harpers listening to bells

I was reviewing my interview with Mícheál Ó Catháin for forthcoming inclusion on his State of the Art interview series, and a comment on my upbringing in the English change-ringing tradition started me thinking about the potential soundscape of change-ringing in the ears of the old Irish harp tradition bearers.

A cursory glance through the list of change-ringing towers in Ireland shows that there are 17th century rings of bells in Dublin, Waterford and Kilkenny as well as Blessington near the Wicklow – Kildare border; and there are late-18th century rings in Hillsborough, in Drumbo (Ballylesson, co. Down), Drogheda, and Cork city.

The six bells of St. Patrick’s CoI cathedral in Armagh were cast by Abraham Rudhall of Gloucester in 1721. They were shipped from England and when they arrived in Armagh later in 1721, the procession (presumably on horse-drawn carts) is said to have drawn a greater crowd than an execution on Gallows Hill. I presume that once the installation was completed, that a band would have been recruited and/or trained, and that the six bells would have been regularly rung.

Before the days of double-glazed windows, soft furnishings, hi-fi, motor vehicles, domestic appliances etc. I think that the city would have been a lot quieter; and before the days of planning restrictions and environmental health the tower openings would have been free from sound control shutters. So the sound of the bells would have been loud and strong through the much smaller city than we are used to in the neighbourhood of a change-ringing tower today.

The 18th-century Irish harper and tradition-bearer, Patrick Quin, is said to have been born in Armagh city in 1746. So presumably he would have grown up with the sound of change-ringing through his formative years.

My header image is an early 19th century view of Armagh city, with the bell-tower of the CoI cathedral containing the ring of six 1721 Rudhall bells. (there’s no longer a spire on the tower). Quin may have grown up in one of those houses in the foreground.

This video shows me on the treble and my mother on the five, at Ballylesson, co. Down. The back six of this ring of bells were cast by Rudhall of Gloucester and installed here in 1791.


3 thoughts on “harpers listening to bells”

  1. Cyril Wratten, in Change ringing, the history of an English art volume 3 (1994), p.88 says “there is no evidence of change-ringing in Ireland during the [18th] century”. He is concentrating on peal reports, but it raises questions about what was being rung in the Irish towers. Perhaps just rounds; perhaps plain changes or call changes as he suggests in the West of England and Wales.

  2. I went to Waterford last month, for the 150th anniversary of the installation of the new set of 8 bells, and the ringing of the first peal in Ireland. I was asked to conduct two plain courses of Grandsire Triples since that was the method that had been pealed 150 years previously.

    The Waterford bells, as installed in 1872. The six is front left. The tenor at the back weighs about one ton.
    My photo of the Waterford bells. The 4 and 5 have been rung down. The 6 is front left. The tenor, which weighs about 1 ton, is back centre. I think most of this installation probably dates from 1872. There are obviously new wheels on the 1, 2 and 3; and the main part of the frame looks older to me, probably 18th century, with the extension I am standing on likely dating from 1872.

    The peal band in July 1872 came over from London; one of them remained in Waterford and trained a local band, who themselves rang a peal eighteen months later in December 1873.

    G.I. Mackesy M.B. rang the six during this peal of Grandsire Triples. He subsequently paid for the very handsome polished marble peal board that is on the wall in the ringing chamber, to commemorate this event. The rope of the six is visible hanging to the right of the board:

    Peal board in Waterford Cathedral ringing room

    George Ivie Mackesy MB JP (c.1845-1917) was the son of Joseph Poulter MacKesy MA (1815-1886).

    It is the father Joseph Mackesy who is mentioned eighteen years earlier, in the extraordinary speech given by the traditional harper, Mr. O’Connor, at the end of the harp concert where he performed alongside traditional harper, Mr. Bell, in Waterford Town Hall on 12th June 1854:

    Before I conclude, I would beg to pay a just debt of gratitude to one gentleman present; and in doing so, I trust he will not be offended. I have an Irish heart, and I must speak out my gratitude. I have been offered an asylum in this City at the hands of DR. JOSEPH MACKESY, whilst having myself cured of the effects of a severe injury I some time ago received; and although not quite decided whether or not I can accept this kind offer, I feel myself called on to tender my humble and truly sincere thanks in this public manner, to Dr. J. MACKESY, now present, for this most considerate act of benevolence.
    Waterford Chronicle, 17 Jun 1854

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