Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Bells and Whistles

I was awoken today at a very early hour by Connemara's dawn chorus, a tuneful cacophony of sparrows, robins, crows and magpies practicing their wild songs across the bog here at Barna, alerting me to the new day's dawn. This morning's wake-up call also reminded me of my childhood, growing up in the middle of Loughrea, a small town on a beautiful lake in the eastern part of County Galway, where the dawn's arrival was heralded not by the birds, but by the sound of a train whistle from the railway station and the ringing of the church-bell on St. Brendan's Cathedral.

The Loughrea Railway was unusual in that it had a steam engine for much longer than most lines, until well into the sixties in fact, before finally being serviced by a diesel engine. Our railway line was a branch line, the last of its kind in Ireland and the UK and the line went from Loughrea to Attymon, a mere 12 mile spin really, across rolling countryside, past castles and cottages, bogs and tidy, stone-walled fields, to connect our sleepy market town to the bustling thoroughfare that was the main Dublin to Galway rail line.

The train left Loughrea each morning at half-seven on one of several round-trips to the little station-hamlet of Attymon, picking up passengers, school-children and parcels along the way, tooting at every level-crossing, startling the grazing sheep and cattle in the fields alongside the rail line. Each time as the train was about to depart, the driver would sound the 'hurry up and board' warning to the late-coming passengers, by giving several short blasts on the steam engine's whistle, to announce the train's imminent departure. This unique sound, not so loud, more joyful than urgent, echoed across the 'Walks', over the river and the walls beyond the old town moat, across the vegetable gardens, up around the massive chimney stacks atop the tall slate roofs of the shops and woke me from my slumber in my bedroom facing north across the widest part of Main Street and towards the railway station. I had little need of an alarm clock back then.

People nowadays forget how quiet Ireland was in those days. There were few cars on the road, no commuter traffic to Galway and almost no activity in the towns until te shops opened at 9.30am. Barring daily mass-goers and a very small cadre of other folks, like the railway station staff and the altar boys and Priest at the church, no one else was awake, or up out of bed, let alone dressed and ready for work before 8.30am. And I mean nobody. There were no shops open. The daily newspapers were usually delivered from Dublin on the train at 9am and as for coffee, forget about it...no-one drank coffee!

By the time I was nine years old, I like many other boys, became an altar boy, serving first as an candle-holding acolyte for the interminable evening Rosary and Benediction services, before being promoted in due course to serve the packed Masses in Latin on Sunday mornings, with our backs to the fasting congregation, the priest too, before the welcome changes of Vatican II turned him around to interact with his flock. The mass in Latin was, as you can imagine, a very different experience for a ten-year old boy whose grasp of foreign languages stopped at his struggle to remember the lines of Anach Cuain. The cadences and rythm of the Latin mass were reverential and even soothing, prompting one Kerry friend of mine, Nick Murphy, to remark once to me over a pint in New York in his broad Tralee accent, 'Yknow Brian, when the mass was in Latin, we used to be praying like hoors!'

There were maybe forty altar boys serving in the cathedral. The Carmelite Abbey had its own altar boy regiment and the rivalry was always there between the two sets. The altar boys were divided into four sections, A, B, C and D. I was in Section B, low man on the totem pole at the start, but making your way with experience up to section head-boy, which carried with it the allocation of duties. There might be six or eight altar boys at any mass or rosary, even more at 'big events' like Christmas or Easter or a Popes requiem and everyone had a job to do.

We wore black soutanes, and a starched white surplice on the altar. Those clothes and the mandatory black sand-shoes, which were never to be used for playing soccer, were kept at each boys home in a tiny little suitcase, our very own holy kit-bag. On big church occasions, especially 'High Mass', perhaps at Easter, or for 'Adoration', we wore the crimson-red sutanes which were kept in the huge closet in the sacristy, making us feel as important as the priests.

