Sunday, 29 January 2012

Saint Brigid's Bell

January 29 is the feast of Saint Gildas, a Welsh saint who features in Irish tradition not only as an important teacher of monasticism but also as a craftsman. He is a saint into whose life I need to do a great deal more research, but I would like to mark his commemoration by having a brief look at the connection between Gildas the craftsman and our own Saint Brigid of Kildare. For in the first Life of Saint Gildas by the Monk of Ruys the hagiographer records:

10. Now, St. Bridget, an illustrious virgin, who dwelt and flourished at that time in the island of Hibernia, and presided as abbess over a nunnery, on hearing of the renown of St. Gildas, sent a messenger to him, saying with entreating words: Rejoice, holy father, and be always strong in the Lord. I beseech thee to deem it worthy to send me some token of thy holiness, that the memory of thee may ever, without ceasing, be held in honour amongst us. Then St. Gildas, having heard the holy virgin’s ambassador, made with his own hands a mould of wrought work and, according to her petition, constructed a bell, and despatched it to her by means of the messenger whom she had sent. She joyfully took it, and gladly received it as a heavenly gift sent to her from him.

This is only one of a number of bells made by Saint Gildas, according to his hagiographers, and indeed the bell seems to be a particular motif in the life of this saint. The idea of bells being given as gifts is frequently met in the Lives of the irish saints.

Canon O'Hanlon in his Life of Saint Brigid cites a 17th-century source, Doctor Hanmer's Chronicle of Ireland, which also has a mention of a Saint Brigid's bell:

Among other relics of our saint, Hanmer mentions a bell, called ‘Clogg Brietta’ or ‘Brigid’s Bell’ which he says, the superstitious Irish found out, in process of time, and to which they attributed great virtue and holiness. This bell, he says, and other toys, carried about, not only in Ireland, but also in England, were banished the land, in the time of Henry V. Colgan indignantly takes exception to such statements; and, he shows, that the relic in question was not a recent invention or a fraud, but that it had existed from a remote period. Yet, he would not undertake to pronounce, whether or not, this had been the identical bell, sent by St. Gildas to our saint as a present.

A bell is also said to have been one of the relics of Saint Brigid left behind as a reminder of her visit to Glastonbury, which took place in 488 A.D. according to William of Malmsebury. The bell, along with a number of other relics, was preserved until the Reformation. Early in the 20th century an Irish handbell came to light preserved in an oak casket among the possessions of an elderly resident of the Glastonbury area. Museum staff in both Britain and Ireland were able to examine the object but in 1950 it again disappeared following the death of its last owner. According to a 1953 paper on 'St Brigid and Glastonbury' published in The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, a large reward was offered by the then vicar of Glastonbury for its return, but without success.

There is an interesting short account of a modern attempt to reproduce the techniques of manufacturing and brazing handbells at the National Museum of Wales website here. It discusses the importance of the 2005 discoveries at the monastic site of Clonfad, County Westmeath, when for the first time archaeologists were able to identify a site where such bells had been made.

January 29 is also the feastday of the delightful Saint Blath, cook at the monastery of Kildare.

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