The Bell of Bell Hill, Offaly: St Patrick, Ciarán of Saighir, Cooke of Birr and more. By John Dolan

Bell Hill is a small townland close to the village of Clareen, Co. Offaly.  The Bell Hill itself is situated on high ground with good views in all directions.  A large bush sits on the hill and is known locally as the Bell Bush.  There are a few other locations in Ireland called Bell Hill.

The story of Bell Hill starts with St. Ciarán of Saighir and is mentioned in nearly all of the Lives of the Saint. The story links St. Ciarán with St. Patrick and is probably best told in the Life of Ciarán as translated by Ingrid Sperber from the Codex Kilkenniensis, held in Marsh’s Library, Dublin.

In this Latin Life we find that when Ciarán ‘heard of the existence of the Christian religion in the city of Rome, he left Ireland and travelled thither. On his arrival, he was baptised and instructed in the Catholic faith, he remained there for 20 years, reading the Sacred Scriptures, collecting holy books, and studiously learning ecclesiastical rules. And when the people of Rome saw the wisdom and discretion, the piety and faith of the holy man Ciaran, he was ordained bishop and afterwards sent to Ireland, his native country.

And St Patrick, the Archbishop of all Ireland, met him on the road in Italy, and God’s two saints rejoiced in their meeting…. at that time St. Patrick was not yet a bishop, but he was later ordained archbishop by Pope Celestine and sent to preach in Ireland… and Patrick said to Ciaran, ‘go before me to the centre of Ireland, to a spring called Fuaran, on the border between the Southern and the Northern Irish. Build a monastery there, for there will be your estate and your resurrection’. St Ciaran said to him, ‘the location of this spring is unknown to me’. St Patrick answered him, ‘dear brother, proceed without anxiety, and God will be with you. Accept as your travelling companion this bell, which will remain dumb until you arrive at the same spring. When you have reached it, the bell will emit a clear sound and ring sweetly.… when St Ciaran reached Ireland, God directed him to the spring called Fuaran, and there the bell of the holy man rang clearly. This bell is called Bardan Ciaran and is kept and greatly honoured in the monastery of St Ciaran and throughout his entire diocese’.

This account, and similar ones, raise the issue that Ciarán reached Ireland before St. Patrick arrived on our shores. It also led to Ciarán being given the title of Beatisimus episcopus Ciaranus sanctorum Hibernie promogenitus – bishop Ciarán of Saighir was the first saint born in Ireland.

 One of the strangest accounts of Ciarán’s arrival at Bell Hill is recounted in a story from the National Folklore’s Schools Collection from 1934 where the bell ‘chimed forth loud and clear on the top of Bell Hill. It is said that the Saint met a red-haired girl on that spot so he did not build the church on that spot. Superstition would have us believe that it is unlucky to meet a red-haired girl the first thing in the morning. The church was not built in the centre but in a sloping field at the base of the hill’.

Carrigan in his History and Antiquities of the Diocese of Ossory, describes the bush at the top of the hill as ‘an ancient hawthorn, called the ‘Bell Bush’ marked the spot where the bell thus broke silence, and was held in much veneration; it decayed away some years ago, but another has been planted in its place’.

Plummer claims that there are a number of other locations that were chosen for saints by the sounding of a bell.  The list includes saints Bairre, Mochoemac, Mo-Chutu, Ruadan while St. Declan’s bell led him to Ardmore by skipping along in front of him.   In addition, Plummer writes that there were a number of early church bells with special names.

 George Petrie essay on The Round Towers of Ireland, 1845

The Bell as a Relic.

It was a regular occurrence that items related to the early saints became relics and were venerated by both the community and parishioners. Relics were taken on tour based on the areas of jurisdiction claimed by a church.  The journeys were intended to boost the power of the church and encourage devotion among the laity. Carrigan tells us that Ciarán’s Bell ‘is carried about in the surrounding territory in order that Kings may be solemnly sworn by it at peril to strictly observe their truth’. Later he tells us that it was used in the collection of tithes for the monastery ‘it is borne to the public in common when obtaining for the successors of St. Kieran’s monastery the necessities for their sustenance’. The use of the bell is further explained by Sperber ‘this bell is brought through the regions for the oaths of the chiefs, for the defence of the poor and for the collection of dues to the monastery of St Ciarán’.

