Thursday, May 29, 2014

For whom the you-know-what tolls

Van Morrison is enamored with church bells. By my count, he has mentioned them in six different songs. Some references are simple, declarative: in "She Gives Me Religion," Morrison sings, "And the church bells chime / On a Sunday afternoon." Others have a tad more color. From "Haunts of Ancient Peace": "The Sunday bells they chime / Around the countryside and towns / A song of harmony and rhyme / In haunts of ancient peace."

Morrison's allusion to bells in "Beside You" is undoubtedly my favorite. "In the evening," he cries. "Just before the Sunday six-bells chime / Six-bells chime." With a dash of alliteration, Morrison identifies them as something more than mere "church" bells. He specifically states the day and time (6 p.m.) when they toll. He establishes a sense of anticipation: any moment now, those familiar, distant bells will peal.

So where in Belfast is the location of the church bells that so deeply inspired Morrison? The quick and easy answer is St. Donard's Church, located at the corner of the Bloomfield and Beersbridge Roads, less than a quarter mile from Morrison's childhood home on Hyndford Street. St. Donard's, referenced in the song "On Hyndford Street," certainly has a prominent place in Morrison's consciousness: his parents were married there on Christmas Day in 1941.

However, this being Belfast and all, a place where religion dominates many facets of everyday life, countless churches dot the city's landscape. There are a number—including Bloomfield Presbyterian Church on Beersbridge Road, Bloomfield Methodist Church on Grand Parade, and St. Anthony's Church on Woodstock Road—less than a mile from Morrison's East Belfast neighborhood. Could the ringing bells have come from one of these?

What we are certain of is why the bells tolled at 6 p.m. on Sunday. Many Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran churches rang what is often known as the "Angelus bell." It was done three times a day—6 a.m. noontime, and 6 p.m.—as a reminder to parishioners in the community to pray the devotion known as the Angelus.

Knowing Morrison's adolescent ambivalence toward religion, he probably politely declined.

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