Angelus Novus

by Henry on September 19, 2009

One of the odd and not-very-well-known-by-non-Irish-people things about Ireland is that every day, at 6pm, the main television station broadcasts the Angelus – one minute precisely of church bells ringing – for people to pause, reflect (and at least according to the original intentions of those who instituted it), pray.1 Back when I was growing up in Ireland, and the vast majority of my compatriots claimed that they went to Mass every week, the Angelus bells were accompanied by still shots of paintings of the Holy Family. As the country began to modernize a bit in the 1980s and 1990s, the Angelus gradually became more pluralistic, titillating religiously adventurous viewers with the occasional picture of a Russian Orthodox icon or whatever. But what to do after the supplanting of Roman Catholic hegemony by a bog-standard West European post-religious society? The “Irish Times”: has an interesting short article on the politics of the Angelus in the modern era.

bq. THE ANGELUS will from next Monday be changed – though not utterly. Under a revamping of the evening pause for prayer on RTÉ One television, the gongs will remain the same. …the same ones as have been heard since the Angelus was first broadcast on RTÉ radio in 1950, and which originated with the bells at Dublin’s Pro-Cathedral … seven “episodes” in a new Angelus mini-series of visual reflections … oblivious calm amid the hue and cry … while he sketches an image of a pair of praying hands. … mother in Sixmilebridge, Co Clare, as she polishes a memorial stone to her drowned son … grandparents Tess and Pascal Finn feeding fussy swans on the Shannon at Limerick and Enniscorthy fisherman John Keating, who is shown out at sea in his trawler … Namucana Nyambe from Zambia as she gazes contemplatively towards the Phoenix Park … grist to the mill for those avid letter writers who have been campaigning for years to get the Angelus taken off the schedule of the State broadcaster.

It’s interesting how little bits of the previously dominant religious culture can weather the storm of progress – but only through the transfiguration of their content. If the Angelus didn’t already exist it would never be instituted in a society like contemporary Ireland – but since it does exist and would be difficult to get rid of without upsetting people (still-believing Catholics; once-were-Catholics who fancy they would miss it if it were gone) it has been gradually transformed instead into something that maintains the form of the original (still the old church bells), but few of the original religious valences.

1 Italy’s _Rai Uno_ has something similar as I recall (although timed not to interfere with the celebration of the true national religion, soccer).



P O'Neill 09.19.09 at 2:55 am

It’s a bit like the Shipping Forecast on BBC R4, an institution whose removal would trigger uproar but still not quite clear who is listening to it for its original purpose. But they’ve changed the Shipping Forecast a lot less than the Angelus, which (as the IT article says), was already doing the middle distance contemplative gaze thing for a while.


Ken Lovell 09.19.09 at 3:27 am

‘If the Angelus didn’t already exist it would never be instituted in a society like contemporary Ireland …’

A bit like Christmas in most of the Western world, in fact.


nick s 09.19.09 at 4:48 am

It’s a bit like the Shipping Forecast on BBC R4, an institution whose removal would trigger uproar but still not quite clear who is listening to it for its original purpose.

R4 did get rid of the 5:30am UK Theme a couple of years back, though that didn’t have the same dual function. And many mariners do still rely upon the Shipping Forecast. [cached, as Y! Answers is down right now]


mollymooly 09.19.09 at 10:05 am

I’m queasy about the previous Angelus promo’s inclusion of what Canada calls visible minorities. The inference may be intended as “not all [Irish] people are white” but might equally be “all people in the world are Catholic”.

The continuity presenters don’t even say “and now the Angelus”. On TV, there is no announcement at all; on Radio 1 –which broadcasts it at all three specified times, viz 6am, midday, 6pm– it’s “and now a pause for prayer” or some such.


Dave Weeden 09.19.09 at 10:51 am

You’ve got to love the Yeats reference in “THE ANGELUS will from next Monday be changed – though not utterly.” A terrible beauty has died?


ejh 09.19.09 at 2:25 pm

My family took the Sunday Express until about 1979 and its TV listings included RTE. Hence I knew there was this odd one-minute programme on Irish TV every Sunday but – despite being a Roman Catholic – I had no idea what it actually was, which probably says an awful lot about the difference between English and Irish Catholicism.


Cannoneo 09.19.09 at 3:04 pm

The shipping forecast has been imagined as something like the Angelus before, in the last two lines of Carol Ann Duffy’s “Prayer”:

“Darkness outside. Inside, the radio’s prayer –
Rockall. Malin. Dogger. Finisterre.”

Some of my country relations used to stop everything for the angelus and mumble feverishly (to my small ears) some set rite. I took this for a widespread pre-modern tradition when I heard Pink Floyd’s “Time”:

“Far away, across the field, tolling on the iron bell
Calls the faithful to their knees
And hear the softly spoken magic spell.”


alex 09.19.09 at 4:54 pm

Only a numbnuts would really compare the shipping forecast to the angelus, surely? Just because some sectors of English middle-class opinion get a warm glow when musing over the poetry of sea areas, that doesn’t mean it’s a rite. It’s meteorological information, as opposed to a summons to piety from an era when people didn’t have clocks…


yabonn 09.19.09 at 5:26 pm

some sectors of English middle-class opinion

Works in France too, with the same hypnotics effects. Ah, Forth, Tyne, Dogger, Fisher and German, Minorque, Baleares et Cabrera…


Delicious Pundit 09.19.09 at 7:19 pm

I have a friend who moved to London from LA but still listens to KROQ online once in a while, to get a similar shipping-forecast effect from the traffic reports — the 10 slow to PCH, sigalert on the 118, breakdown on the 91, etc.


