Jingle Bells .

This annual pre-Christmas Day address will, as in previous years, include a mix of some Christmas verse and some useful and useless information about the church all combined with a good dash of historical trivia about Dublin and hung very loosely around the subject of the address title.
          It was a bit presumptuous on my part, but in the few days after last year’s address I was musing on what great subject I’d tackle in 2020. Then, last Christmas Eve as the carol service in St Patrick’s Cathedral concluded and we made our way towards the great west door the glorious sound the of cathedral bells rang out in harmony to announce that Christmas was here. I knew I had the subject matter for this address.
          There is a huge canon of prose, poetry, carols, and popular songs associated with Christmas and it includes many references to the ringing of bells. In Alfred Tennyson’s Ring Out Wild Bells he starts out rather gloomily but concludes in the final verses with the hopeful message announced by the bells of Christmas.

          Ring out old shapes of foul disease, Ring out the narrowing lust of gold
          Ring out the thousand wars of old, Ring in the thousand years of peace.
          Ring in the valiant man and free, The larger heart, the kindlier hand
          Ring out the darkness of the land, Ring in the Christ that is to be.

Just a few weeks ago I had expected to be emphasising the need to keep hoping … but the wonderful work of scientists all around the globe has produced a number of vaccines that will yet turn our hopes into a reality and that we will indeed ‘Ring out old shapes of foul disease’. But there are still very testing days, weeks, and months ahead of us. And, while we can look to a brighter future, we can’t forget the losses of the last year. The loss of normal human contact and interaction, the loss of employment and business, and, above all, the loss of lives.
          To date the consequences of the pandemic for me have, thankfully, just been a lot of inconvenience and some disappointments at the cancellations of holidays and events. What I did miss during the church year though was an anniversary service address I had planned to give here during the summer and of course leading our two annual summer walks around town. So today, as a real Christmas bargain, I give you two for the price of one, an address and a virtual walking tour combined!
          We are sometimes asked by visitors to our church ‘what denomination did this building belong to before it was owned by Unitarians’? It’s a reasonable question. The building is unusually ornate for a congregation from the dissenting tradition that had worshipped in Meeting Houses for the previous two hundred years. This congregation descends directly from two congregations, Strand Street and Eustace Street. A mid -19th century visitor to the city wrote - Eustace Street Meeting House is not so spacious as that in Strand Street, nor is its congregation more than half as numerous. As the members of this religious sect study and cultivate the absence of ornament, their places of worship afford nothing for the eye of curiosity to rest upon.
          The repeal of restrictive religious laws in the early 19th Century had paved the way for a huge programme of church building to meet the needs of a growing city. Congregations of Roman Catholics and Protestant Dissenters of all descriptions moved out of their Chapels and Meeting Houses in side streets and back lanes into splendid new churches built in a riot of different styles on main thoroughfares. Some examples of these styles can be seen here on Stephen’ Green. This church which opened in 1863 was built in the neo-gothic style that seems to have been in favour with unitarians at that time. Although the interior of this building is ornate, a reasonably trained eye will be able to read the interior and, through the presence or absence of certain features, conclude that the church was built for dissenters. The exterior of the church however is not so easy to read.
          Viewed from across the street we will see that there are three crosses positioned on the church - one at the top of the lower roof, one on the top of the upper roof and, the highest one, at the top of the spire. The crosses tell us that church was built for a Christian community but there are no obvious clues as to which of the many branches of Christianity the community belonged to. Looking for clues we will note the belfry under the spire. But, our belfry is ‘bell free’. It holds… a water tank! This tells us quite a lot. We’ll return to the matter later.
          We will leave the parish of St Peter’s and enter the parish of St Ann’s at the top of Grafton Street, Strolling down to the bottom of the Street we turn left towards St Andrew’s Street and the parish church of St Andrew’s, a church with some connections to our congregation. When St Andrews was being rebuilt in 1797 their services were held in our Eustace Street meeting house and a letter of gratitude from the Rector of St Andrew’s is held in our church records. The current (1862) building was designed by Lanyon Lynn & Lanyon, the architects of our abode here on Stephen’s Green. There are a lot of similarities in the design of the two buildings but there is one important difference. As a parish church, St Andrew’s did have a bell in its belfry.
          From St Andrew’s Street via Dame Street we make our way to a stop in Christ Church Place opposite The Cathedral of The Holy Trinity. Road widening schemes have greatly damaged this area and it’s hard to visualise it as the bustling centre of the medieval city of Dublin. The narrow streets that made up this area would have buzzed with all the sounds of medieval city life and the loudest of all these old city sounds was the sound of ringing bells, and not just the cathedral bells but the parish bells too.
