By Joe Kearney
Writer and documentary maker, originally from Callan
Albert Einstein stated that time is an illusion but try saying that to someone who asks if you have the right time? Now the key element in that particular enquiry is the need to know ‘the right time’.
There was a period during the great time debate in my region of Kilkenny when you needed to observe caution asking a stranger for the right time. Depending on which side of the argument the individual supported, you could see yourself misinformed by a full hour at least.
In 1956 a man cycling from Kilkenny city through the town of Callan and on to Mullinahone claimed he heard the noon Angeles bells ring out three separate times during his journey.
Back then, the church bell in Callan rang out of sync with the time set at Greenwich in London by one hour. And to make calculations even more complicated a similar bell in Mullinahone was a further 25 minutes and 21 seconds adrift from its neighbour. There are those who claim the Callan bell is cracked and perhaps they are right. The bell was indeed damaged during the riots that occurred there as part of a Church Schism that raged in the town for over a decade in the late 1800’s. The events leading to the holy row revolved around an attempt by the parish priest to offer free education to local girls. His ambition was smothered by his boss the bishop of Ossory. That decision sparked a vicious and often bloody contention within the community. The events of the conflict form the background plot for local writer, Tomas Kilroy’s award winning novel, The Big Chapel. The book, first published exactly 50 years ago, highlighted how events in a small midland town can become the elements of a Victorian clerical scandal debated in Rome, the Houses of Parliament and within the pages of global newspapers.
Perhaps it’s that rebellious spirit that made the introduction of what was locally known as ‘The New Time’ a hard edict to follow.
For a period in the 1950’s Callan’s church bells refused to follow the rules of Daylight Saving Time. Even though a clock adjustment to allow for greater productivity was introduced during British rule as far back as 1916, a stubbornly entrenched sector of our, mainly agricultural, community decided to turn their broad backs against ‘The New Time’. They refused to advance or retard their clocks to the syncopated dance of Greenwich Mean Time. Six miles up the road from Callan in the village of Mullinahone locals went a step further and calculated the discrepancy between the time at Greenwich and Dunsink observatories to be 25 minutes and 21 seconds.
That computation when added to the Callan reckoning heard their bell ring out one hour and 25 minutes out of time with the chimes emanating from the belfries across the rest of the country. Support for the ‘Old Time’ came mainly from farmers and church-goers. Some merchants supported the campaign, but local government and industry felt compelled to adjust their timepieces and hours of working to Daylight Saving Time. Like the schism from 70 years earlier the town sundered into rival factions and the battles recommenced. Public meetings often ended in bloodshed. My grandmother, a woman who punctuated her days to the sound of the bell from the Big Chapel was staunchly on the side of the old-timers. The peals sang to her across meadow and bog and were sacred music when they resonated into the shell of her ear. The sun in the sky and the church tintinnabulation was all the clock she needed. Hens and cows were unconcerned with Daylight Saving Time. They produced eggs and milk to the rhythm of the earth and why should she observe her days any differently?
But events were heating up in the town and eventually a referendum was conducted to resolve the impasse.
The ballots were counted, the results announced and the old-timers were shocked to discover they had lost out. The dance of life demanded that they be in step with the rhythm of Greenwich. A few like my grandmother remained out of sync but the waltz of time finally forced her into reluctant compliance.
Einstein might be right and time is an illusion but try telling that to the bell ringer in the Big Chapel or to my grandmother when she finally stood on a kitchen chair and reached for the hands of the clock on the wall.
SOURCES: First broadcast on Sunday Miscellany, RTÉ Radio 1, November 2021.
The Kilkenny Observer wish to thank Joe Kearney, Sunday Miscellany, Kilkenny City Library, and Kilkenny digital archive. Photo of Callan Bridge by P.Joyce, Callan and sourced from Kilkenny Digital archive.