JMG 09.20.09 at 11:38 am

This appears to this Yank to be very similar, sociologically, to the New York TV station, which I believe is Channel 9, that broadcasts a picture of a burning Yule log with Christmas music in the background on December 24-25. The most multi-religious and cultural city in the country would freak out if the Yule log show was canceled, although I believe it’s hours have been reduced.
The customary always has fans.


Martin Wisse 09.20.09 at 1:28 pm

It’s rather more like Pause For Thought for the Day than the Shipping forecast, a daily one minute muse on something vaguely religious in the middle between the first news broadcast [1] and Farming Today on Radio 4. Usually awful in its bladness, but occasionally with fresh voices, like the African Muslim preacher who was on a few weeks ago.

(My weekday morning routine revolves around BBC World/Radio 4: get up at 6 and make sandwiches; know I have to hit the shower by the time the switchover happens, then get out to catch the tailend of the news, by out the door by the end of Farming Today. Makes it almost impossible to miss my bus, unless the internet feed has suffered a delay.)

[1] Which replaced the UK theme for no great reason other than “people need news all the time”, forgetting that Radio 4 starts broadcasting at 5:20 and before that you have the main BBC World news broadcast.


ejh 09.20.09 at 5:15 pm

We shouldn’t overlook the football results as read by James Alexander Gordon.


belle le triste 09.20.09 at 5:51 pm

also zebedee at the end of magic roundabout


Bloix 09.21.09 at 12:17 am

The Preamble of the Constitution of Ireland:

“In the name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred,
We, the people of Ireland, humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ,
Who sustained our fathers through centuries of trial,
Gratefully remembering their heroic and unremitting struggle to regain the rightful independence of our Nation,
And seeking to promote the common good, with due observance of Prudence, Justice and Charity, so that the dignity and freedom of the individual may be assured, true social order attained, the unity of our country restored, and concord established with other nations,
Do hereby adopt, enact, and give to ourselves this Constitution.”

From Article 44, Religion:
“(1) The State acknowledges that the homage of public worship is due to Almighty God. It shall hold His Name in reverence, and shall respect and honor religion.”

Ireland may have become a bog-standard post-religious society, but it doesn’t appear to be a bog-standard post-religious polity. Broadcast of the Angelus itself isn’t in the Constitution, but the obligation of the state to provide for public worship is at least arguably there.


Gene O'Grady 09.21.09 at 4:17 am

I grew up reciting the Angelus (hardly reflective of the dominant California culture of my youth!), but was glad when I got to learn the Latin words since the English words are just too awful — even for someone like me who used to think “mourning and weeping in this vale of tears” had quite a resonance.

Isn’t the canon shot at noon in Rome that I used to set my watch by an old signal that it was time for the Angelus?


Doug 09.21.09 at 7:35 am

I think they shot canons more regularly in Geneva than in Rome, at least back in the day.


bad Jim 09.21.09 at 8:49 am

Some time ago Herb Caen recounted how Senators Hiram Fong of Hawaii and Albert Spong of Alaska sponsored a resolution to commemorate the American table tennis team’s history-making visit to China, asking all the churches in Hong Kong to ring their bells in unison on its anniversary. This is how we got:

The Fong-Spong Hong Kong Ping Pong Ding Dong Bell Bill.


NomadUK 09.21.09 at 5:31 pm

I don’t think I’m going to stop laughing for a week.


Commenter 09.21.09 at 6:16 pm

There’ s a lot of religious language in the Irish constitution but it needs to be understood in the context of the provisions that forbid discrimination or an established church.

Articl e 44.2:

Freedom of conscience and the free profession and practice of religion are, subject to public order and morality, guaranteed to every citizen.

Article 44.3

The State guarantees not to endow any religion.


Eimear Ní Mhéalóid 09.21.09 at 6:39 pm

Some of my country relations used to stop everything for the angelus and mumble feverishly (to my small ears) some set rite
Oh, this was pretty standard among people of a certain vintage. A friend of mine, raised Church of Scotland, has a good story about the first time she visited her Irish boyfriend’s highly Catholic parents. He went off to have a shower and she was there making chit-chat and thinking “well, no holy water thrown over me yet anyway”. Next thing the telly issues forth a repeated “bong… bong… bong…” and the parents immediately stop their conversation midsentence and without preamble or explanation start reciting prayers. It made her think of “The Exorcist”.


roac 09.21.09 at 8:23 pm

Hiram Fong of Hawaii and Albert Spong of Alaska

That was William Spong of Virginia.


Map Maker 09.23.09 at 3:05 am

Ah well, Henry – you will be well prepared when dining establishments are closed for مضان (that is Ramadan for you unclean), the pubs switch from thick warm beer to thick hot coffee, and classes are paused 5x a day for prayer.


Substance McGravitas 09.23.09 at 3:28 am

(that is Ramadan for you unclean)

You forgot the ر.


James Hanrahan 09.24.09 at 6:09 am

On my many trips to Ireland, I would get a warm feeling of nostalgia when I heard the bells of the Angelus on RTE television. In my youth,whenever we heard the Angelus bells, we were expected to stop, face in the direction of the church and to recite the prayer called the Angelus “The angel of the Lord declared unto Mary that she was conceived by the Holy Ghost. Hail Mary full of gtace…..” Angelus is the first word in the Latin version of the prayer.
When I was young, dogs were not confined to back yards or tied up and were free to roam. Many times a pack of four or five neighborhood dogs would run down the middle of the street toward the church, howling and yipping when the Angelus was ringing. A nun of the order of the BVM laughingly suggested that it was the dogs’ way of honoring Mary.
Another prayer that we said each morning was the Salve Regina. “Hail Holy Queen,Mother of Mercy….to thee do we send up our sighs mourning and weeping in this vale of tears….”

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