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.
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The Mooghaun Hoard: early ‘currency’ or bands of equality?

Mooghaun Hoard. © National Museum of IrelandNeil Wilkin, curator, British Museum

Question: What do you call a Bronze Age coin specialist?
Answer: Flat broke and misspent, for there is no evidence from this period of coins or currency systems, as we know them, in Europe!

And yet… a journey through the Citi Money Gallery begins with a group of Bronze Age objects. Among them are gold objects from the ‘Mooghaun hoard’ (about 800 BC), a find that has recently been honoured with a place in Fintan O’Toole’s ‘A History of Ireland in 100 Objects’ series, supported by the National Museum of Ireland and the Royal Irish Academy.

Some of the objects from the Mooghaun Hoard on display in the Money Gallery.

Some of the objects from the Mooghaun Hoard on display in the Money Gallery.

But why are they in the gallery? Their recent honour gave me the perfect opportunity to explore that question.

The start of our story is bitter-sweet: in March of 1854, workmen in County Clare, Ireland discovered at least 150 finds of what was then described as ‘fairy gold’, weighing approximately 5kg, mostly consisting of jewellery. The gold must have poured from the small stone chamber it was found in – childhood dreams of gold pots and rainbows come to mind!

Objects from the Mooghaun Hoard in the British Museum collection, and the National Museum of Ireland collection, as well as some reproductions.

Objects from the Mooghaun Hoard in the British Museum collection, and the National Museum of Ireland collection, as well as some reproductions. © National Museum of Ireland

It was certainly one of the biggest discoveries of Bronze Age gold ever found in Ireland or even North West Europe. Sadly, accounts tell of hats full of gold being sold for less than their true value to be melted down, forever lost. Only 29 objects survive today.

Around the same time, in Mold, Wales, a separate group of workmen came across another famous find of Bronze Age gold, known as the Mold Gold Cape. Like the Mooghaun Hoard, the cape was also dispersed. But unlike the Mooghaun Hoard, the fragments were not melted down and they were eventually purchased and re-assembled. So, why did the Mooghaun Hoard not receive the same treatment?

Unlike the complex decoration of the unique Mold Gold Cape, most of the Mooghaun finds consisted of many very similar bracelets or armlets with very little decoration. Perhaps they were a way of storing wealth – even an early form of ‘currency’? In melting and spending the gold, the modern finders may have been recognising this key quality.

However, there is more to the story. The finds at Mooghaun were made close to (or even within) a lake and close to one of the biggest Bronze Age hillforts in Ireland. This setting is typical of Irish hoards deposited for spiritual and religious reasons, rather than ‘banked’ for safe-keeping to be returned for later.

The similarity of the objects could also relate to the status of individuals. For while the Mold Gold Cape could only be worn by a single, very important person, the Mooghaun hoard could decorate the bodies of many people at once.

The Mooghaun finds therefore tell us that not all gold was for important individuals and that we can’t always separate economics from spiritual beliefs. In that sense, they provide the perfect starting place to the story of the history of money.

The Mooghaun Hoard is object 11 in A History of Ireland in 100 objects

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