The Origins of the Angelus on Radio Éireann

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 3 (Autumn 2000), News, Volume 8

The issues raised by a 1943 student debate on broadcasting in University College Cork were published the following year as a pamphlet, A Listener’s Opinion. Complaining about the small number of religious programmes broadcast by Radio Éireann, the author, Deasún Ó Raghalliagh asked:

Surely if the Catholic religion is a part of our lives we should have more religious broadcasts from Radio Éireann…Do our broadcasts open with even the smallest prayer? Do we ever hear a prayer from Radio Éireann? Why for instance was the Angelus not said at six in the evening?

Radio Éireann responded that such matters were not to be decided by them in the first instance but by Catholic church authorities. Apart from an occasional letter to the newspapers the issue lapsed for four years. In 1948, the secretary of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs who oversaw broadcasting, Leon Ó Broin, discussed the idea of a daily spoken Angelus with the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid. This idea was rejected, but an alternative of experimenting with the sound of a bell was also considered.
Once the principle of the broadcast was agreed, how it was to be done became an engineering matter. From the broadcasting point of view a recording represented a simple solution. The gramophone record or tape could be played immediately after the six o’clock time ‘pips’ from the Dunsink observatory. It would involve only a short curtailment of the children’s programme following. However, after further discussion it emerged that a ‘live’ Angelus bell broadcast was required.
The search then began for a suitable bell. In early 1949 two Radio Éireann engineers set out to find one. At the time only one church in Dublin, the Franciscan church in Merchant’s Quay, had an electrically operated bell. But the ringing there was not automated—the bell was operated by a simple push-button. Forestalling the engineer’s investigations, Archbishop McQuaid let Radio Éireann know that he favoured using his own Pro-Cathedral bell. Leon Ó Broin wrote to the Broadcasting Director, Charles Kelly, that the archbishop was ‘inclined to insist on the relays being taken from the St Mary’s, the Dublin Pro-Cathedral; so we may take our cue from that’. Kelly agreed. He had listened to the Pro-Cathedral bell, and found it had a ‘nice quality and pitch’. Two engineers, J.D. Ferguson and Lyons, duly examined the Pro-Cathedral bell in January 1949 and reported that ‘the tone of the bell is such that it will give a true rendering of the Angelus’.
According to the Radio Éireann press handout, Archbishop McQuaid, who had an interest in horology, ‘to prevent confusion…suggested that the first stroke of the bell should be at 6pm precisely’. But the Pro-Cathedral bell was neither electrically operated nor automated. J.D. Ferguson now had to set to work to devise a mechanism to get the bell to ring on time and in the correct sequence: 3-3-3-9 (the archbishop’s secretary had been asked to give the authorised arrangement).
To meet the needs of broadcasting it was obvious that a simple relay was not going to be sufficient. The first stroke of the Angelus bell had to be triggered by an accurate time signal sent by land line from the GPO. The mechanism motor was activated by a programme clock and a time switch. The programme clock took its time from the master clock in the GPO which was itself controlled from the Dunsink observatory. The object was to synchronise the first stroke of the Pro-Cathedral bell with the last ‘pip’ of the time signal at six o’clock precisely.
The normal hazards of a ‘open’ microphone had to be catered for. Because it was to be broadcast ‘live’ precautions had to be taken at the site. The correct placing of the microphone was crucial. The bell should be heard clearly but not the striking mechanism. The effects of wind, rain, birdsong and other extraneous noises had to be minimised, if they could not be eliminated altogether. In the Pro-Cathedral the microphone and its amplifier were housed in a weatherproof box. The striking gear was housed in a sound-proof steel enclosure.
It had originally been intended that the Angelus bell ringing would mark the beginning of the Holy Year, 1950, but because of technical delays the 1 January deadline was not met. Finally, on Wednesday 23 May 1950, the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs, James Everett, announced to the press that arrangements were being made to have the Angelus rung over the air each evening at six o’clock. While the mechanism would operate the bell twice daily ‘only the evening peals will be broadcast’. Following the earlier delays the next most appropriate start-up date was the Feast of the Assumption, 15 August. The blessing of the bell and its mechanism on 14 August 1950 was attended by a large delegation from the management of Radio Éireann and officials of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs. Newspaper coverage, both secular and religious, was plentiful. Most reported His Grace expressed  the hope (in suitably bold type) that

all who heard the Angelus bell—in particular our people at home and exiles throughout the world—would recite the Angelus, in union with Our Blessed Lady as a prayer of thanksgiving for the Grace of the incarnation.

Leon Ó Broin said he had been asked by the minister, who ‘had shown the keenest interest in it’, but who was absent at the time in Strasbourg, to convey his apologies to His Grace for his absence. Speaking for the department ‘they felt that the Angelus bell was of enormous and national importance and apart from the time feature would move many people to say the beautiful prayer’. One newspaper reprinted a poem by R.J. Purcell to celebrate the event:

…The chimes that from the giant tower
O’er city streets reverberate
Exert a momentary power
Where trade and commerce operate,
And lips grow faintly tremulous
In fleeting tribute to salute
The ringing of the Angelus.

Brian Lynch is RTÉ archivist for written materials.


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