City desk

A Struggle to Keep Time

It has been about 8.30am, or perhaps 8.30pm, in Rathmines for some time now.

At least, if you’re standing on the Leinster Road side of the street. And Kevin Hendley, the senior porter at Rathmines College which houses the Rathmines clock tower, says he gets his fair share of complaints about it.

“There wouldn’t be a month go by without two or three people coming in,” said Hendley, on a recent Tuesday.

Some are there to complain about the chimes each quarter of an hour, most, though, stop by to ask why the clock hands hover on Rathmines time, and when the neighbourhood landmark might match what appears on their phones.

***

“Going back years even, loooong before we were here, it’s always been known as the four-faced liar,” said Anna Morris, the vice principal of Rathmines College. “The clocks were never fully coordinated.”

That’s a common problem with old tower clocks, says Philip Stokes, a clock fixer based in Cork and one of the few on the island.

Some of them could be 200 years old or — like the Rathmines clock — at least more than 100 years old, he said. The teeth on the gears are often large and clunky, so there is always be a bit of play, a minute or two variation in the strike.

Stokes looks after the Shandon clock tower in Cork. “We’re allowed three-minute variation between the four faces,” he said.

Some of the most recent troubles with the Rathmines clock are down to wear and tear, says Hendley, the senior porter. The clock face that looks out towards Leinster Road needs to have one of the bars that link to the hands taken off and replaced.

Others, though, seem to date back to a power outage during road works in the neighbourhood.

About 40 or 50 years ago, many of the clocks in town began to switch from wind-up to electric. The reason for the shift depends on who you ask.

“The old health and safety kicked in, and somebody going up three flights of ladders with a crank handle to wind up a 100 kg weight wasn’t acceptable anymore, you see,” says Stokes.

It was also a question of having the time to keep winding them, often every four days. “The old days of having somebody local, in the churches and things, a volunteer, to do it every four days, that sort of died way as well,” he said.

Among those clocks that moved to electric, though, was the Rathmines clock.

When the power came back on after an outage a while back, there was something different about the amperage, Hendley says. All the clock faces started to steal power from each other, says Hendley, and to run at different times. “The other three sides, believe it or not, had been working perfectly,” he said.

There are some places where they still have custodians of the clock.

The medieval clock tower at St Patrick’s Cathedral feels like the inside of a giant music box. There are wooden floors and a musty smell, and against one wall are two giant cobs, metal cylinders with raised pins.

For years at the cathedral, Charlie Reede used to care for the clock and the bells until he passed away last year. “The tower was his domain,” said Eimhin Walsh, a historian who handles outreach at St Patrick’s Cathedral.

In the past, somebody would have come up to wind it every day, but they have a mechanical system which needs less oversight on it now, says Walsh who now checks up on it. He only notices if it’s losing time, if somebody points it out, he says.

***

Perhaps, these days when most people can pull out a phone to check the time, there’s little reason to worry about keeping clock towers accurate.

But not everybody looks at their phone all the time and it’s handy when you’re driving through the neighbourhood to be able to glance up and check to see if you’re late, says Barth Bialek.

Bialek, who was sat behind the counter of the Oxfam shop in Rathmines on a recent Wednesday, says he’s more of a clock-and-watch man than a phone man anyway, but it’s not just that.

“It’s, like, the only beautiful thing in Rathmines. So if it’s not working . . . ” said Bialek. Not everybody agrees with Bialek.

Hendley the porter recalls a phone call from a sleep-deprived Rathminian, frustrated with the regular chimes. “‘See that clock? I’m going to blow it up,’ he said.”

Morris says they get more complaints about the clock not working than the chimes though, and they treasure it. “It is synonymous with Rathmines, it’s such a well-known building,” she said. “We’re very proud of it.”

Often, when a clock isn’t working, it’s a maintenance and money issue, says Stokes, who travels around the country looking after clock towers. He is the current minder of the Dublin Castle clock and the Chester Beatty Library clock, to name a couple.

“A clock is up there and people forget about them,” said Stokes. “And they say, have a budget, and they can paint the windows or repair the clock, and the clock is the thing that always gets cut off the bottom, you know.”

At Rathmines College, though, Morris says it isn’t about the money, it’s about chasing down somebody to come and fix it.

There aren’t that many engineers who work on clock towers around, and there are quite a few clock towers for them to work on.

“It’s not the kind of thing where you just go to the Golden Pages,” says Walsh at St Patrick’s Cathedral. “And you can’t really Google them.” They tend to be the kind of people who write letters, rather than emails.

At St Patrick’s Cathedral, they bring in a man from the UK, twice a year, to strip it and clean it, and make sure it’s well greased.

Walsh says he’s not sure why there aren’t that many clock tower fixers. It could still be a legacy of the Act of Union when the nobility left Dublin and many Irish craftsman followed, migrating to where the money was in the UK. “I suspect that’s what happened,” he said.

In Rathmines, Morris says they hope their clock will be up and running again soon. They’ve had a few engineers look at it recently, one in the last couple of weeks and they’re waiting for another to come out and do a report.

“We are in the motions,” she says. “It is happening, it’s just a lot slower than we’d like.”

Lois Kapila portrait
Lois Kapila

Lois Kapila is Dublin Inquirer's managing editor and general-assignment reporter. Want to share a comment or a tip with her? Send an email to her at info@dublininquirer.com.

 

Comments

  1. Log in to leave a comment.

Advertisements

The perfect gift for the inquisitive Dubliner

Give the gift of quality local journalism with a Dublin Inquirer gift subscription at a special discounted rate:

Give a gift subscription

We use cookies to allow visitors to log in to our website and read our articles. We don't use any third-party cookies. By clicking 'I accept' or continuing to use this site, you consent to the use of cookies.

I accept