“We’re a little short on numbers tonight,” laments Ian. “Lesley is on his holidays, Vivian’s gone salsa dancing. I’m not sure where Gayle’s gotten herself to.” The belfry in Dublin’s Christ Church Cathedral is a wide, windowless room with carpeted floors and a high wooden ceiling. Through a series of small holes in the roof dangle nineteen long ropes connected to nineteen cast iron bells in the bell chamber above. Gathered here on this warm Friday evening are half a dozen members of the Christ Church Cathedral Society of Change Ringers. (“The Secret Society…!” quips one member, to general amusement.)
If you’ve ever passed the cathedral and enjoyed the wonderful pealing of the bells, these are the boffins you should thank.
My introduction here comes courtesy of Dervilla McKeith, who meets me for coffee across the road in Jury’s Hotel beforehand. Dervilla is not a parishioner of the cathedral. In fact, she isn’t even a member of the Church of Ireland. She got involved in 1999, when seven new bells were added ahead of the cathedral’s millennium celebrations. At that time the society made an appeal in the media for new ringers to come forward. For Dervilla, the hobby offers an opportunity not just for intellectual stimulation (the peals follow complex mathematical patterns), but also for physical exercise (the bells range from a half- to two-and-a-quarter tonnes in weight.)
She leads me across to the cathedral, through a side door and up a winding stone staircase to the belfry. Through the wall I can make out muffled tones of the church organ inside. The society was founded in 1670, says Dervilla, and is currently under the direction of Ringing Master Ian Bell. His name is actually Bell? “Yes, yes” she laughs. “People are always amused at that. But his predecessor was a Mr Taylor and, you know, Taylors is a very famous bell foundry in England. So, to us, that’s even funnier!”
Hmmm… I’ll have to take her word on that.
We duck through a small arched doorway, and into the brightly lit belfry where 27-year-old Ronan, a student, is ‘ringing up’ the bells before practice begins. The very personable Mr Bell then leads his charges through a succession of rounds. Each bell is assigned a number based on its pitch. “Two to four” yells Mr Bell. “Two to four!” What’s fascinating is that at no point in the entire exercise do the ringers come within sight of the bells.
It’s rather like praying to God, I muse. Except that in this case one can be reasonably sure there’s definitely something up there.
While the ringers run through their exercises, I leaf through the April edition of The Ringer’s World. If I had any lazy preconceptions about change ringing folk, this delightful periodical fails to dispel a single one of them. On page five, Beer Matters columnist Maximus Bibendus ruminates at some length on his collection of “nip” bottles (1/3 pint) of ale. This week, he reports, he broached a 1987 bottle and was disappointed to find its contents dark, flat and lifeless. The resourceful Bibendus made the best of a bad situation: “It wasn’t a dead loss, as I added it to the gravy we had with our roast beef that night.”
There is no formal structure to the practice, with ringers coming and going as they please throughout. After an hour so I have another appointment to attend to. But I’m slightly sorry to leave all the same. Dervilla describes the Society of Change Ringers as representing a “slightly eccentric cross section of the public”. And as I take my leave of them, I’d have to concur. Nevertheless, after hurriedly descending the seventy-seven winding stone steps, I find myself lingering in the churchyard awhile to hear the bells of Christ Church ring out across the city.
DEAR SIR: SELECTED EXTRACTS FROM THE LETTERS PAGE OF ‘THE RINGING WORLD’
• “Alan Buswell’s quarter peal analysis for 2007 made very interesting reading…”
• “I receive my copy of Ringing World from our Tower Captain (in exchange for my Methodist Recorder!)…”
• “We don’t like being challenged. Many of the people around Jesus didn’t like being challenged by him either. [But] it is absolutely right that Revd Jones has raised the issue of belfry reform…”
• “Re: The ‘Rector’s Loose Ring’ in Aberdeen.”
• “Might I suggest that the quarter peals continue to be published in their present form, but with the font used to record the method names in the multi-method peals changed…”
• “The discussion continued after the AGM as we all proceeded to the pub…”