STEEPED IN HISTORY The bells at St Mary’s Church were refurbished by Fr Tom Cummins in 1964 after being transported by boat from Westport Quay to an English foundry. Pic courtesy of William Reidy
When the bells of St Mary’s Church chime across Westport they are intoning prayers of intercession for the people of the parish. Each bell is dedicated to a saint whose name was inscribed on the mould before the bell was cast. The engraved name is an integral part of the body, texture and intonation of each bell, a unique feature in the making of bells. More often, a name is given after the bell has been cast. Not so in Westport! The Saints names are incorporated into the frequency and resonance of the bell.
Old photographs of St Mary’s show a single bell over the front door. In 1932, the Muldoon family, natives of Aughagower who returned from the USA, donated towards refurbishment works on local churches in Aughagower and Cushlough. They also funded the bells in St Mary’s. The devout family were great supporters of church causes and sponsored several men on the road to priesthood.
The bells of St Mary’s are peal bells, where the casting is fixed in position and the clapper strikes by pulling ropes. The bells were installed on a steel structure, albeit meant to be temporary to await a bell tower! That day has not come yet! Drawings had been prepared but were never implemented. The bell ropes fit into an Ellacombe apparatus, (invented by Rev HT Ellacombe, Gloucestershire, in 1821), which one person can operate. In Westport, that was usually the sacristan’s job.
The eight bells bought by the Muldoon family for St Mary’s are in the key of C, with low C starting on the right of the Ellacombe apparatus! You have to keep your wits about you when playing! The C-bell is dedicated to Our Lady, then St Joseph, St Patrick, St Brigid, St Colmcille, St Jarlath, St Anthony and St Thérèse. The names were probably the most favoured Saints of the day. There was great excitement in the town when the bells were installed with people listening intently from their front doors.
Our Lady’s C-bell is intoned daily to call people to church, during funerals and the Angelus. In olden days, the funeral bell was intoned using different time separations for men and women – three times three strokes for a man, and three times two for a woman.
Traditionally, only bishops consecrated church bells. The Roman Ritual (IX c. 9, n. 11) stated that the bishop “washed the bell with holy water, signed it with the oil of the sick outside, and with chrism inside, and lastly placed under it the thurible with burning incense. He prayed repeatedly that the sound of the bell may avail to summon the faithful, to excite their devotion, to drive away storms, and to terrify evil spirits.”
St Mary’s bells were refurbished by Fr Tom Cummins in 1964 after being transported by boat from Westport Quay to an English foundry. An extra bell, B-flat, was returned. This enabled then sacristan Gabriel Kelly, a musical genius, to play numerous extra hymns.
In the 1960s, a keyboard was linked to the bells for ease of playing. It operated via a compressor and air valves – the key activated the valve and a shot of air came out to release the clapper onto the bell. Alas, sometimes it didn’t work! Frost and cold played a part and the effort was abandoned. Gabriel was back on the ropes! Subsequently, Pat Cobbe, Frank Dolan and Peter Hastings, among others, all pulled the ropes. Today, it is volunteer William Reidy from the South Mall, a stone’s throw from St Mary’s.
Maintenance kept the bells silent for several years. Then William’s late father, Jim, encouraged him to play the bells during 2020 lockdown to lift people’s mood. Jim enjoyed listening from his window and advised William on timing to perfect the melody. “Easy Cove, slower! It’s bell music!” May Jim’s memory be a blessing. William Reidy now has a ‘bells bank’ of 40 plus hymns.
Walking the final lap of the town behind a coffin it’s comforting to know that St Mary’s bells intone intercessions from the Communion of Saints for the deceased.
“And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”