Bellshrine of Saint Patrick

The Shrine of Saint Patrick's Bell

The Irish Church was the first western church to become established outside the Roman empire. Western rite in liturgy and orthodox in doctrine it has at all times since been in full communion with Rome. Its isolated position on the periphery of western Christendom rendered it vulnerable to archaism and idiosyncracy in such incidentals as the liturgical calendar, tonsure and canon law but the modern notion that these anomalies indicate the existence of a non-Roman Catholic 'Celtic church' having an immediate origin in the Christian East cannot be seriously entertained. Another notion to be dismissed is that the Irish Church was exclusively monastic in character as we find that in internal organisation both secular and regular forms were present from earliest times. The secular in the form of episcopal mother churches ministering the sacraments to the population of a district through networks of priests based in smaller local churches. The regular in the form of dispersed familiae ('communities') of monastic churches providing seclusion to those following a religious life of prayer, study and asceticism. From the seventh century onwards these two forms came together into competing paruchiae ('temporal jurisdictions') under a few great churches purporting to have been founded by an eminent saint. Within a paruchia the two forms accommodated so that a bishop exercised the spiritualities of his territory regardless of the temporal jurisdictions therein from a monastic/collegiate mother church ruled by an airchinnech ('superior') whose temporalities transferred to the new non-clerical office of comharba ('successor'), the holder of which was seen to lead the paruchia in worldly matters as temporal heir of the saintly founder. Over time discard segments of the royal dynasties secured succession to this powerful new office and built the paruchiae into ecclesiastical lordships causing cities of several thousand to coalesce around the enclosures of the great churches as they became centres of power and home to the regional dynasties competing for the Irish kingship. This system of administration of Church temporalities by lay trustees left priests and religious free to fulfill their essential spiritual function and so the pastoral ministry and religious life of the Church cannot be said to have suffered particularly as a result of these developments [1].

In Ireland the medieval custom of enshrining relics associated with the early saints came to a peak under royal patronage in the twelfth century as bells, croziers, books, clothing, bones and teeth associated with the early founders were enshrined in reliquaries commissioned to embody alliances between Church and state. In addition to their devotional value these enshrined objects acted as insignia of office of the comharba as head of the paruchia, were used as symbolic witnesses to oaths and treaties and on occasion as battle talismans [2]. The earliest mention of Saint Patrick's Bell otherwise known as the Bell of the Testament in the sources is in an annal relating to the year 553 [3]:

Sic in Libro Cuanach inueni: i Reilci Patraic do tabairt i scrin i cinn tri bliadnae iar netsecht Patraic la Colum Cille. Tri minna uaisli do faghbail isin adhnucal i a choach 7 Soiscela ind Aingil 7 Clocc in Aidhechta. Is amlaid so ro fhoghail int aingel do Colum Cille inna minna i in coach do Dhun 7 Cloc in Aidachta do Ard Macha 7 Soiscela inn Aingil do Colum Cille fein. Is aire dogarar Soiscela in Aingil de ar is a laim in aingil arroet Colum Cille he

'I have found this in the Book of Cuanu: The relics of Patrick were placed sixty years after his death in a shrine by Colmcille. Three splendid halidoms were found in the burial-place: his goblet, the Angel's Gospel, and the Bell of the Testament. This is how the Angel distributed the halidoms: the goblet to Down, the Bell of the Testament to Armagh, and the Angel's Gospel to Colmcille himself. The reason it is called the Angel's Gospel is that Colmcille received it from the hand of the Angel'

