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The Life And Writings Of Saint Patrick -Saint Patrick

The second of Patrick’s minna is the Bell of the Will; in later Irish called the Clog-Phadruig. It is one of the three relics of Patrick which were discovered by Columcille in the tomb of the Saint at Downpatrick sixty years after his death, and was assigned by him to the custody of the Church of Armagh. As we know, this statement is made in the Annals of Ulster, under date of the year 552, and the writer quotes as his authority the very ancient Book of Cuana. Why it has been called the Bell of the Will is not stated; but it is supposed to be so called because it is the Bell referred to in an ancient document known as the Testamentum S. Patritii, which assigns this Bell to the custody of the Church of Armagh. Of this Testamentum Patritii we shall have something more to say later on.

In a Paper read before the Royal Irish Academy in 1863 the learned Reeves gives a full account of this Bell of the Will from every point of view. Here we merely summarize his conclusions, as many of the points discussed by him have been already referred to in this work.

In a very ancient poem attributed to Columcille the author refers to this Bell in striking language, which shows the reverence in which it was held, and also alludes to its Invention by Columcille in the tomb of St. Patrick:—

My love to thee, O smooth melodious Bell,

Which was on the Tailcenn’s breast;

Which was permitted me by the guileless Christ—

The raising and delivering of it.

I command for the safe keeping of my bell

Eight who shall be noble, illustrious;

A priest and a deacon amongst them,

That my Bell may not deteriorate.

The instructions attributed to Columcille, whether really given by him or not, were faithfully carried out, and to that precaution we, doubtless, owe the preservation of this most sacred Bell down to our own time, as we shall presently see.

The Bell itself is one of the primitive type in Ireland—quadrilateral in shape ‘and formed of two pieces of sheet-iron, which are bent over so as to meet, and are fastened together by large-headed iron rivets.’ It would appear that, at a later period, it was coated with bronze to preserve the iron from corrosion. ‘Its height is, with the handle, 7¾ inches—exclusive of the handle, 6½ inches. The breadth of the crown is 5, and the width 1½ inches. The entire weight is 3 lbs. 11 oz.’ It is at present preserved with its shrine in the National Museum, Kildare Street, Dublin.

The maker of this, the original Bell used by St. Patrick, and bequeathed by him to his Church of Armagh, was, it would appear, the artificer Mac Cecht, one of the three smiths employed by Patrick to make his bells. He had three artificers, as we know from the Tripartite, Mac Cecht, Laeban, and Fortchern—smiths they were for iron work, not cerda, or artificers for the finer work in bronze. The three smiths, however, were members of Patrick’s religious family, and, as we have already seen, he gave each of them a church wherein to dwell—whether parochial or episcopal is not stated.

This Bell of the Will, made for Patrick’s use by one of his own family, used, too, by himself, for many years in Armagh, if not also elsewhere, to summon his own flock to religious functions, became the symbol of his power, and, in the estimation of his people, its sound was the very voice of Patrick, if not of God himself, calling them to His worship. Hence it also became an object of the highest veneration; and that veneration was greatly intensified when the Bell was found by Columcille on the very breast of Patrick in his tomb, and was by the Saint of Iona restored to the Church of Armagh, in accordance with the dying wishes of Patrick himself. It thus came to be regarded as one of the great treasures of the church of Armagh; it was one of the symbols of the primatial authority; and, of course, it was preserved with the greatest care and jealousy.

But Armagh was liable to be burned at any time; and was burned often—churches, schools, books, and reliquaries. Hence, at an early date a special keeper was assigned for the safe custody of the Bell of the Will, who was bound to preserve it at all times and in all places, under the most sacred obligation, at the risk of life and limb. Eight persons, amongst them a priest and deacon, the old poem attributed to Columcille prescribes for its safe custody. We know, at least, that an official custodian of the Bell was appointed; that he had lands assigned for his support, and doubtless he had assistants to ensure the safe custody of the precious treasure. He would be bound, ex-offi io, to bring the Bell to Armagh on great occasions, and also he was specially bound to accompany the Comarb of Patrick on his official visitations in Ulster, Munster, and Connaught, for without the Bell, and the Staff, and the Canon of Patrick, the primate would not be recognised as the real Comarb of the Saint.

