Oct 13, 2009

Tea and a Thought: The Angelus

I occasionally tune into RTÉ Radio 1 for a little bit of home while I drink my afternoon tea. I'm always surprised and comforted (especially when I listen to Joe Duffy or Marian Finucane) to hear conversations–genuine conversations with real people–that are unrushed, and seemingly unaffected by the general opinion that today's listeners can only handle bite-size content. Anyway, this morning, I looked at the menu of Radio 1 programs, and decided on The Documentary Hour. Well, I didn't know whether to fall over, or fall to my knees, when the program opened with that old familiar BONG, BONG, BONG of the Angelus.

In Ireland, the Angelus–the ringing of a bell calling for prayer–is broadcast
every night at 6:00 pm on the TV channel RTE 1, before the Six O'Clock
news, and on the radio station Radio 1, at noon and 6:00 pm.

I was immediately thrown back to my grandmother's kitchen, where I was on my knees leaning over a cushioned chair, rattling off responses to what could have been an auction for cattle, such was the pace and coherence of the prayers. I don't even remember which prayers we said, just that whatever we had been doing or saying before that was stopped and knocked abruptly to its knees at the summoning of those bells. I do remember knowing at a very early age that the news was extremely important, and that Charlie Bird and Anne Doyle were messengers of God, as it was a mortal sin to talk over them.

Hearing the bells again this morning, I wondered that they are still ringing in today's Ireland. RTÉ has been broadcasting the Angelus over the radio since the 50s, and on television since the 60s, but it's a distinctly Roman Catholic prayer, one marking the Annunciation–the moment the Angel Gabriel told Mary that she was to be the mother of Jesus. The listening and viewing audiences today are far more diverse than in the 50s and 60s, and with all the scandals and scoundrels in the Church, it's fair to say the attitude to the Catholic Church is a little less reverent than it was in the good old days. Most of all, I'm gobsmacked that the precious airtime before the news hasn't yet been bought or sold to one of the more revered churches like the Church of Ronald McDonald or the Church of Vodafone.

Seems I had a little ESP thing going with RTÉ; just a few weeks ago, they revamped the Angelus. Rather than get rid of it, and open themselves up to potential uproar at the idea of kicking the country when it is already down on its knees praying for economic recovery, they brought it up to date. The gongs remain, but the Angelus is now referred to as a "moment of grace and peace." Also, the still shots of medieval paintings of Mary and the Angel Gabriel have been replaced with a rotation of soothing images to prompt reflection and pause, and possibly (unintentionally) even prayer. These include a street artist sketching praying hands on Dublin's College Green near Trinity College; a Zambian immigrant gazing out of her window towards the Phoenix Park in Dublin; a mother in County Clare polishing a memorial stone to her drowned son; an older couple feeding swans on the Shannon, and a fisherman at sea on his trawler.

I enjoyed Irish Times columnist, Shane Hegarty's take on the new Angelus. Overall, he likes that the nation still gets a moment to take a breath, compose itself and let its thoughts drift, just before the news arrives to shatter that composure, but he questions the continuation of an obviously secular ritual. He had a few suggestions for really updating it:

"Perhaps it shouldn’t always be a moment of grace and peace. Maybe it should be a minute to give the nation a boost. A guaranteed happy minute in any day, regardless of what’s going on. I find myself moved to suggest a daily funny YouTube clip, but the proportion of people annoyed by videos of sneezing cats is probably higher than those annoyed by the Angelus."


"a properly revamped Angelus replacement should give the nation a collective moment, a reminder of those rare moments when the country is united in joy. Sport offers us that. So, perhaps we could take a minute each evening to show footage of Ronan O’Gara’s drop kick against Wales, or Eamonn Coghlan winning the World Championships. Or they could show every kick of the 1990 World Cup penalty shoot-out. You could even add the bongs – one with every kick. It would, no doubt, keep the traditionalists happy.

I'm not sure how I feel about the Angelus. To be honest, it didn't bother me all these years assuming it was gone, and not dropping to my knees before the news here in Brooklyn, but I have to admit I had a warm feeling of nostalgia when I heard those knee-weary gongs this morning. I'm all for inclusion and understand that the Angelus bells offend secularists, rationalists, and even some constitutionalists (all paying to watch their TVs), but selfishly and romantically, those gongs are a song from my past–a simple brainwashed song, maybe–but I'm glad they're still ringing.

Sigh, if only I could arrange for a twice-a-day bell to remind me to stop, think, and listen to the news...

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