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The Bells of the Angelus

Those of us of a certain age grew up with RTE’s daily Angelus broadcasts at 12.00 and 18.00 as part of the background to our lives.  They were a call to prayer which we took for granted.  At school, we would stand up in class and recite the prayer.  The Angelus is a Catholic devotion commemorating the Incarnation.  The angel referred to is Gabriel, a messenger of God who revealed to the Virgin Mary that she had conceived a child to be born the Son of God (Luke 1:26-38).

Following a proposal by Archbishop John Charles McQuaid to mark Holy Year, the Angelus was inaugurated on 15 August 1950, the Feast of the Assumption.   It can claim its place along with the News and the Weather Forecast as the longest-running ‘item’, if not programme, on RTE.

Since 2009 the Station relaunched the Angelus broadcast before the Six One News.  It features different people, including grandparents feeding swans in Shannon and an office worker from Zambia at her office near the Phoenix Park.  The idea is to portray a number of people of varying gender and ages pausing to pray at the sound of the bell.


Periodically, the broadcast becomes the focus of public controversy and recently renewed criticism has surfaced after the findings related to mother and baby homes investigations were published on 12 January. A petition to ‘Take the Angelus off the Airwaves’, published the week before last received 4,200 signatures.  Despite this, the Head of Religious Content in RTE has said the majority of the public do not have any objection to it and he bases this on the results of various polls.  A poll conducted by Amárach in 2017, found 62% wanted to keep it and an exit poll taken during the 1918 general election, put it at 68%.  A poll conducted online of more than 31,000 readers by The Journal two weeks ago, found that 70.3% of people don’t want the Angelus to be removed.

“None of that suggests to me or to RTE that there’s any great public clamour to scrap the Angelus…people can distinguish between disillusionment with institutional Churches and with Government and what we put on at 6 pm and 12 pm on RTE”, said Roger Childs.  “The few complaints and there are very few complaints, seem to come from secular quarters and insofar as they’re ever organized then they are from lobbies like Atheist Ireland and  the Humanists Association of Ireland …who perceive it as a Catholic imposition and an anachronism.”

It was as a result of such complaints that Mr. Childs updated the portrayal on television, making it visually all-inclusive of people of all faiths and even none.  The idea of pausing for a moment of peace and quiet reflection is something everyone can relate to and is of course not the monopoly of any religion.  The idea, as well as the benefits, of meditation, are very much to the forefront of good life practice, especially during these difficult times.

Muslims and Others

It was very interesting that apparently no complaints have been registered from members of other faith communities.  It is a mistake to believe that any offense has been caused to Muslims.  Those who assume that it is people from this religious tradition who have complained are in error. There has been support from the Clonskeagh Mosque in Dublin as well as the Jewish Chief Rabbi.  The Archbishop of Dublin Dr Walter Empey supported it and his counterpart in the Church of Ireland, Archbishop Robin Eames welcomed the new revamp in 2009.

The Angelus is not specifically Catholic although the Angelus prayer is, but that has never been broadcast by the station. Although not as prominently as in Catholicism the Angelus is also part of the Anglican/Episcopal tradition and the Presbyterian Church in Ireland have called for its continuation.

In Muslim countries, the call to prayer (adhan) is delivered five times a day by a Muadhan to remind Muslims to come to mandatory prayer and leave worldly matters behind.  It pervades Muslim culture and is often broadcast from the minarets of Mosques and through media.  To summon worshippers, the Jews use a trumpet and the Christians use a bell, but the Muslims use the human voice.

The Angelus as prayer

The Angelus is a kind of spin-off from the Liturgy of the Hours. It started as a triple ringing of bells following Compline, or the evening prayer of the church, in 1061 in Italy.  Over time pastors encouraged their Catholic flock to end each day in a similar fashion by saying three Hail Marys.  In the villages, as well as the monasteries, a bell was rung at the close of the day reminding the laity of this special prayer time.  The evening devotional practice soon spread to other parts of Christendom, including England.

It is said that over the centuries workers in their fields halted their labours and prayed when they heard the Angelus bell.  This act of faith is depicted by Jean-François Millet’s famous 1857 painting which shows two workers doing just that.  There are also stories that animals would automatically stop ploughing and stand quietly at the sound of the bell.

In our busy lives, the Angelus can be a little mini-retreat.  It is a daily reminder to remember God’s love for us.  We also see and imitate Mary’s example of openness to God.  In fact, all of Salvation History culminates at the moment when,” …the Word became flesh.”

Written By Marie – Therese Cryan

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