Author Cormac Bourke specialises in the study of early insular Christianity and was a curator of Medieval Antiquities at the Ulster Museum in Belfast for 26 years
Early Medieval Hand-Bells of Ireland and Britain, the first in a new National Museum of Ireland publication series, was launched today. This book by author Cormac Bourke brings together for the first time all the hand-bells that exist or are known to have existed in Ireland and Britain into an exhaustive catalogue that will enthrall expert and amateur alike. The breadth of research undertaken, and extraordinary level of detail and description provided throughout this piece of work make it the most authoritative study ever undertaken on medieval hand-bells.
Over 700 pages in extent, the publication catalogues some 300 ecclesiastical hand-bells from Ireland and Britain, including lost bells and six bells of insular type from Brittany and Bavaria. The first part deals with the morphology, production and distribution of bells, with their archaeological and historical contexts and with their enduring significance in late medieval times. The second part is a catalogue of all existing and recorded bells, offering both physical descriptions and individual case histories.
The author of the book Cormac Bourke is from Dublin and was a curator of Medieval Antiquities at the Ulster Museum in Belfast for 26 years. He specialises in the study of early insular Christianity and has published widely on medieval metalwork and on the archaeology of saints and their relics.
Hand-bells are the most numerous and most widely distributed metal artefacts of ecclesiastical character that survive from the early Middle Ages in Ireland and Britain. These iconic examples of insular metalworking are emblematic of early Christianity in Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Produced between the fifth and twelfth centuries, they survive in large numbers and were used originally to regulate monastic time and to punctuate the liturgy. Several are attributed to specific saints ― including Patrick and Columba (Colum Cille) in Ireland, Kentigern (Mungo) in Scotland and David in Wales.
The bells that feature in the publication are for the most part quadrangular, belong to the early Middle Ages and range in date from between the fifth or sixth century and the early twelfth. Quadrangular hand-bells are emblematic both of the early insular church and of devotion to insular saints. The book also includes bell-shrines, which sometimes belong in whole or in part to the late Middle Ages; a small number of round-sectioned bells of early medieval date; two round-sectioned bells of late medieval date that are attributed to named saints and may have replaced quadrangular predecessors; and one bell of indeterminate date and non-insular type that forms part of the Breton group.
Cormac Bourke, author of the publication said; “Bells have been singled out by unspoken consensus as uniquely significant, uniquely hallowed by association and uniquely deserving of being guarded and handed down. Bells include the oldest continuously transmitted objects that we possess. Between 45 and 60 generations have had a custodian role in the transmission of our oldest bells. That process of being guarded and handed down, that cause, is of course continuous, and now largely a professional remit. I hope that this book, a statement of account in 2020, will contribute to its perpetuation. I’d like to thank the National Museum of Ireland for their support and endorsement, without which the publication of The Early Medieval Hand-Bells of Ireland and Britain would not have been possible.”
Director of the National Museum of Ireland, Lynn Scarff said; “The National Museum of Ireland is honoured to have facilitated the production of this exquisite and important publication. Personally, I find that one of the most lasting impacts of engaging with the many items in our National Collection is consideration of the intimacy between object and human hand. The medieval hand-bells included in this publication speak to this intimate connection. They were part of everyday monastic lives, punctuating moments of prayer, work and sustenance with their sonorous chimes. The wonderful photographs and maps that accompany the detailed text in this publication offer great insights into their original use, making this book without doubt the most authoritative study ever undertaken on these iconic examples of insular metalworking.”
In a joint statement, Dr Audrey Whitty, Head of Collections and Learning, and Maeve Sikora, Keeper of Irish Antiquities at the National Museum of Ireland said; “This masterful publication by Cormac Bourke is an immense achievement both nationally and internationally in its breadth of research and sumptuous detail; the de facto authority on the subject for many years to come. It is an honour that this high calibre book is the first in a new National Museum of Ireland publication series, which puts our wonderful National Collections at the heart of everything we do.”
Priced at €50, Early Medieval Hand-Bells of Ireland and Britain is available from bookshops nationwide or online at www.wordwellbooks.com
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Caption: The National Museum of Ireland has published the most authoritative study ever undertaken on medieval hand-bells. Author Cormac Bourke was a curator of Medieval Antiquities at the Ulster Museum in Belfast for 26 years and is pictured with the new book ‘Early Medieval Hand-Bells of Ireland and Britain’.
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Notes to Editors:
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Some of the titles to follow in the National Museum of Ireland’s publication series in 2021 and 2022 are a publication to mark the centenary of the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, a monograph on the Faddan More Psalter and a book on the National Museum of Ireland’s ethnographical collections.