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The Ballyclog bell, County Tyrone

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The introduction of Christianity into Ireland is marked by the arrival of a new range of objects. Many of these, including bells, were used directly in connection with the church. The discovery of a bronze hand bell (9-10th century date) found at Ballyclog in County Tyrone has created great excitement, as it connects us to Irelands early Saints.

The hand bell is one of several objects found at Ballyclog. Ballyclog translates from Irish as ‘the townland or district of the bell’. These finds suggest that this was the site of an important church.

This collection story explores the objects which have been acquired by the Museum thanks to a generous Heritage Lottery Fund grant.

The Ballyclog Bell

The Ballyclog Bell

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Hinge – part of a shrine

Hinge – part of a shrine

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Mount from a belt shrine or buckle

Mount from a belt shrine or buckle

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Brooch

Brooch

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Mount

Mount

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Censer

Censer

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Winged figure of the Roman god Mercury

Winged figure of the Roman god Mercury

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Casting a replica

Casting a replica

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The Ballyclog Bell

Image: Bronze bell (9-10th century) Curglassan (Ballyclog), County Tyrone. BELUM.A2017.5
Bronze bell (9-10th century) Curglassan (Ballyclog), County Tyrone. BELUM.A2017.5

The Ballyclog bell (9-10th century) was found near Stewartstown in County Tyrone. It is made of bronze and was designed to be carried by its handle. Inside the bell are the remains of a corroded iron ‘clapper’ which struck the side of the bell to make it ring. Unfortunately this no longer works.

Bells were rung from church sites at certain times of the day to remind people that it was time for worship. They are referred to in writings of the period and are shown being carried by members of the clergy on contemporary stone carvings.

Many hand bells were reputed to have connections to early Saints. This resulted in people believing bells had miraculous powers. They could ward off evil, cure the sick, offer protection when taken into battle and of course were rung for the dead at funerals. They may also have been used to warn people of Viking raids.

 

Hinge – part of a shrine

Image: Hinge mount from a housre-shaped shrine (8th century) Curglassan (Ballyclog), County Tyrone. BELUM.A2017.6
Hinge mount from a housre-shaped shrine (8th century) Curglassan (Ballyclog), County Tyrone. BELUM.A2017.6

The bell was also found with a number of other unique objects which is highly unusual. These include this metal hinge which formed part of a 7-8th century house-shaped shrine.

Shrines are extremely rare and important religious objects. They were designed as containers which could open and close. Some even had a lock. This was to protect the sacred relics of a Saint such as a piece bone, teeth or cloth.

The hinge is inset with coloured decoration. This was once bright and vivid but has now dulled down and changed colour. The position of the hinge can be seen on the Monymusk shrine from Scotland. Originally there would have been two hinge mounts attached to a leather strap. This allowed the shrine to be carried suspended around the neck.

A more intact shrine is also on display in the Museum found at Clonmore in County Armagh and is one of the most important objects in the collection.

Image: Moneymusk shrine - on display at the National Museum of Scotland 
© National Museum of Scotland
Moneymusk shrine - on display at the National Museum of Scotland © National Museum of Scotland

 

Mount from a belt shrine or buckle

Image:

The bell was also found with a number of other unique objects which is highly unusual.

This small metal object (8-9th century) has traces of intricate decoration including three circular holes. These would have contained amber or coloured glass beads. This suggests that it was once part of an impressive object.

Exactly what the object was remains uncertain. It may have been part of a belt buckle similar to the example from Lough Gara, County Sligo. Alternatively it could be a fitting from a belt shrine like the one from Moylough, County Sligo.

Shrines were designed as containers to protect sacred relics. In the case of the Moylough belt shrine, it protected and covered the remains of a leather belt presumed to have been worn by a saint.

 

Brooch

Brooch (9th century) Curglassan (Ballyclog), County Tyrone - front view. BELUM.A2017.8
Brooch (9th century) Curglassan (Ballyclog), County Tyrone - front view. BELUM.A2017.8
Back view. BELUM.A2017.8
Back view. BELUM.A2017.8

The bell was also found with a number of other unique objects which is highly unusual.

