St. Conall’s Bell and Shrine
It’s a journey that began almost 1500
years ago and next Monday the ancient St Conall’s Bell and Shrine complete the final leg as they make their way back to their place of origin, west Donegal.
But these are no ordinary artefacts and this is no ordinary occasion.
The bell and shrine have been engraved in the folklore and tradition of a coastal community that has preserved not only memory but the very essence of these holy treasures.
It was unveiled to the public by Minister Joe McHugh on June 19, this itself an historic occasion but behind the scenes the work to get to this stage had been going on for almost two years.
Inishkeel Island off Portnoo is acknowledged as the relics original starting point. Access to it on foot is restricted to certain tides and weather conditions but for centuries it has been a place of pilgrimage as a result of its historical connections with St Conall.
He founded a monastery there and in the process brought Christianity and learning to the people of south-west Donegal and beyond. It was a powerful symbol in a new era for this area in particular
The bell in question was used to rally the faithful to mass and various other ceremonies. The same could be said of its much anticipated arrival at the nearby Dolmen Centre next Monday, July 13.
Of course this bell and shrine has been on a long journey to get back to this point. It was held firstly by the abbots on the island, improved upon with the addition of a bronze mount and patterns before it was encased in a beautiful ornate gold, sliver and crystal shrine
It next moved into the care of the O’Breslin Clan who protected it for hundreds of years before they fell on hard times. The relics were purchased by Major Nesbitt of Woodhill House, Ardara but on the night he died, January 3, 1845 it is reported that they went missing.
It is believed they made their way across to England where they passed through the hands of a number of collectors before they were purchased by Augustus Franks in 1889, who recognising their historical significance, presented them to the British Museum in London
Over the years enquires came from the county about the artefacts, particularly around St Conall’s Day on May 2, the opening of the pilgrimage season. Committees were formed, representations were made but there was no indication the artefacts would ever appear again in Donegal.
Then a number of years ago a new committee, spearheaded by the late Malachy Mahon and his wife Brenda, began a process of liaising with the British Museum, and then Donegal County Museum for approximately 18 months, to see if the matter could be revisited.
Judith McCarthy with Helen Meehan and Una McGarrigle from Donegal Historial Society and Brenda Mahon from the local St. Conall’s Bell and Shrine Committee
Donegal County Museum curator, Judith McCarthy met the couple and between them the various challenges in bringing these priceless items to the county were overcome.
“The British Museum previously had the bell and shrine in an exhibition entitled ‘The Treasurers of Heaven’ and on its website the items are listed as one of the highlights of their collection,” she explained.
The curator, who just marked her 21st year at the Letterkenny facility last weekend, added while the British Museum was also keen to facilitate items such as these returning to their place of origin this also meant a host of stringent conditions and a regime of protocols that they hadn’t had to deal with up to this.
“These included fixing a timetable that would suit all parties, copious amounts of paperwork and reports covering everything from security, fine art couriers, environmental conditions and display facilities to name but a few and if these initial hurdles don’t pass the scrutiny of the British Museum’s curators, conservators and security advisors they don’t leave.”
Fortunately Donegal County Museum can boast the highest standards. It has achieved accreditation in the Museum Standards Programme of Ireland and it’s also a designated museum under the National Cultural Institutions Act.
“All of the environmental and security conditions we have to fulfil anyway and that requires training and expertise within our ranks and we’re funded by our local authority to have that,” she said.
The Dolmen Centre in Kilclooney
Next Monday’s one day display at the Dolmen Centre in Kilclooney also had to fulfil certain criteria which, according to Judith, she was able to complete with the assistance of the local committee who were organising the event there.
“In order for the bell and shrine to go to the Dolmen Centre in Kilclooney we had to comply with similar conditions on the understanding it was only going to be for one day but thanks to all parties working together, we were able to ensure it could happen.
“Taking artefacts like these outside the confines of the museum is a big deal for all concerned,” she added.
The curator acknowledged the assistance such an event received thanks to the generous donation from Tim Kelly of Kelly Communications as well as the financial outlay from Donegal County Council to support the overall project.
“All of this has happened as a result of the local committee, the British Museum and the Donegal County Council playing a role. There’s a lot of work behind the scenes that the public might not realise and this was a massive undertaking for all concerned. We had to loan the Dolmen Centre the proper display case and ensure it meets all the required criteria set out by the British Museum.
“I have to visit the facility and ensure the display and the security in place meets their requirements too.”
But all the hard work over such a long period of time has been worthwhile, said Judith.
“It’s been a great learning curve for me and staff at the museum, Assistant Curator, Caroline Carr, Jacqueline Abbas and Mervyn Whyte. The visitors have been overwhelmed too by the fact they can see such historic artefacts. It’s certainly increased visitor numbers and that in turn should also help bring people back here again in the future.
“I am very pleased to have been able to facilitate these items coming back to Donegal and that people have had the opportunity to see objects that they might never had an opportunity to see,” she said.
St Conall’s Bell and Shrine will be available for public viewing in Letterkenny until 4pm this coming Saturday, July 11.
The artefacts will then be going on display at the Dolmen Centre in Kilclooney between 10.30am and 5pm next Monday, July 13 and then going straight back to the museum in Letterkenny before leaving the following morning for their journey back to the British Museum and bring to an end what could only be described as an historic occasion for everyone connected with this event.