Julia Lysaght (right), the Irish Ringing Master for the Irish Association of Change Ringers (IACR), presenting the Cherry Cup to Diana Pitcher of the Abbeystrewry tower team following their victory in IACR’s Southern District change-ringing challenge cup competition held at the Abbeystrewry Church of Ireland, Skibbereen, on Sunday, 6 April 2014. (Ringing for Abbeystrewry were Diana Pitcher (captain), Anne Dex, Catherine Ebeling, Perry O’Donovan, Jane Hough, and Geoffrey Philips. This is the second time Skibbereen have won the cup, having won it previously in 2007.)
St Fin Barre’s Cathedral, Cork, were second in the competition and St Fachtna’s, Rosscarbery, third.
Abbeystrewry came to have a set of bells by accident more than anything else — progress by way of a series of cul-de-sacs one might say. At the turn of the century the bells of St Nicholas’s church in Cork city — long since decommissioned as a place of worship — a structure in the middle of a riverside area marked for Celtic Tiger redevelopment, were surplus to requirements. The property developers offered them for free to any church in Cork that wanted them. Diana, who had been a bell-ringer as a child and as a young woman, heard about this offer and set about securing them for Abbeystrewry.
Millennium Projects were everywhere at the time, little and large, personal and collective: hair transplants, boob-jobs, change your career, change your car, leave your stupid husband, come out and be gay, relocate, upsize, downsize, walk to Santiago, drive across the U.S., write that book, start up your own start-up, Tony Blair’s dome-folly at Greenwich, the London Eye, the Spire on O’Connell Street and so on. Lighting up churches was one of the several Marking-the-Millennium projects in Ireland — that is, night-lighting the buildings (bridges and castles were included in this too, I believe). However for some reason the church at Abbeystrewry missed out — either the authorities at Abbeystrewry didn’t hear about it, or maybe they did know about it but delayed applying until funds allocated for the project were exhausted (or it may be they simply did not want to have their temple flood-lit) — which or whether matters not, the outcome was that the church remained in the dark.
Therefore, in part Diana’s campaign to get a set of bells into the belfry at Abbeystrewry sought to make good this lacklustre situation.
The Cork city bells turned out to be unsuitable, however, and, eventually, it was decided to commission the renowned bell-specialists at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London to make a new set specifically for the Abbeystrewry tower.
Meanwhile, Diana set about fundraising to meet the costs of the project which now, obviously, dramatically escalated. Diana and her husband ran a successful art gallery business from their base at Cunnamore, which is a pretty little harbour area between Baltimore and Balleydehob, therefore for gallery purposes they had lists of well-to-do people with west Cork connections — not a bad starting point when you want to do some fund-raising.
Such that, eventually, four or so years after the project was originally initiated, the installation of the Abbeystrewry bells was completed, at a total cost of about €30,000, all of which Diana and her fundraising committee managed to secure.
Written by English composer George Ratcliffe Woodward (1848–1934), a bell-ringer, the carol ‘Ding Dong Merrily on High’ is designed to mimic the sound of well-rung rounds:
Ding dong merrily on high,
In heav’n the bells are ringing:
Ding dong! verily the sky
Is riv’n with angel singing.
Gloria… Hosanna in excelsis!
I mention this so that, even without being a ringer, one can get a sense of how light and nimble and precise good ringing is meant to be. Ideally, that is.
For me, however, the following, by Leonard Clark (1905-81), best captures the ringing world:
Half way up the winding stair, the ringing room,
last gleams of long summer evening
filtering soft silver through cobwebbed slats
in the tower windows, falling on the shoulders
of coatless ringers,
concentrated in a league of silence,
one moted ray picking out the record,
Gothic lettering faded, of eight
who rang a peal of Grandsire Triples,
a lamplit November evening, over seventy years ago,
sixtieth birthday of a new king.
5040 changes, 2 hours 54 minutes.
All dead now, dust in the overgrown churchyard,
graves hidden by nettles and bramble.
I see them now, those bearded ringers of yesterday,
braces tight over Welsh flannel shirts,
standing in calm circle, working out the changes,
hand and back stroke alternating,
sallies methodically swaying;
only the bells talking their way through the quick rounds,
the lamps flickering in the chill tower;
then, the honouring over, the peal done,
back to their homes through the starlit streets,
or celebrating quietly in ‘The George’ or ‘Crown’.
All gone now, only a few bowed elders remain
to remember the names and the faces of the old ringers.
But the bells live on,
Sunday to Sunday, festivals and practice nights,
the same mingled sounds over the dreaming town;
and a newer generation gathers,
a sprinkling of bald heads, the art well learned,
long-haired boys, and girls in jeans,
hardly out of their apprenticeship, not ready yet
for Grandsire, Steadman and Bob Majors,
but of the same glad company as those ghosts
who rang the changes here at the century’s turn,
when snow-flecked wagons lumbered into dark inn yards,
and the cocked-hat crier told of the relief of Mafeking,
the river clean, and white with sailing ships,
the nave packed out for Evensong.