A history of Ireland in 100 objects

Sat, Aug 6, 2011, 01:00

 St Patrick's Bell, c.500 AD

AT THE beginning of the 19th century, the last member of the Ó Maellchallain family, a priest about to die without heir, sent for his former pupil, the Belfast merchant Adam McLean. He told McLean to dig at a certain spot in his garden, where he found this bell enclosed in the magnificently ornate shrine that was made for it in Armagh around 1100. The Ó Maellchallain family had been “keepers of the bell” since medieval times.

Unlike so many of the objects in this series, the bell owes its power not to its finesse or opulence but to its simplicity. Small (less than seven inches high) and plain, it is made of two pieces of thick sheet iron, dipped in bronze, closely riveted together, with a little looped handle at the top. It is this simplicity that makes credible the idea that it may in fact have belonged to St Patrick, or at least have survived from his time. If one were to retrospectively create a relic of a figure who quickly came to be seen as superhuman, it would surely be rather grander than this.

The Annals of Ulster, for 553, record the opening of the tomb of St Patrick 60 years after his death and the recovery from it of his goblet, his Gospel and the “Bell of the Testament”. An angel allegedly directed St Columcille to send the cup to Down and the bell to Armagh, while keeping the Gospel himself.

The bell was certainly an object of great veneration in the Middle Ages, and was woven into the legends of Patrick’s miraculous deeds. (He was said to have rung it at the conclusion of his apocalyptic battle against the forces of evil, disguised as birds, on Croagh Patrick.) Aside from its religious and legendary power, though, the bell had great political significance. Along with the Book of Armaghand the “staff of Jesus” (destroyed in Dublin in the 16th century), the bell was crucial to Armagh’s claim to be the centre of Patrick’s legacy, and thus the superior seat of Irish Christianity.

The church was a new source of power and prestige in Ireland and claims to primacy in church affairs were never going to be uncontested. As Patrick began to be accepted as the sole father of Irish Christianity, it was important to be able to prove a direct connection to his authority. Armagh, Downpatrick and Saul all claimed to be the site of his burial. Other centres disputed Armagh’s primacy – the early partisan of Armagh’s claims, Tirechán, complains of those who “hate Patrick’s territorial jurisdiction” and attack Armagh’s claims. Thus, however touching it may be as a plain expression of simple piety, the bell was also a mighty weapon in a struggle for power. From the earliest days, the spiritual message of the new religion could not be entirely disentangled from old-fashioned political struggles for pre-eminence.


Where to see it: National Museum, Kildare Street, Dublin