Stories From St Conall Cael’s Handbell 

Written by Verity Limond

How much can be learned from taking an in-depth look at a single artefact? In archaeology, drawing significant conclusions about the number of people who used items in the past usually requires analysis and the comparison of several artefacts. However, it is possible to discern small but valuable insights about a variety of themes and eras from merely one expressive object–the archaeological equivalent of William Blake seeking to ‘see a World in a Grain of Sand’. Indeed, this practice of tracing the story of a single artefact is now so widely accepted that it has a name: object biography, or itinerary. This method allows for a single object to tell the stories of many places, people, and purposes, since as an object changes hands, moves arounds or is altered, it acquires new significance. As historians have their micro-histories (whole stories spun from a single source), so do archaeologists have their object biographies or itineraries. A prime example of this kind of storytelling can be found in the handbell of Saint Conall Cael. There are several hundreds of handbells known from fifth- to twelfth-century Ireland, but it is remarkable how much this single example has to say, about themes as diverse as the development of Irish Christianity and metalwork, medieval Irish connections with Scandinavia, and even nineteenth-century pilgrimages. 

Pyramidal handbells with attached mounts or shrines are a classic artefact of the early Irish Christian church. The iron bell pictured above, from Inishkeel in Ireland, was made in the seventh or eighth century. A bronze mount was added to the top of the bell as an embellishment in the tenth or eleventh century, and it was enshrined in an additional elaborate container in the fifteenth century. Today, it seems natural to associate bells with Christianity, but hanging bells had yet to reach the Irish Church in the early medieval period. Instead, handbells were used to call people to prayer and possibly had a liturgical role to mark important moments during services. In a progression from the pragmatic to the sacred, handbells in Ireland and Britain derive from Romano-British and Gallo-Roman animal bells. Although first used in ecclesiastical contexts in Britain, handbells had special significance in Irish Christianity, and as such, the most elaborate examples come from Ireland. 

The saint with which this bell is associated with, Conall Cael, appears to have been linked to the monastery on the island of Inishkeel in County Donegal. Other than lending his name to the island, little is known of Conall Cael. Some medieval saints were known to be skilled metalworkers, so it is possible that he made the bell himself, but it may also just be named after his church or in memory of him. The bell was almost certainly made somewhere in Ireland, however, as there is little evidence of imported metalwork at that time. Similar bells are known to have been made at other Irish monasteries, showing the strong connection between the Church and specialist metalworking which was necessary for making items such as reliquaries, croziers, and bells. 

While the development of handbells shows the relationship between metalworking and Christianity, the design of St Conall Cael’s bell also illustrates the cosmopolitan influences on art in Ireland during that period. Both the original bell and its mount have suffered damage, but an engraved cross and interlacing patterns can still be seen. Early medieval art in the Atlantic Archipelago has often been characterised as ‘insular’, but this artefact shows the blending of different artistic traditions thanks to cross-cultural connections. The bronze mount on St Conall Cael’s bell indicates the borrowing of themes from Scandinavian art by Irish craftspeople. The outer fields of the cross on the mount are decorated with a highly unusual combination of Scandinavian Borre ring-chain patterns and Jellinge-style animal interlace. The adoption of these art styles into ecclesiastical metalwork shows that the two cultures had productive exchanges after Scandinavian settlers established themselves in tenth-century Ireland. Although Scandinavians, or Vikings, are often characterised as violent raiders who destroyed Irish monastic communities, the synthesis of art styles visible in St Conall Cael’s bell shows that the situation was more nuanced. 

The shrine that was created in the fifteenth century to house the bell, seen above, is far more elaborate than the original item and represents the prowess of high medieval metalworkers in Ireland. The bronze shrine is decorated at the front with a panel showing the crucified Christ flanked by four figures, while the panel above shows God accompanied by the Archangel Michael and Mary holding the Christ child. The back has a simpler incised design showing the figures of various saints, and one of the three attached rock crystals has been lost. There is also a metal chain attached to the shrine so that it could be hung for display or carried around. As a whole, the bell-shrine is an impressive piece of metalwork that illustrates the particular Irish ecclesiastical tradition of embellishing artefacts associated with saints or other religious figures. 

The bell of Conall Cael was a significant religious object long after the saint’s monastery fell into disuse. The bell entered the British Museum’s archives in 1889 after having been bought, sold, and stolen a couple of times. Until 1833, it had been preserved by the O’Breslin (or O’Breslen) family as part of their role as hereditary keepers of the bell, where it seems to have had a folk Christian significance as an object that brought health or luck. Even after the bell left Ireland, the island of Inishkeel continued to be a pilgrimage site as late as the early twentieth century, when pilgrims were observed to follow an established route around the remains of the religious settlement there. 

Arriving at the modern day, the importance of early medieval artefacts in constructing Irish national identity is clear from a recent suggestion that it be permanently returned to County Donegal after it was briefly loaned out from the British Museum for an exhibition there. Although the idea that medieval Ireland was defined by the Christian church (what is often termed the ‘saints and scholars’ narrative) is a simplified way of looking at a complex period of different influences and interactions, certain craft traditions such as ironworking undoubtedly flourished under ecclesiastical patronage. Centuries on from its original creation and later embellishments, the handbell of St Conall Cael continues to be a part of a multitude of stories and provides an insight into big themes of Irish history, as a single but nonetheless vocal object with a vibrant biography. 


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