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?