British Museum blog

Holy hand-bells: the endless histories of Irish relics

hand-bell
Sue Brunning, curator, British Museum

Several weeks ago I broke a green glass tumbler when emptying the dishwasher. The vessel wasn’t rare or expensive; in fact, it was a free gift that I’d received when buying a meal at a fast food restaurant. But that restaurant happened to be on a stretch of the autobahn in Bavaria, Germany, to where I’d driven from London to attend a friend’s wedding. To me, the glass embodied cherished memories of a very special holiday; putting it into the recycling bin with ordinary rubbish made me pretty sad!

This idea, that the objects we own, use and wear become infused with meaning through our interactions with them, is one of the things I find most fascinating about archaeology. Some of my favourite objects in the British Museum’s collections are those which show clear evidence of human use: patches of wear, repairs, or modifications to their original form. I see these as the fingerprints of real people in the past: their choices, their very hands brought about these changes. This brings those people back to life in my imagination.

A group of objects under my curatorial care illustrate this particularly well: hand-bells from early medieval Ireland. Made around the AD 500s–900s, hand-bells were used to call monks to prayer in Irish (and north and west British) monasteries. Clues indicate that their significance exceeded this simple function. The earliest bells were made from wrought iron sheets that were folded and riveted into shape, then brazed with copper alloy (as recent discoveries in Clonfad, County Westmeath confirm).

Experiments have shown that this process was incredibly labour-intensive, requiring plenty of time, raw materials and technological skill: in other words, the type of effort afforded to very special artefacts. Contemporary carvings show figures with croziers – the symbolic hooked staffs of holy office – also carrying hand-bells, suggesting that the latter too were symbols of high standing in the Irish church.

Display of hand-bells in Room 41. Saint Cuileáin’s bell is on the left.

Display of hand-bells in Room 41. Saint Cuileáin’s bell is on the left.

Bell (1889,0902.22)

Hand-bell of Saint Conall Cael with later brass mount (1889,0902.22)

The special nature of some hand-bells became, quite literally, enshrined. Tradition has linked a number of bells, including several in the British Museum’s collections, with early Irish saints. Some became relics and were embellished with ornate mounts or glittering shrines centuries after the bells themselves were made. Two such bells are now displayed in Room 41, the Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock Gallery of Sutton Hoo and Europe AD 300–1100, which reopened last month after a major refurbishment. One, associated with Saint Cuileáin of Glankeen, County Tipperary (subject of a recent post), was fitted with a lavish ‘crest’ writhing with interlaced designs and human faces. The other, said to have belonged to Saint Conall Cael of Inishkeel, County Donegal, was later fitted with a brass plate engraved with Irish and Viking ornament.

Shrine made for Saint Conall Cael's bell in the AD 1400s (1889,0902.23)

Bell-shrine (1889,0902.23)

In the 1400s a gem-encrusted shrine (displayed in Room 40) was made to house it. These were not just objects of veneration: they were also thought capable of miraculous actions, such as healing the sick or bringing success in battle. As late as the 1600s Saint Cuileáin’s bell was being used as a lie-detector in the local community, its life-history already a millennium long and counting.

Each object displayed in Room 41 is infused with history, of course; but the hand-bells of Saints Cuileáin and Conall Cael wear it on their sleeves more than most. Objects like these set my imagination off and running, and perhaps I’m not the only one. Since I joined the Museum, I’ve found that hand-bells are second only to the Sutton Hoo ship burial in terms of the number of public enquiries that I receive. The colourful histories, sacred associations and local connections acquired over their long lives must be partly responsible for their popularity. Now newly installed in Room 41, the bells have just begun the next chapter of their extraordinary biographies.

The newly re-opened Room 41

The newly re-opened Room 41


The Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock Gallery of Sutton Hoo and Europe, AD 300–1100 is now open in Room 41. Admission is free.
If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Room 41, Sutton Hoo and Europe, AD 300-1100, , , , ,

3 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. elyth Chappell says:

    yes, Room 41 is full of beautiful things, but where is the equally lovely sarcophagus of Jonah and the whale, that lived in the old Room 41?

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  2. John Tierney says:

    V. good article thank you!
    Julianna O’Donoghue also excavated a hand bell manufacture site in north Cork as part of the M8 Motorway project.

    eachtra.ie/new_site/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/gortnahown2-journal.pdf

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  3. Visiting the newly refurbished Room 41, finally gave a new light to my teen-aged readings of Beowulf!

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Born #onthisday in 1859: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Here’s his application to study at the Reading Room.
All prospective users of The British Museum Library had to apply in writing, stating their reasons for study there. At the time he applied for a reader's ticket, Arthur Conan Doyle was already well-known as the creator of the great detective Sherlock Holmes, but he had not yet given up his work as a doctor, and in this letter of application he gives his occupation as 'physician'.
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© 2003 The Natural History Museum.
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This study is drawn with a brush in black and greybodycolour. The light is strongly shown by white heightening when it falls onto the woman's face and hair. The light falls down the exact centre of her face. On the left, only the protruding eyelid and cheek bone catch the light. Her eyes are closed and her head centred, its outline strongly marked by black line and silhouette.
By 1520, the date of this drawing, Dürer was deeply interested in the ideal, human form. He had made numerous life studies, both male and female. He had also travelled to Italy and studied classical sculptures and their proportions. For Dürer, the chief purpose of these theoretical studies was to discover the mathematical proportions of the ideal human body. These he would then use in his paintings (portraits, altarpieces and images of saints) and prints. 
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The #Enlightenment was an age of reason and learning that flourished across Europe and America from about 1680 to 1820. This rich and diverse permanent exhibition uses thousands of objects to demonstrate how people in Britain understood their world during this period. It is housed in the King’s Library, the former home of the library of King George III.
Objects on display reveal the way in which collectors, antiquaries and travellers during this great age of discovery viewed and classified objects from the world around them.
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This watercolour is by Dutch artist Jan van Huysum (1682–1749).
#flowers #art #artist #floral Born ‪#onthisday‬ in 1883: Walter Gropius, architect and founder of the #Bauhaus school. He designed the shape of this teapot in 1969.
#art #design #history #teapot
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