Tuesday, April 20, 2010


Living in Europe pours light on the vastness of my ignorance, despite my university education. I’m learning, among other things, how little experience I have with bells, church bells specifically.

In Ireland, of course, there are church bells. Bells toll just before mass, they toll for funerals, and they toll for the Angelus, twice a day, at noon and at six. I got used to the rhythm of each of these bells. A single bell striking repeatedly at moderate intervals calls one to mass. The Angelus is distinctive: three strikes in close succession, then a pause. Three notes and a pause. Again three notes and a pause. Then nine notes in succession. I find myself counting them out, as if ordering my day. By tradition, RTE, the national television and radio network of Ireland, broadcasts the Angelus every day at noon and six. The evening news begins not at 6 p.m., but at 6:01, immediately following the Angelus. In homes where the faith is taken seriously, one would pause, at least briefly, in respect.

I loved that, from our kitchen and bedroom, I could hear the Angelus drift across the fields between our house and the church in Ballylooby, 2 kilometres away. As I adjusted to the strangeness of early darkness in winter, I became accustomed to the rhythms of the devotion punctuating my day. One Saturday in December, that first year we were there, I spent making spaghetti sauce, keeping an eye on the clock to time the process as the sun set. Even so, when I was called out into the pitch-blackness of evening to meet a visitor, I was startled to hear the first notes of the Angelus, so dark it was, so early.

The funeral bell has its own rhythm, an agonisingly slow beat and long pause, beat and long pause, a pace so slow that each pause stretches out over accumulating seconds, mourners standing in the grey light as pall bearers struggle up the church aisle, shaky with the unexpected burden shouldered, the community waiting as if to take the next breath when the bell strikes again. I never ascertained how long the tolling went on, how many strokes, how many minutes. It could be simply that it begins tolling with the arrival of the hearse and continues until the coffin is in place before the altar and the principal mourners are seated. But rhythm of a funeral bell is unmistakeable. Hearing the slow notes drifting over the bustle of a morning in town, one reflects on the solemnity of the moment.

I write, of course, of my experience near a small town and even smaller village. My experience of larger towns and cities was more limited. I recall one Sunday morning in Dublin hearing from our hotel window the bells of first one church and then another tolling for mass. As in the country, they were single bells, one stately note repeated, calling the people to church.

Last summer, we attended a wedding in Valderrobles, Spain, staying for three nights a couple of hundred metres away from the ancient vaulted church that crowns a hill down which cobble streets wind. From its heights just above our wood-shuttered window, the church bell marked each quarter hour, through the sun-struck day, through the shimmering velvet night, into the cool golden dawn. I loved its sonorous commanding voice ordering the day, minding the hours of the night.

But we were unprepared for the bells of Salzburg.

We moved into our flat on the afternoon of Palm Sunday. Throughout that Holy Week, in the early evenings when I was alone in the flat, I heard chiming of bells from across the wood and the field beyond, coming from an unseen church. This was not the tolling of a single bell but a volley of notes, like song. The chiming continued for some minutes, five or ten or more. Other times, I heard pealing from another direction. There were bells from two churches, each close enough for the tolling to drift in an open window or even, more faintly, a closed one.

Easter morning we awoke to extravagantly pealing bells, the notes dancing in on the golden sunlight streaming through the windows.

‘See, I told you,’ I said to Himself, who, when I told him about the bells, had teased me about having gone cracked.

I hear them still of an evening, not necessarily on the hour or half hour. I don’t know whether they signal services or a particular devotion as the Angelus does. Perhaps it is simply bell-ringing practice, if there are bell ringers at all rather than a mechanical programme. Sometimes I am confused, hearing in the thrum of the radiators chimes that, on opening the window to hear them more clearly, I discover didn’t drift in from outside at all, only from within my excitable imagination, eager for new stimulation. Since that first week, I’ve located the two churches, each barely over a kilometre away, each with a narrow pastel nave under an arrow-shaped roof and a thick, tall bulb-topped steeple. I can see one from the flat, just across the river, illuminated gold in the blue-black night. I haven’t visited either.

But Sunday morning, as I sat alone in the early quiet of the living room that looks west over the wood and south over the field, I listened, more carefully, to the tolling, trying to create the space in my mind to describe it. It was then I first realised there are several bells chiming at once, each with its unique voice. It began with the deep note of a single bass bell. Then others joined in, chorus like, the tempo increasing, higher voices thrilling in a rising melody, exuberant, calling out over and over, the deeper bell heavy beneath them marking time, all the notes bubbling up like a Baroque extravagance above an altarpiece, a swelling golden cloud rising into heaven. I listened, hearing as well the piping voice of the tit and the sweet, clear blackbird note in the wood rising from the garden, as the bells’ song filled the sky, wave after wave of chime over chime, cresting to tumescent crescendo. Then, gradually, the notes began to calm, the roiling melody falling slightly, the chorus muting, until, at last, the deep bell struck unaccompanied. One. Two. Three.

And it was done.

The bell song died away. And still I listened to the call of the tit, three notes like double chimes, then silent, then repeated, rising in the wood, high and pure, at last echoing in my mind like the deep distant reverberations of the bells.

1 comment:

  1. took me back to Malta, when I was 8 or 9 and I rang my first six feet diameter bell from underneath it...the master bell ringer keeping rhythm with the swing of the pendulum and then the frightening presence of the chime. People tell the time by church bells back there.