8th-9th century AD and circa AD 1100
Bell of St Patrick and its Shrine
This bell is reputed to have belonged to St. Patrick. It is made of two sheets of iron which are riveted together and coated with bronze.
The bell, a powerful relic, is frequently mentioned in written sources as one of the principal relics of Ireland. It was also used as a political tool, to legitimise Armagh as the most important Christian site in Ireland through its association with St. Patrick.
An inscription on its surface indicates that the shrine for the bell was made around AD 1100. It is trapezoidal in shape, echoing the shape of the bell it was made to cover. Formed of a series of bronze plates joined at the edges by tubular bindings, the shrine is topped by a curved crest which covers the handle of the bell. The front of the shrine is covered with a silver-gilt frame that originally held thirty gold filigree panels. These are arranged in the shape of a ringed cross.
The sides of the shrine are adorned with openwork panels depicting elongated beasts intertwined with ribbon-bodied snakes. The back of the shrine is plainer and flatter, and is decorated with an openwork silver plate featuring interlocking crosses.
The inscription along the edge of the backplate records the name of the craftsman and his sons who made the shrine, and Domhnall Ua Lochlainn, King of Ireland between AD 1094 and 1121, who commissioned the shrine; Cathalan Ua Maelchallain, the keeper of the bell, is also mentioned.
Remarkably, the shrine remained in the possession of this family until the end of the 19th century. The long-term hereditary keepership of this bell is a remarkable story and one which obtained for many medieval objects. This tradition shows the resilience of belief in the power of objects to effect change, for better or sometimes for worse, in people’s daily lives. The naming of the craftsmen provides amazing insights into how this work was organised and how crafts were learned.
The bell of St. Patrick and its shrine are on permanent display in the Treasury gallery at the NMI - Archaeology, Kildare Street, Dublin 2.