We have written about many different historical objects discovered in Ireland from various time periods; the Tara Brooch, Ardagh Chalice, and Cross of Cong are just a few. The majority of these objects are to some extent shrouded in mystery, with no definitively proven facts about who crafted them, who used them, or how they came to be hidden away for centuries before their discovery. Saint Patrick's Bell and Bell Shrine is one noteworthy exception.
Not only is the bell shrine exquisitely made and stunning to look at, but the bell it enshrines also has a perfectly documented history that stretches back across 1400 years. Having survived its dramatic history relatively unscathed, both bell and shrine now sit alongside the rest of Ireland's most beautiful ancient treasures in the National Museum of Ireland. The story of how it got to be there however, reveals a lot about Irish history.
The life and death of Saint Patrick
Saint Patrick was born in Britain, the son of a deacon and grandson of a priest. The exact dates of his life have never been confirmed, but it is though to be some time in the latter half of the 5th century. Little is known about his early life, but as a teenager he was captured by Irish pirates and enslaved in Ireland for six years. He worked as a shepherd, spending the majority of his time outdoors, and it was during this time that he first 'found God'. He eventually escaped from his captors and returned home to his family on a waiting ship.
After spending a few years studying to be a priest, a vision told him to return to Ireland, so he did, preaching to the then pagan and illiterate people and converting them to Christianity. He gained throngs of followers and spent the rest of his life working with them to set up churches and parishes, teaching people about God and Christian principles, and generally transforming Ireland from an uneducated and somewhat barbaric nation into a fully functioning society.
Since he was a hugely significant figure in Ireland, Patrick received huge honours and commemorations after his death, including countless churches and cathedrals dedicated to him. His life and teachings were also chronicled widely after his death, leading to him becoming a god-like figure long before he was granted a sainthood.
Sixty years after he died, another missionary by the name of Colum Cille removed three relics from his tomb, which became known as the 'precious minna'. These three relics were a small iron bell, a goblet and the 'Angel's Gospel'. He kept the gospel for himself, but sent the goblet to county Down and the bell to Armagh (both places where Patrick had spent a lot of time) in a bid to commemorate Ireland's hero and keep up the momentum of his teachings and work.
Relics and Shrines
The early Christian period in Ireland was a time when the people who played a significant role in bringing Christianity to Ireland were revered as heroes. After their deaths they were seen as flawless and holy and were constantly celebrated. Objects that they had used in their life such as staffs, books, or in Patrick's case a bell, goblet and gospel, as well as actual body parts were kept for people to worship in churches and during religious ceremonies.
People undertook pilgrimages to wherever the relics were located in order to pay their respects, so to offer both protection, a suitable display, and some pomp and ceremony worthy of the occasion, shrines were crafted to house relics. Shrines came in many forms – simple glass boxes, altars, statues, crosses, book shrines, and of course, bell shrines, to name just a few. To provide a housing worthy enough of the holy relics, they were often made by expert craftsmen, with the highest quality materials possible, and with exquisite decoration.
At this time in Ireland artwork was still heavily influenced by the old Celtic style, and was being combined with new concepts of Christian imagery such as crucifixes. Celtic knots, interlacing patterns, and zoomorphic imagery was often seen on shrines from this period, along with representations of biblical figures, biblical stories, and so on. One perfect example where this can be seen is in Ireland's high crosses, huge stone crosses on religious sites that were often decorated with both Celtic artwork and well known bible characters. Saint Patrick's bell shrine is an excellent example of Celtic style artwork and decoration at its finest.
According to legend, whenever Saint Patrick had set up a new Christian community or parish somewhere in Ireland, he would choose one of his disciples to lead it after he left, and present them with a bell to call the parishoners to prayer, and to use during religious ceremonies.
Apparently in Connaught alone he had bestowed over 50 bells, and at one point had as many as three smiths among his followers who were employed full time to make bells. The bells he and his disciples used were small handheld objects, made from iron and formed into a quadrangle with rounded corners. Patrick's apparent own bell was just like this, weighing 1.7kg, measuring only 7 inches in height and made from two iron plates bent into shape by hammering. The iron plates overlapped slightly at the edges and were riveted, then dipped in melted bronze to both secure each of the joints and increase the resonance of the bell. At some point after it was removed from Patrick's tomb by Colum Cille, the bell was also coated in copper.
Colum Cille had sent Patrick's bell to Armagh, and it was the Mulholland family who were granted the task of keeping it safe. It remained in their possession and was largely forgotten about by everyone else until the 18th century, when the last surviving member of the family, Henry Mulholland transferred ownership to another trustee; Adam McClean. McClean had been Mulholland's pupil at the school he taught in, and he told him before he died that there was an oak box buried at the back of his house, and he was bequeathing it and its contents to his former pupil. The box not only contained the bell and shrine, but also an ancient Irish bible of equally significant value.
The items remained with McClean until his death years later, and his family then sold it to a professor of Trinity College Dublin. The Royal Irish Academy became aware of the items and their importance, and purchased them for £625 (an enormous sum at the time). Legend has it that the bell has never tolled since Patrick's death, except on two occasions; once in 1932 at the Pontifical High Mass of the International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin's Phoenix Park, and again in 1979 when Pope John Paul II visited Ireland and held another mass attended by 1 million, also in Phoenix Park.
Although the bell itself is highly significant, Saint Patrick's bell shrine is the true beauty of the two. It was crafted in the year 1100 and an inscription along the edge of the backplate states that it was commissioned by Domhnall Ua Lochlainn, who was High King of Ireland between 1094 and 1121. Cathalan Ua Maelchallain (the Gaelic version of 'Mulholland') is also inscribed as being the keeper of the bell, along with Cuduilig O Inmainen and his sons, who enshrined the bell. It was commissioned mostly because of the growing trend for crafting shrines for important relics, but also because the bell supposedly worked a miracle in 1044, so the most beautiful shrine possible would have to be made to reflect its powers. The bell was encased inside the shrine at all times while it was still in possession of the Mulholland family.
The shrine is a trapezoidal shape and constructed from a series of bronze plates joined by tubular bindings. A curved crest tops it off, designed to cover the bell's handle, while two small handles are placed on either side of the outside of the shrine to carry or hang it. The decoration on the bell shrine is extremely ornate, especially the front. The front panel is covered in a silver gilt frame that once held 30 panels of gold filigree arranged in the shape of a ringed cross – unfortunately some were lost or damaged along the way, and one was replaced with a large rock crystal cabochon setting, throwing off the symmetry of the design. In the centre is another large rock crystal stud, with settings for seven others along the perimeter of the front panel.
The decorative detail of the bell shrine is distinctly Viking-influenced Celtic, or in other words, the Urnes style, and picked out in gold and silver. The panels feature linear animal interlace patterns with snakes (because of the legend of Saint Patrick ridding Ireland of snakes, a symbol for him converting pagans to Catholicism) and various other animals. There are also various geometric spirals and knot patterns. The top curved section of the shrine is the most elaborate however, featuring two finely drawn figured of birds in cast bronze, several more panels of filigree and a stunning symmetrical patterned design in the classic Urnes style. The sides of the shrine are similar in decoration to the front, with intricate interlacing. The back is much more plain as it was not meant to be displayed, and is simply covered in interlocking geometrical cruciforms.