          Inside the city walls were the parish churches of St John, St Werburgh, St Nicholas, St Michael and St Audoen. The parishes were small but densely populated. A connecting line between these churches would enclose an area smaller than modern day St Stephens Green. In the Liberties, outside the city walls, but with their bells within earshot, were the parish churches of St Bridget, St Peter, St Stephen, St Kevin, St Catherine, St James, St Luke, and also of course, St Patrick’s Cathedral.
          So back to the question ‘why is our belfry bell free’? ‘The Church’, whether Pre-Reformation or Post Reformation, was an arm of state power and there could only be one recognised official church. The recognised church changed a few times but whichever church had the official franchise (and for a brief period in 1650’s ancestors of this church had it) their role as official church came with civic powers and responsibilities. The parish was a basic unit of government. Parish Vestries had responsibilities that included making provision for the poor of the parish, cleaning and lighting of parish streets, keeping law and order in the parish, and the burials of the dead of the parish. Official state and civic occasions were announced by the ringing of parish bells – the official bells of the official church. Quite simply, it was illegal for dissenters to ring bells.
          We can only wonder why, never having had the right or the intention of ringing a church bell, our predecessors saw no irony in including a belfry as a feature of this church! But, if we did have a bell, I think that today, on the last Sunday before Christmas, we would be ringing it out loudly in whatever sound transmitted a message of hope.
          The bell is simple instrument, but when bells of different sizes are rung in a pattern with timing and skill, they create a sound that is hard to equal. The best place to hear them in Dublin is back where the idea for this address started, St Patricks Cathedral. One of the big musical losses during 2020 has been the silencing of the cathedral bells. William Morton, the Dean of St Patrick’s, reflected on this loss in an article written for the winter edition of St Patrick’s People, the magazine of the Friends of St Patrick’s Cathedral.
          The bells of St Patrick’s Cathedral have been ringing out over Dublin for hundreds of years. They have marked time for successive generations, especially with the invitation to worship, but also, with suitable adjustment as required, for weddings and funerals, times of national gladness, or sorrow, and, in more historic times, to indicate danger of invasion. Distinctive sounds characterise a place, like the sound of the old tram system, traffic on Grafton Street, or the old Docklands – all now a phenomenon of the past. Thankfully, however, the sound of the bells of St Patrick’s is still with us, despite serious incidents in earlier centuries. Often, when I walk along St Patrick’s Close to divine service in the cathedral, I always find the sound of the bells - the call to worship- very emotive, and very powerful. The invisible waves of sound energy are sent out for all to hear. It is a sound which links heaven and earth, and claims our attention, from far beyond us. The bells call us to something greater than ourselves. The evocative call resonates deep within in us because our hearts recognise that it is a call from God, who although beyond us, is also with us at the heart of our communities and lives, calling us to respond.
          The bells remind us that we are called by God as members of the worshipping community in this place. In these days however, due to the current restrictions as a result of Covid 19, the congregation’s engagement with worship has been forced to take on a different dimension. At the time of writing it is not possible to have a congregation in the cathedral and the bells which call us to worship, unfailingly, have fallen silent. As St Paul wrote to the early Christians at Corinth however, ‘we do not lose heart’. There is a sense in which we are called, in fact, to become like bells, that our lives speak clearly and in harmony with others.

          A poet who almost did lose heart was Henry Longfellow. His poem I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day was written at the height of the American Civil War at a time when it seemed that the power of hatred would overwhelm any prospects for peace and goodwill. But the power of good prevails.
          The poem appears as hymn 240 in our hymn book where, as goes without saying, the words have been edited. I intended to include the full poem in this address but it appeared on All Souls Belfast Facebook page earlier in the December and then it was read during our joint online service last week by one of our friends from Prince’s Street Cork. So we won’t overdo it. But I’d like to conclude with the last few lines,
          And in despair I bowed my head;
          "There is no peace on earth," I said;
          "For hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth,
          good-will to men!"
          Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
          "God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
          The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail,
          With peace on earth, good-will to men."
          Happy Christmas

Rory Delany
St Stephen’s Green Unitarian Church                     December 2020