Northern Ireland

Sixty years of the Angelus

The Angelus bells are broadcast twice a day in Ireland
Image caption The Angelus bells are broadcast twice a day in Ireland

At 12 noon and six in the evening the Angelus bells ring out across Ireland's air waves.

News bulletins must wait until a minute past the hour to allow for the devotional Catholic prayer, recited in memory of the Incarnation of Jesus.

The bells have been a regular feature of state broadcaster RTE's schedule since August 1950 - when they were introduced to mark the Catholic Holy Year.

Father Dermod McCarthy, the former head of religious programmes in RTE remembers that RTE Radio "began to broadcast the Angelus with the blessing - and I am not sure, possibly the request of the then Archbishop of Dublin John Charles McQuaid".

When RTE television began transmitting just over a decade later, the Angelus appeared on the television schedule too.

Ireland remains the only European broadcaster to transmit the Angelus bells, although Fr McCarthy does point out that a Finnish broadcaster relays the bells of Turku cathedral every day.

Relic

But the broadcast has attracted a good deal of criticism from some quarters.

Sitting in his home office, surrounded by piles of books on faith and atheism, Michael Nugent wages his campaign against what he sees as the lack of secularism in Irish society.

He's a member of Atheist Ireland which takes the Irish government to task on issues such as the recent blasphemy laws, the lack of a secular Constitution and the presence of religion in the school system.

For him and others like him, the Angelus is a relic of a time gone by.

"I think in many ways we have moved past it," he said.

"I think now public opinion has changed and the challenge is to get the legislature to recognise that opinion has changed and to make our laws and the institutes of state to reflect the reality of a pluralist Republic."

Mr Nugent is quick to point out that, for secularists in Ireland, the transmission of the Angelus by the state broadcaster is a symptom of what they see as a wider problem in Ireland.

"There's a whole load of background noise in religion that we are almost used to because it has been there so long," he claimed.

"In the Republic of Ireland, in order to become president or in order to become a judge, you have to swear a religious oath to ask God to direct and sustain you in your work.

"If you go to court... you are handed a Christian bible to swear your oath on... the Angelus is another example of these type of things."

Secular or religious?

Another criticism of the Angelus broadcast is that it is by its very nature Catholic, and therefore excludes other faiths, a criticism that Ali Selim doesn't take on board.

He's based at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland; the five-acre campus in South Dublin hosts Ireland's largest mosque.

He arrived in Ireland from Egypt in 1999, and said the fast-growing Muslim community in Ireland doesn't have a problem with the Angelus.

"We see it as something that belongs to people of another faith," he said.

"If it is exclusive for Catholics, then what's wrong with that? Muslims have their prayer call and it is exclusive for them.

"I don't speak on others' behalf but you'll find each religious community has its own religious matters and this is because they have willingly chosen to embrace one religion or another".

The debate about the Angelus in Ireland then, is not necessarily a debate between religions as to whether or not broadcasting the Angelus bells is appropriate.

It's part of a wider debate on what kind of society Ireland should be - a secular or a religious one.

That debate will continue in Ireland, but meanwhile the Angelus bells continue to ring out across the airwave, at twelve and six each day, just as they did sixty years ago.

Ruth McDonald's report on 60 years of the Angelus was broadcast on Sunday Sequence on BBC Radio Ulster on 22 August.

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