The servers duties all had names and included cruets, napkin, paten, thoorable, incence, bells, gong, crucifix, epistle, torch, taper, snuffer.and if the Bishop was saying mass, train. Every altar boy had his role before, during and after the service and there was practice for the boys in the Cathedral every now and then, where we practiced the responses in Latin and later in English for the various ceremonies, marching in order, genuflecting in unison, bowing graciously, striking the gong, ringing the bells, lighting the incense, the secret rite of the action of the thoorable, which we all called 'the trouble' and more. Being a boy, like all boys, lighting and snuffing out candles were my favourite jobs. The thoorable was one I have to practice for.

The thoorable is that ornate, brass incense-burning container that the priest blesses a congregation or even a coffin with, by waving it in several sets of three motions, causing billowing clouds of sweet-smelling insence smoke to engulf the altar. The beautifully cast brass burner hangs at the end of four long strands of golden chains, into which the lighted charcoal and fragrant incense were put, the top locked down and then the chains folded in such a way as to clink against the vessel when used in a blessing, clinking and smoking and generally fumigating the entire church, and the congregation. I often wondered if it was simply a fragrant blessing or the clergy's polite way to disguise the church-goer's odours which must have been pretty overpowering in the pre-deodrant sixties. Either way I am transported back to those days every time I smell a joss-stick or light the barbecue coals.

Serving mass had a few benefits. We got to go on the 'Server's Tour' each summer, usually to somewhere exotic like Achll, or Shannon, or Salthill. Chocolates and fizzy drinks were the main fare on those trips, and maybe a few illicit cigarettes. If you were lucky enough to serve at a wedding mass you might receive a gratuity, perhaps as much as a shilling or a half-crown. Some requiem masses also brought a gratuity. Once I got a crisp orange ten bob note for serving a Latin mass for a visiting American priest, three years after Latin masses had ceased. I suppose I was amongst the last of the Latin Mass servers and therefore had cornered a commodity...hmm, that's another skillset for my resume, I must remember to update it.

At Easter and Christmas a few of us would also be asked to serve mass in the Mercy Convent or in St. Brendan's Nursing Home, or 'The County Home' as it was then known as. Both venues were vied for as after the mass, the servers were always treated to a slap-up feed of boiled eggs and cakes. Heaven!

The Cathedral's four Altar Boys or Server's 'Sections', A, B, C and D, rotated the daily duties, morning, evening and Sundays amongst them. Every four weeks it would be my section's week to serve  the daily 8 o'clock morning mass. Because we lived so close to the church, once the train whistle blew, I'd be up out of bed, quickly pull on my clothes, hardly stopping to wash my face, before heading off down to St. Brendan's for my favourite altar boy chore, to ring the 'ten-to' bell for the eight o'clock mass.

During the winter, the darkness of the morning, the dusting of frost on the footpaths, or maybe the wisps of fog drifting in off the lake, often set an eerie scene as I walked alone, my boots echoing in the empty streets, whistling to myself  for company, for bravado, past the Church of Ireland chapel and graveyard, past the Cinema, down to Barrack Street and the darkened and locked Cathedral.

The cathedral's Sacristan usually had the mornings off, so you would have to get the key of the church from the priest, or whomever answered the door of the Presbytery and then you headed on over by yourself with the huge front-door key, to open up 'God's house', on your own! You, a ten year old boy, who definitely believed in ghosts, monsters and the divil himself. Sometimes there would be a coffin in the church, left there overnight in the sanctuary. Once you were inside the church you had to make your way in the pre-dawn darkness to the ladies side chapel where the light switches were. Your footsteps echoed in the vast space and every sound was amplified, matched only by the thumping of your heart. Only once did I get really spooked by a noise high up on the darkened pulpit, but remembering back, I can still feel the hairs standing on the back of my neck. It was always a relief to find the light switches and turn on the aisle lights, banishing the goblins in my head!

Next up, you and whomever else of the altar boys was early, had to ring the ten-to bell for mass. The bell was high up in the steeple. The steeple on St. Brendan's was so tall that the fourteen foot tall cross on top of it looked smaller than a man when viewed from the ground. The ornate iron cross could be seen from miles away, as indeed could the sound of the bell be heard, when it was rung. An old friend of my father's, Michael 'Big Spit' Ryan, told him that when the cross was hauled up to the top of the steeple in 1901, that Lord Clanrickarde himself arranged for a team of twenty huge shire horses to pull the cable onto which the massive iron cross was attached. the cable went through a pulley on scaffolding at the top of  the spire. He told my father that the lead horse was almost all the way down at the boys school on Piggott lane before the cross was at the top of the steeple on Barrack Street.

