An early Christian hand bell believed to have associations to Saint Patrick has gone on display in the Ulster Museum.
The bronze bell, which dates back to the 9th or 10th century, was found near Stewartstown in County Tyrone in 2016 in the parish known as Ballyclog, which coincidentally translates as the townland or area of the bell!
Made of bronze and cast in a clay mould, it has a handle for carrying. Inside the bell are the remains of an iron ‘clapper’ which struck the side to make the bell sound but as it has corroded the bell is now silent.
The new display has been made possible through a grant from the National Lottery via the Heritage Lottery Fund which has also enabled a community engagement programme around this exceptional item of shared heritage, to take place.
Dr Greer Ramsey, Curator of Archaeology at National Museums NI, explained the bell’s significance:
“Along with religious books and the hooked staff or crozier carried by a bishop, bells became potent symbols of the Christian faith and even feature on stone carvings from this period.
Bells were rung from church sites at certain times of the day to remind people that it was time for worship. They also played a role in monastic life when a monk’s daily routine revolved around prayer and devotion. These set times were indicated by the ringing of a bell.
Many hand bells were reputed to have connections to early saints so it was common for people to believe bells like this had miraculous powers, offering protection when taken into battle; they could ward off evil, cure the sick and of course tolled for the dead at funerals. They may also have been rung as a warning in times of danger as during the Viking raids.”
Dr Ramsey said that the bell was found with a number of other unique objects, including fragments of a shrine used to house the relics of a saint.
He added: “The bell, along with these other finds clearly points to the existence of an early church site possessing high quality metalwork in keeping with its important status and role within the Ballyclog area of County Tyrone.”
Stella Byrne, Casework Manager from the Heritage Lottery Fund, said: “Thanks to National Lottery players we have been able to help the National Museums NI acquire this rare and important artefact. The sound of bells ringing is a deeply rooted part of our heritage, calling people to worship, marking tragedy and celebrating joyous occasions. This bell and the associated education programme will help people learn more about the early use of bells, skilled craftsmanship and monastic life. We would encourage people to call in and see the bell in the gallery and enjoy the programme of talks.”
To mark the recent discovery and display of the bronze hand bell from Ballyclog, there is a special event at the Ulster Museum on 10 November. Entitled, ‘Early Christian Ireland: Hand Bells, High Crosses, Music and More’, this series of talks will look at life in Early Christian Ireland, at the use of church hand bells and at the identity of a mysterious musical instrument.
The ballyclog bell is currently on display in the Saints and Scholars gallery in the Ulster Museum. Admission to the museum is free. Find out more at https://www.nmni.com/whats-on/early-christian-ireland-hand-bells