This is part of a 9th century ‘pseudo-penannular’ brooch now missing its pin. The brooch is not in good condition and the green surface colour results from metal corrosion. The pin would have passed between the two circular discs which join in the centre. These have traces of decoration which may have been coloured.

Brooches of the type were used both as an item of jewellery and to secure clothing. They are shown on stone carvings of the period and are occasionally found with other religious items including chalices. Brooches were probably owned by other members of society who could afford to buy them.

There are a variety of similar brooches on display in the Museum, including a replica of the ‘Tara brooch’ - one of the great treasures from Early Christian Ireland.

 

Mount

Image: Mount (8th century) Curglasson (Ballyclog), County Tyrone. BELUM.A2017.10
Mount (8th century) Curglasson (Ballyclog), County Tyrone. BELUM.A2017.10

A range of metal objects created for the church were composed of different component parts. These included ‘mounts’. The attached mounts were usually decorated, often with panels of colours, using different skills and techniques.

Over time, the mounts may become detached from their ‘parent’ objects and their decoration and colour deteriorates. It can be difficult to identify with certainly what type of object they related to.

This is the case with this small metal mount with a panel of internal decoration in keeping with Early Christian metalwork of this period.

 

Censer

Censer lid (12th century) Curglassan (Ballyclog), County Tyrone. BELUM.A2017.11
Censer lid (12th century) Curglassan (Ballyclog), County Tyrone. BELUM.A2017.11

The bell was also found with a number of other unique objects which is highly unusual.

A censer is a metal vessel consisting of a lower bowl and upper lid. All that survives of this 12th century example is the upper lid. It was designed to look like a square building, possibly a church tower.

Hot charcoal in the bowl (now missing) heated incense crystals. This released the smoke and smell when the censer was swung from its chains during religious ceremonies. The heat or burning may account for discoloured metal and in particular, the black staining. An intact example from Shropshire gives an idea of what the complete vessel looked like.

The Ballyclog censer was probably made in Europe and is later in date that the other items from the site. This suggests that the church site at Ballyclog continue in use for many centuries.

Image: Reconstructed drawing, Shropshire censer 
© Portable Antiquities Scheme / Birmingham Museums Trust
Reconstructed drawing, Shropshire censer © Portable Antiquities Scheme / Birmingham Museums Trust

 

Winged figure of the Roman god Mercury

The bell was also found with a number of other unique objects which is highly unusual.

This is a winged figure of the Roman god Mercury. Under Roman influence, Christianity spread across Europe and into Ireland. Despite this, Roman material from Ireland is extremely rare. This made the discovery all the more remarkable.

Sometimes these figurines were copied and used to create modern objects. This included items such as pipe tampers, which are tools used to pack the bowl of the pipe when adding tobacco. Research suggests that rather than being of 4th century date our figurine dates to the 19th century and is one of several modelled on this Roman god!

Study of similar pipe tampers show that it is missing a circular disc attached to the base. This matched the shape of the pipe bowl making it easier to push the tobacco down into it.

 

Casting a replica

Image: Replica (left), Ballyclog bell (right)
Replica (left), Ballyclog bell (right)

By following the sequence of slides below, you can get some idea of how the Ballyclog bell was made.

Firstly a model in wax is formed. This was originally encased in clay. When heated the wax melts leaving a cavity in the mould taking the shape of the bell. Molten bronze is then poured into this cavity. When the mould cools it is broken to reveal the basic shape of the bell which needs further cleaning and polishing.

Finally the iron clapper is added and the bell can be rung.

A newly cast and polished bell looks like gold but becomes tarnished and dull with age.

The wax model was made by Boyd Rankin of ‘Irish Arms’ and was cast in the foundry at Belfast Metropolitan College by Ken Barr using more modern equipment than was available to the original metalsmiths.