That had to have been some sight. I often wondered who the brave men were atop the scaffolding that day, man-handling the base of the cross into the huge spud-stone on the top of the soaring steeple. Perhaps they were the same breed of men who were famously photographed sitting nonchalantly on the girder suspended in mid-air, high above the Rockefeller Building in New York in 1930. Two of those brave iron-workers were from Shanaglish, near Gort in county Galway, so I suppose it is possible?

High inside the spire hangs a huge, cast-bronze bell. I don't know it's provenance, but it has a beautiful peal when rung properly. Tolling the bell was one of those 'secret rituals' that only the altar boys were initiated to and guarded greatly. The bell which one had to toll, was invisible to the ringer, being housed high up in the very tall steeple of St. Brendan’s. To ring it, one had to pull on a massively thick rope, that dangled down to within a few inches of the tiled floor of the foyer below the steeple, and high above you, maybe fifteen feet up, the rope disappeared through a circular hole in the wooden ceiling, from where it went up another 40 or 50 feet to the canti-levered axle on which the great bell squng. I only ever saw the bell once, it was huge, or so it seemed to be so to me. I suppose I weighed only 5 stone back then, and the bell probably many, many  times that. It was a Samson and Goliath task for a small boy to ring that bell.

For the ten-to bell, you rang the bell twenty-one times. In order to get the bell to ring properly, you had to get it to swing hard, to and fro on its curved axle, to hit the static clapper. I would start this process with some small tugs on the rope, and as the bell began to sway, the movement of the bell would lower and raise the rope, higher and higher in successive motions on its curved axle, until you, holding on tight to the rope, found yourself being lifted high up towards the ceiling and back down again on the rope, hanging on for dear life as you struggled to stay in touch with the bell's peals, counting to 21, hoping for no double rings, or false rings, and then at 21, dropping to the floor and slowing the bells progress by double pulling on the rope to interfere with the swing.

Usually it took two or three of the smaller lads to get the momentum up for the bell to ring. They would be whooshed up to the ceiling, their soutanes flapping and unceremoniously dropped down again for each peal. And on the last pull, you had to be aware of the joke we always played on any new-comers, where you alone may be left holding onto the rope, while the others broke their sides laughing at you, having left go of the rope, hooting as you shot up and hit the ceiling with a thump on the return swing.

Inevitably, on one of my first mornings, I had to toll the bell on my own, being the only server to turn up for that morning's mass. I was only 10 and was so small, I had the nickname 'Mouse'. I had no helper and I was so afraid of the bell and so nervous, that I failed entirely to make it ring at all despite my best efforts. I had to be rescued from my embarrassment by a kindly adult, Tom Scully, a regular early mass-goer who with one tug got the bell in motion.

After that I vowed to get the 'swing of it' and in time, I did. It took a few rather jarring efforts for me to develop my own style and confidence, but eventually I became quite a competent bell-toller. It gave me such a feeling of power, controlling this huge alarm-clock and waking up everyone in the town. It was a responsible job and we took it seriously, mostly. I remember one unfortunate boy getting his times wrong and ringing the ten-to bell an hour early, at ten to seven, much to the confusion of the regular early mass-goers, and the chagrin of the apparently late priest!

Later as I got better at the ringing, I would be allowed to ring the Angelus at noon and at six. That took more concentration, ringing the 3, 3, 3, 9 sequences just right. The sound of the bell ringing was so loud that you often lost count as your own ears started ringing in time with the church bell. Woe betides you if you forgot what you were ringing and went to 19, 20, 21 or more bongs. There is no room for artistic licence in the Angelus!

Ringing the 'Death Knell' for someone’s requiem mass was the plum job. This entailed ringing the bell once, then a pause for maybe ten seconds, then another peal, continuing this for maybe five or six minutes, longer if the dear departed was someone important or a relative slipped you a tanner (old six-pence) to keep it up a bit longer and really let everyone in town know it was Johnny's or Mary's last mass.

