and Cunningham Cups in January and April, and the all-Ireland Murphy Cup at Dublin in May.
A lovely stained glass window shows Paulinus, Bishop of Nola in Campania, Italy, who requested that a bell be rung at each church prior to the celebration of the Eucharist. And there is an ancient framed copy of rules and bye-laws for bell-ringers. "No swearing, bad language, irreverent conduct, drinking or smoking shall be allowed in the belfry; nor shall any loud talking or argument be permitted," it states severely.
Given that ringers seem to be a fairly mild and reasonable group of people, such reminders hardly seem necessary. But Eric Thompson says that in times gone by, in other churches, behaviour in the belfry sometimes got so bad that they removed the floor of the chamber altogether, so that the ropes hung right down to the ground floor - this meant that the rector of the church was able to keep a close eye on the rowdier members of the circle.
Mr Scarlett was born within the sound of St Thomas' bells, but he only became fully aware of them on VE Day, on May 8, 1945, when they were rung in celebration for hours on end. Although the main purpose of ringing is to call people to Sunday services, the bells are also rung to celebrate special occasions such as royal weddings and coronations. Muffled peals, where a leather pad is fitted to the clapper, are rung for the deaths of monarchs and to ring out the Old Year.
They were also rung for the sinking of the Titanic and after the Battle of the Somme in July 1916. On July 1, 2016, a peal known as 'Belfast Surprise Major', involving 5040 changes, was rung to commemorate the centenary of the Battle of the Somme and those members of the parish who died in the first days of military action.
"It's too long ago to remember exactly why I first ventured up the winding staircase to the ringing chamber," wrote Mr Scarlett, in an account of his lifetime as a bell ringer. Reflecting on it now, he thinks it was a combination of youthful inquisitiveness and his mother's desire to keep him from hanging about on the street. At a parish sale, he had also picked up a second hand copy of a book called The Nine Tailors, by the great 1930s crime writer Dorothy L Sayers, in which bells and bell ringing are an integral part of the mystery story. And it was in this very chamber that Mr Scarlett first met Sheila, the young woman who would become his wife.
Many decades later, he's still pulling the ropes, and hopes to be among the circle of ringers announcing the start of Christmas Day. What keeps him going? "Friendship. Being part of a group of people," he says simply.
Rev Paul Ryan, Rector of St Thomas', believes that the bells bring great character and definition to the church. "If you stand under the bell tower when everyone is ringing, you experience a shower of musical energy," he says. "It reminds me of the power of God and the mystery of life. The bells bear witness to a church's Christian presence, and they also break the silence at important moments in our lives. It's a privilege to have them."
There are only three churches in Belfast which still ring bells, and 16 in Northern Ireland as a whole. To ensure these special skills are passed on to the following generations, a supply of new ringers is always needed. Quite clearly it's a lifelong passion for many people.
Once they climb the spiral stairs, just as Duncan Scarlett did almost 65 years ago, and get their hands on their ropes, the strange magic of bell ringing takes hold of them, and they never want to stop.