Sue Brunning, British Museum
Storytelling has long been woven into the fabric of Irish culture. The ancient tradition of the seanchaí, or storyteller, is alive and well in modern Ireland, and amongst Irish diaspora communities across the world, and fittingly one of the British Museum’s most iconic Irish objects has myriad stories to tell.
The history of the bell-shrine of St. Cuileáin, also known as the Glankeen bell-shrine or ‘Bearnan Cuileáin’, began in the AD 600s or 700s with the manufacture of a bell. Legend links it with St. Cuileáin himself, patron saint of Glankeen in County Tipperary and reputedly the founder of its monastery. The bell was made from iron and coated in bronze. Originally, a ‘clapper’ suspended inside would have struck the walls to ‘ring’ the bell when it was shaken. Such hand-bells were probably used to call monks to prayer in early Christian Ireland.
During the late 1000s the bell was enshrined within an elaborate cast bronze case, transforming it into a relic of St. Cuileáin. Not all parts of the case survive: a bronze sheet on one side of the bell is engraved with a cross marking the place where a fine crucifix was once attached. A ‘crest’ enriched with designs in enamel, niello, and silver and copper wire was fitted to the top. Human and animal faces peer out from each side. Interlacing ribbon-like creatures of Scandinavian style testify to a time when Irish art and culture was influenced by interactions with Vikings.
At some point in its history the bell-shrine ended up in a tree in Kilcuilawn, Glankeen. After its recovery, it took on an active and miraculous role in the community. Records from the seventeenth century onwards describe its use in oath-swearing and as a type of lie-detector test, capable of sending liars into convulsions or strangling them if hung about their necks. But to others it was more benign, said to bestow fortune and even healing powers. Such records show that the bell-shrine was still generating stories a millennium after it was made.
This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 10 January 2013.