However, the protection of the bell sometimes failed, two different accounts from the Chronicon Scotorum for 974 tells us that ‘Donnchad Finn son of Aed son of Flann was killed in teachery by Aed while under the protection of the Bearnán Ciarán’.  The year 1043 also records that ‘the community of Ciaran fasted in Tulach Garba against Aed ua Confhiacla sub-king of Tebtha and the Bernan of Ciaran was rung against him with the foot of the staff of Jesus in it. Now the place in which he turned his back on the clerics, in that place his head was taken from him within a month by the men of Mide’.

There is a record for 1552AD in the Annals of the Four Masters where during a raid ‘Clonmacnoise was plundered and devasted by the English of Athlone; and the large bells were taken from the Cloigtheach.  There was not left, a bell, small or large … which was not carried off’.

The Name of the Bell.

Sperber’s account of how Ciarán’s bell got a name is from his Life ‘God directed him towards that well, and when he had reached it, the little bell quickly rang with a bright, clear sound, and Barcán Ciaráin is the name it gets; and it is now a token in the parish and city of Ciaran’. Charles Plummer has a slightly different name from his translation of a Life held in Oxford and he has Patrick saying to Ciarán ‘thou shalt take my bell, said he, and it will be dumb until it reaches the Uarán, and it will ring when it reaches it, and Bardán Ciaráin will be the name of it till doom, and mighty deeds and miracles will be done by you and the bell together, and Saighir will be that name of the place’.

More recently Colgan says that the name is a mis-spelling for Bodhran Chiaráin meaning ‘Kieran’s little gap’, again the name Bearnan Chiaráin is mentioned later.

The Anglican priest Sabina Baring-Gould in his Lives of British Saints 1908 has a different story for the name of the bell ‘in one of these plunderings of Saighir Ciaran’s bell, called Barcon Ciaran, was cracked, and thence-forth was called Bearnan Ciaran. In the Irish Lives, the bell bears its first name, and moreover in them is no mention of the destruction of the monastery, either by the Norse or by the men of Munster’.  However, in the Irish Annals there are plenty of accounts of the destruction of Saighir by both the Vikings and by the men of Munster.

In The Lives of the Irish Saints by O’Hanlon, he states that ‘according to St Ciaran’s first life, the bell obtained the designation of Bardán Kieran, or as Colgan suggests an emendation, Bodhran, which signifies the Mute’. O’Hanlon suggests that it was mute until it sounded on the spot for his foundation.  He continues ‘it was afterwards held in great honour, that it was paraded throughout the city and province of Kieran’.

Examining a number of Irish-English Dictionaries starting with Edward Lhuyd’s 1707 Irish-English Dictionary, the O’Reilly and O’Donovan edition of 1864, Dinneen’s An Irish-English Dictionary 1904 and the current and modern The eDil online Dictionary of the Irish Language from the Royal Irish Academy, there are no entries for the words Barcán, Bardán, Bodhran or Bearnan mentioned above in any of the dictionaries.

Another named bell is the Bearnan Cuillin of St. Cuileán near Borrisoleigh. An entry in the Schools Collection from Gortnahalla, Co Tipperary in 1934 says that ‘it was found in the fok of a tree struck by lightning in the early part of the 19th century. Part of this bell was sent to the British Museum by Mr. Cooke and is still there’ (was this our Mr. Cooke of Birr?).  The bell is secured within a bell shrine which is badly damaged. The bell has been dated to 7/8th century with the shrine dated to 11th century.

  Bearnan Cuillin

Irish Hand Bells

Irish hand bells are poorly studied with scarce written material available.  The significant academic work in this area is provided by Cormac Burke, Ulster Museum. The earliest mention of hand bells comes from the Apitir Chrábaid, an Old-Irish Litany, dated to around 600AD which says that a bell is required for monastic discipline. They were used for marking the canonical hours and directing the monks to prayer, vigil and duties.

The bell ringer, called an aisteoir was the official charged with timekeeping, climbed to the top of a tower and rang the hand bell out each of the four windows. The Brehon Law mentions two grades of bell ringers, there was considerable prestige attached to this position, ‘Noble his work when the bell is that of the clocthech, humble his work when it is a hand bell’.  There are suggestions that bells were used for agriculture and liturgical purposes. 

The earliest bells were made from a singular sheet of iron which was folded and riveted and then covered with bronze.  Later bells were cast in bronze using the lost wax approach.  Excavations at the monastic site of Clonfad, Co. Westmeath provides detailed archaeological evidence for hand bell production. Analysis of the charcoal associated with this process gives us a start date for bell production between the late 5th century and early 6th century.

The majority of the bells were discovered pre-1900 so little information on the contexts of the finds survives.  The last copper-alloy bell was found in 1881. The bell clappers are rarely found.  All iron bells were hand-hammered displaying significant skills, no power tools used here. Making bells was very labour intensive.