My father, like many of the men in Loughrea back in the sixties, was mad into Greyhounds. We often had three or four dogs in training for racing or coursing, and a brood-bitch or two with a litter of seven or eight pups in the back-yard, all at the same time. We were not alone in this, as the Scullys and the Kellys also had greyhounds nearby.  The Sweeneys next door to us, now the AIB bank, had a huge Alsatian dog called Rajah. Brogans on the corner had a terrier called Bosco and every second house had another mutt. The McInerney's donkey, that lived in a stable in the laneway at the back of their shop, completed the Main Street menagerie. As soon as the church-bell would start to ring these competing choirs of dogs and donkey would start to howl and bray until the bells ceased. You wouldn't hear the like from hungry wolves in the Klondyke. The 101 Dalmations movie always reminds me of them, but their chorus was easily the least tuneful performance I have ever heard. Whatever chance you had of sleeping through the train whistle and the church bells, you had none at all when the 'choir' chimed in.

Nowadays, when I stay over in Loughrea I am awoken not by the bells and whistles of my youth, but by the sounds of the early-to-work commuter traffic. The last train pulled out of Loughrea in the late 1970's, the once proud station and the manicured platform lie abandoned. The rail line was taken up and the permanent way is now the new road to the motorway. Sometime in the 1990's the great bell on St. Brendan’s was silenced forever, for health and safety reasons I expect, given the craic we boys used to have ringing it. It was replaced by a pre-recorded peal paen of an inferior kind. Somewhere in the sacristy, there is an electronic timer that sets the carillon off at appropriate times and at such a low decibel that most mass-goers and yes, even the dogs sleep through it. The donkey is long gone, and so is McInerneys on Main Street. I cannot imagine Extra-Vision having a donkey and cart for DVD deliveries and pick-ups, though it might just be the tonic to improve their business.

Progress is in the beholder's eyes, or ears in this case. I miss those bells and whistles that filled my young head with dreams. I wonder how my own ten year old boy would enjoy the stuff I loved back when I was his age?

Pocket Memories

I delve their pockets after they are gone, picking amongst the memories, connecting, collecting, brooding magpies - departing flights of encounters, sorrows, joys, secrets, girls and boys, picking only at the gleaming silver and gold bits, not too subtly, ignoring sensibilities, after all, their souls have passed on, no need any more for worldly goods, irresponsible, unfettered by their possessions, perhaps for the first time, free of our lives, the necessary cars, and houses, shoes and shirts, free at last, unashamed, unshod, sliding down the slope, laughing, exuberant laughing, gaire gan naire, ahhhhhh , such life among the dead, and we the living, half-dead, weary, tied, anchored, backward-looking, blinkered, treading, unthreading, the way they went, we with them …and them, shuffling in their useless shirts and shoes, polaroids of their fading existence, Zimmer-frame moments in the minutia of time, not in context, accordioned with cacophonous neaaaah!!, unlike the sweet sounds of their melodies, picked from the concerto of their lives, staccato, notes to remember, sneaky tears, salty, unbidden, savour the repeating chorus, we in harmony with them, duets, solos, whole choirs, occasionally, the tune, one of their’s, bittersweet, a requiem, celebrated, tearfully, my hand’s eyes delving the pockets of their times, the flavours of their sense, scents, fidget, rifle in their surprises, odd moments, uncular, aternal, fingering the worry beads, hankies, keys, bulls-eyes, pennies, half-pennies, half-crowns, cinema ticket, cigarette butts, whistle, matches, watch, pieces of twine, binding my memories inexorably in the allergic ravel of life’s bale, stacked with the others now in the big barn, some sprouting now, signs of re-awakening, phoenixed from the ashes, renewal in our lives, the odd look, the smile, a mannerism, wave of hand, a laugh, a phrase, disconnected, from another source, yours, theirs’ who knows, a hint though, however fleeting, a memory, of them, for yes, that is them, silently rattling the change in their pockets, keeping their promise, always, a wrapped toffee, a suckie sweet, kept only for you, by them, for later, for love.

In Memoriam - Michael Bourke, Kilkee

Brian Nolan - February 4th 2007