Now, in course of time, the Bell began to grow the worse of the wear, and it became necessary to provide a suitable cover or shrine which would serve at once to protect it from injury, and also show the high veneration in which it was held. So a truly noble shrine was wrought for the Bell of the Will—the joint work of the High King, the Primate, and the ablest artist whom the North of Ireland could produce.

The great work was accomplished in the highest style of artistic beauty. An inscription in uncial letters on the shrine itself tells who were the authors of the work. “It was executed at the expense of the King of Erin, Domnall O’Lachlainn, for the Heir of Patrick (Domnall, son of Amalgaid), for Cathalan O’Maelchalland, Custodian of the Bell; and Cudulig O’Inmainen, with his sons, were the men who made the cover.” Though last not least, most skilful wrights, your workmanship to this day is in its own way unapproached and unapproachable.

We need not describe this beautiful cover or shrine at length. It can be seen in Dublin, and reflects the highest credit on all concerned in its execution. It was wrought between 1090 and 1105, so that no foreign hand had anything to do with it. Of itself it affords a very striking proof of the fertility of design and delicacy of execution of our Celtic artists at the beginning of the 12th century.

Miss Stokes, a very competent authority, describes the shrine as a fine example of goldsmith’s work made at the close of the eleventh century. “It is made of brass on which the ornamented parts are fastened down with rivets. The front is adorned with silver-gilt plates, and knot-work in golden filigree. The silver work is partly covered with scrolls, some in alto-relievo, some in bas-relief. It is also decorated with gems and crystal, and on the sides are animal forms elongated and twisted into interlaced scrolls.”

“The sides of the shrine are in more perfect condition than the front, owing to the substantial character of the work.” And, quoting Stuart’s Armagh Petrie adds that the left side exhibits above and below the circle which surrounds the handle ornaments of fine gold, representing serpents curiously and elegantly intertwined in most intricate folds, and in various knots. Below the knob and ring by which it is suspended, there are eight serpents, so singularly enfolded and intermingled with one another that it requires minute attention and considerable discrimination to trace each separately, and to distinguish it from its fellows. The whole description is full and accurate, but we cannot reproduce it here.

The O’Mulchallans (O Maelchalland) were, as the inscriptions imply, hereditary keepers or custodians of the Bell of the Will. In virtue of his office the Keeper inherited certain erenach lands belonging to the Church of Armagh as his family property, subject to deprivation by the Primate for failure of the due discharge of the duties of the office. These lands were situated near Stewartstown in the Co. Tyrone, and, as the property of the Keeper of the Bell, were called Baile Chluig or Ballyclog. As one of the high officials of the Church of Armagh the Keeper also enjoyed great consideration, and on more than one occasion he and all his retainers were exempted from the effects of interdicts and other diocesan penalties inflicted on their neighbours. At a subsequent period the Primate transferred the custody of the Bell to the O’Mellans; but it again reverted in the seventeenth century to the representatives of its ancient custodians, who in latter times were known as Mulhollands.

O’Curry thought that the Bell of the Will was identical with that known as the Finnfaidhech, or Sweet-sounding, referred to in the Tripartite as the work of Laeban, one of Patrick’s three smiths. But Petrie shows that they were two distinct bells, and that the sweet-sounding bell with other relics of St. Patrick were carried off by John de Curci, and the Bell was never given back to Armagh, although the Canon of Patrick, that is, the Book of Armagh, was returned later on. Most likely the Keeper of the Bell of the Will had it in his own custody, west of Lough Neagh, when John de Curci swooped down on Armagh, and so the beautiful Bell fortunately escaped profanation, if not utter destruction, like the Staff of Jesus at the hands of the English.

The Bell of the Will, like the Cathach of St. Columba and the Misach of Cairnecht, was, it would appear, sometimes used as a battle standard, that is, it was carried within its shrine by the Keeper into the field of battle, in order to secure the special aid of Patrick for those who fought under its protection. It was also used for the ratification of compacts and of solemn promises, the violation of which, if they had been sworn on the Bell of Patrick, was regarded as the profanation of the relic itself, which was sure to bring upon its authors some dreadful chastisement from the dishonoured Saint. For instance, the Annals of Ulster, A.D. 1044.—Niall, King of Ailech, carried off from the men of Hy Meath and Cuailne 1200 cows and a number of captives ‘in revenge for the violation of the Bell of the Will.’ The avengers in these cases looked upon themselves as authorised by Patrick himself to vindicate his honour and punish the profanation of his minna.






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