The majority of early bells are undecorated.  Only three bells have incised ornamentation, usually geometric patterns, a small few have textual inscriptions. One such is Mac Ailello’s bell. The inscription reads “Oroit ar Chumuscach mac Ailello” (a prayer for Cumuscach son of Ailill), who was from Aughlish Co. Armagh and who died in 908 AD.

The oldest bell preserved is the Cloc ind Édachta, the Bell of St. Patrick, now in the National Museum of Ireland. It was mentioned in the Annals of Ulster under the year 553 where Colum Cille is said to have deposited a number of Patrick’s relics into a shrine.  The shrine for the bell was commissioned by Domhnall Ua Lochlain and was built between 1094 – 1121 AD.

Cormac Burke in a paper for the RSAI lists 73 known examples from Ireland with four of them from Offaly. Bells from Cangort and Clonmacnoise are now in the National Museum of Ireland. Bells from Kilcommon and Kilcommon are in the British Museum, London.

 The Bell of Cummin, Kilcommon, Co Offaly, held in the British Museum

A dozen bells are on display in the Ulster Museum, Belfast. Five are in the Armagh Robinson Library and the Hunt Museum in Limerick has four.  The largest number are held in the National Museum, Dublin.

Many bells were destroyed and lost during the Reformation as part of taking over Catholic religious objects which were regarded as ‘popish superstition’. Some were saved by being taken in by the Irish lords and held through family links.

Making Irish hand-bells.

Irish craftsmen had been making iron implements and weapons from about 1,000 years before the arrival of Christianity. There is no evidence of bells being produced in Ireland in pre-Christian times.  Church bells had been manufactured across Europe, England, Scotland and Wales and the first church bells would have been imported into Ireland. The technique was probably copied from European cow-bells that go back to 100 BC.

They were built to a standard that was copied across Ireland and Scotland.

An iron hand bell starts off as a quadrangular shaped single sheet of iron.  The sheet is a double trapeze shape which is folded on itself with the joints closed by overlapping and secured with rivets, making a four-sided container. The handle is made from a single bar of iron with the clappers secured underneath.  The handles are nearly always C-shaped.  Surviving bells show interior wear from long overuse from their clappers.

 Early medieval Irish hand bells, National Museum of Ireland.

Some 50 iron and 30 copper-alloy hand bells survive in Ireland.  Copper alloy was coated on both the outside and inside of the bell but we have no agreement on how that was achieved. The majority of the copper-alloy bells have been found in the north of the country.

Images of hand bells can be found carved on stone, mainly in the northern half of the island. These include a stone pillar found at Carndonagh, Co. Donegal and Kiladean, Co. Fermanagh. A hand bell can be found on the shaft of the Old Kilcullen high cross, and on a lintel over a doorway in Glendalough. There is also a bell on the Shrine of the Stowe Missal from Lorrha.

Round Towers.

Round Towers appear about 300 years after the start of hand bell production, they were built mainly between 900 – 1100AD.

In a paper Rev. John Milner, however, said he did not believe that they could be bell towers for he writes ‘none of these towers is large enough for a single bell of a modern size to swing round in it.. .and from the smallness of the apertures in them, they are rather calculated to stifle rather than to transmit’. There is no evidence that the upper floor of a round tower contained the necessary wooden structures to hold the large bells associated with today’s church towers/steeples.

Bell Shrines.

The cult of relics became important in Ireland and craftsmen devoted much of their skills to the making of shrines. The construction of shrines to house relics of saints is well established from the 7th century. There was a need to look after relics in processions and when visiting other churches. Between the 9th century and later middle ages, several iron bells were enshrined in protective and elaborately decorative metal boxes. These bell shrines were works of art and objects of devotion in their own right. Shrines that hold hand bells start appearing around the eleventh century.

The most famous of the bell shrines is the Shrine of St. Patrick’s Bell, dated between 1094 – 1105 AD.

 The Bell of St. Patrick and its shrine National Museum, Dublin.

Objects associated with saints and church leaders were venerated by for their miraculous powers and were an important feature of religious life in early medieval Ireland. Pilgrims were encouraged to visit shrines. Shrines also attracted visitors from outside Ireland who commented and wrote about them.

Our thanks again to John Dolan for his many valuable contributions. If you have an article why not share it worldwide. Contact us Our blogs reach more than 100,000 views every year. Thanks also to the National Museum of Ireland, British Museum and to T.L.Cooke of Birr (died 1869).