St Canice's Cathedral's campanologists
There is something magical, eerily enchantingly, even fearful, about the pealing of big bells and in particular the striking of cathedral bells.
Just think of the Christmas song, The Fairytale of New York, and the part played by the bells of St Patrick’s Cathedral in it or go back to The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo - they strike a chord with us.
So the next time you hear the peal around Irishtown, Vicar Street or the Butts area of the city, particularly on a crisp December night when the soulful sound speeds through the thin air, think of the men and women who climb the 84 steps to the bell chamber twice a week once practice their hobby, their sport, custom and once on Sunday for service.
It is a sight, that every person in Kilkenny should witness once in their lifetime.
Their purpose - to call people to service. The bells are rung every Sunday, on feast days and for weddings and funerals.
On New Year’s Eve the bells are muffled to ring out the old year and before midnight, the muffles are removed to ring in the New Year with a clear peal.
My story with the campanologists begins on a cold December night, I make my way through the front entrance of the flood-lit cathedral in what was like a scene from an episode of tv series Inspector Morse, half expecting to be murdered.
At the best of times the cathedral is impressive but at night, it is even more so and then you enter the inner sanctums where you are met with the smiling faces of the bellringers.
They are not what you expect. Here before me are smiling faces, people I’ve known for years but never knew they had a secret.
It reminds me of a Dan Brown novel and then the captain of the bellringers, Ian McCullagh gives me the nod and we walk to the south transept of the cathedral and like a scene from a Harry Potter film in Hogwarts - we enter a doorway which was made, centuries ago, for much smaller framed humans and we start to climb the 84 steps of the cantilevered stairs to the bell ringing chamber. Another small door gives you the false impression that you are entering a confined space, instead you step down into a fine, wide open room with trapdoors allowing you to look down on the centre aisle of the cathedral.
The reason for this is that the bellringers will know when, for instance, a bride is coming down the aisle and they can begin their peal. It works the same way for funerals.
This is a living history - the walls are full of photos and other material on the bellringers going back centuries.
In the middle of the room are eight ropes hanging from a wooden ceiling with woolly sallies (grips) at the end with a little loop at the very end for safety.
To the side are what look like a set of pulleys which are attached to each hole in the roof where the eight heavier ropes go through.
I don’t want to get too technical but the bells are set upside down and that is why the bellringers job is not as easy as you would think.
The wooden structure at the side is used when the bells are turned down and that allows them to be chimed by one person using the Ellacombe hammers which are attached to the strings there.
All that’s missing are monk-like robes for the eight bellringers waiting in a circle for the order from the Captain of the bellringers to commence.
One is a good friend of mine, Harry Reid while I have known Barry O’Connor of O'Connor Jewellers on High Street, Kilkenny for many years.
I am a little surprised at the serious level of concentration etched on their faces as they prepare for the big moment.
The captain, Ian looks the part and like a Sgt Major he does a quick scan to make sure everyone is in their correct position and holding the rope properly.
He shouts out the numbers 2,3,3,2,4,4,5 - that is the sequence in which the bells are to ring and each bell is numbered with the largest bell, the one Ian normally pulls, the tenor bell, No 1.
And it starts, it is beautiful and while it is not like a proper piece of music it is melodic and you can feel the power coming down from the belfry.
You can feel the tension, because a wrong pull could put the whole thing out of sequence. And to think this has been going on since 1332.
I am not going into the history of the bells here because the late Edward Law of Rothe House produced the seminal work on the bells and the ringers in The Old Kilkenny Review.
Ian McCullagh gives me a quick introduction on the dos and don’ts and then I get a chance to pull the rope and I soon realise it is not all about strength, it's about timing, about measure, about sequence, about listening out for your own bell and listening for the bell preceding you and keeping in time, in sequence.
It is hard and can take some people years.
Daphne Sewell is one of those special people - she makes St Canice’s Cathedral such a homely, welcoming place and she worked downstairs in the shop for years. Her photo crops up a few times on the walls.
She has retired and sat me down to give me the following important advice on bellringing: “You should always be able to pick out your own bell.”
And this is part of the secret of the success of being a bellringer. Some people can manage it on their first touch; it’s not about being musical its more about being mechanically minded, being able to tap into the sequence and know exactly where you come in the order of the thing.
These bells are not rung in a haphazard manner but in an orderly, centuries old arrangement, it’s all about timing and to think these tunes have been handed down for generations is utterly fascinating.
And it is for that reason there is something of an aura around the captain of the team, Ian McCullagh.
He came to bellringing by accident and that was over 25 years ago and he is a wonderful man, imparting little nuggets of advice in a paternal tones while maintaining his insistence on exactness.
This is because a few times a year, the ringers compete with around nine other towers around the country in a very competitive cup competition.
They also go for social occasions like last summer to St Mary’s Church of Ireland Church, Dunmanway, County Cork where eight bells, were named in the memory of Sam Maguire, a member of the parish down there 100 years ago.
One family has given sterling service to the bell tower and that is the Ryan’s. Richard and his brothers Dick and Ken and sister Shirley (Mountrath) have been at it for years and now the next generation are at it, Richards two sons, Philip and Victor, again very solid bellringers and former rugby players do it with consummate ease.
The Ryan’s could be entrants in the Guinness Book of Records.
I am then taken by Barry O’Connor to the belfry and after a quick shout downstairs the main tenor bell is pealed. What a sound and if all eight were hammered at the same time you would go deaf. And as we walk out, we can almost touch St Canice’s Tower beside us while the view from outside the belfry is wonderful.
After an hour and half of practice and chat, we all go back down to the vestry for tea and biscuits and Richard Ryan addresses the members and pays tribute to the captain, Ian McCullagh and said that for the first time in a long time, there are a full complement of ringers, 25 in all and that things were looking good for the upcoming season.
He pauses for a moment and then says: "You know, we should be very proud of the bells in Kilkenny, we have one of the best towers in the country, here you can see the bells being rung with plenty of room for people to watch," he said. And I would have to agree with him.
New year's eve
One of the most special times to hear the bells is on New Year’s Eve.
There is a service (not obligatory) at around 10.30pm in the cathedral and afterwards around 70 people make their way up to the bell ringers room to hear the 12 chimes to bring in the New Year on the stroke of midnight.
The bells are, at first muffled, to ring out the old year and before midnight, the muffles are removed to ring in the New Year with a clear peal that will ring out around the city.
So the next time you hear the peal, think of the people who have maintained this wonderful tradition and those who climb the 84 steps at least twice a week.
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