The entry is clearly apocryphal and presents a suspiciously careful balance between the claims of the paruchia of Patrick in its competing centres of Down and Armagh and the paruchia of Colmcille. The Book of Cuanu is now lost but it can be shown to have been based upon an Iona Chronicle maintained contemporaneously from circa 550 and to have been combined with several closely related strands to form the Annals of Ulster in the eleventh century. The entry places Patrick's death circa 493 (553 date - 60 years elapsed = 493) which is consistent with it being part of the earliest stratum of the Iona Chronicle but it contains Middle Irish linguistic forms of the tenth century onwards and is introduced with a formula ('I have found this in the Book of...') that indicates single-stranded transmission so cannot be said to form part of the earliest stratum prior to its transmission through the various strands and so does not attest the existence of Saint Patrick's Bell in 553. This conclusion would seem to be borne out by the absence of any subsequent mention of the bell in the Annals of Ulster until the eleventh century [4]. Whatever its earlier provenance a handbell of that name now in the care of the National Museum in Dublin certainly existed by 1091x1094 as sometime between those dates a metal reliquary of the type known as a bellshrine ten inches high with a base measuring six inches by four inches was fitted around the bell to protect and embellish it. The bellshrine is made from thick sheets of bronze with openwork decoration. The front is covered with filigree now torn off in places and has had two quartz settings added to it at a later date. The sides are covered with zoomorphic patterns and have suspension rings attached. The rear is covered with an array of cut-out cruciforms and has the following continuous inscription around its edge (linebreaks indicate corners, || is a punctuation mark) [5]:


'Pray for Domhnall grandson of Lochlainn for whom was made this bell. And for Domhnall successor of Patrick in whose house (it) was made and for Cathalan O Máelchalland for the keeper of this bell. And for Cúdúilig O Inmainen with his sons (who) enshrined (it)'

The inscription follows a standard authenticating formula in three parts identifying the commissioner, the other interested parties and the craftsman and in this way memorialises an alliance between Domhnall MacLochlainn who claimed primacy as king of Ireland and Comharba Phátraic ('Successor of Patrick') who claimed primacy of the Irish Church for Armagh. The longstanding nature of this alliance is demonstrated in the annals which show that both his father Ardghal and his grandson Muircheartach were interred in Armagh where there was a mausolio regum ('tomb of the kings') [6]. The migration of the embryonic MacLochlainn dynasty to Derry around 1100 led to the creation of a grand alliance when Derry also became the seat of Comharba Cholmcille ('Successor of Colmcille'). Through an interchange of reforming personnel and with the backing of the secular arm in the form of the MacLochlainn dynasty, the paruchiae of Patrick and Colmcille became a major force in the Irish reflex of the reform movement sweeping twelfth century Europe [7]. At the reforming synods of Cashel in 1101, Ráithbressail in 1111 and Kells-Mellifont in 1152 canon law was updated, the existing dioceses were rationalised and an Irish national church was created by placing the bishops under the jurisdiction of four provincial metropolitans one of whom was given jurisdiction over the others as national primate. There followed a period of evolution during which the non-clerical office of comharba became titular in attaching to a bishopric or rectory held by a cleric in major orders, continental religious orders such as the Cistercians were introduced into new foundations and existing foundations resolved into cathedral chapters, houses of Augustinian canons regular or parish churches. In the latter case the lands of the newly-defunct ecclesiastical community fell into episcopal hands and the office of airchinnech of the defunct community became titular in acquiring the sense of a minor order and attaching to a chief tenancy in the lands to be held by right of descent within a family. This process was disrupted upon the Anglo-Norman incursion of 1169 causing a dichotomy to emerge in that areas under Anglo-Norman control experienced a clean break upon the establishment of parishes with livings in lay patronage on the English model whereas areas under Irish control saw the continued evolution of parishes with livings in episcopal patronage and the vestigial survival of the comharba, airchinnech and keeper of relics into modern times within the Catholic tradition [8]. Provenance shows that the bell and its shrine remained in the possession of its hereditary keepers the Ó Máelchalland (anglicised Mulholland) family until the eighteenth century. Now in the care of the National Museum the bell is still sounded occasionally.



  1. Some problems concerning the organization of the church in early medieval Ireland, R. Sharpe, Peritia 3.
  2. Irish Shrines and Reliquaries of the Middle Ages, R. Ó Floinn.
  3. Annals of Ulster, 553.
  4. Annals of Ulster, 1044.
  5. Irish Art in the Romanesque Period, 1020 - 1170AD, F. Henry. The inscriptions on pre-Norman Irish reliquaries, P.E. Michelli, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 96C.
  6. Annals of Ulster, 1064 and 1166.
  7. Iona, Kells and Derry, M. Herbert.
  8. Frontiers in the Irish church - regional and cultural, K. Simms, Colony and Frontier in Medieval Ireland, T.B. Barry et al.