Exciting news from Donegal, where the County Museum have just announced that St. Conall Cael’s Bell is returning to the county for the first time in over 100 years. This ornate relic, which now resides at the British Museum, is thought to have once belonged to St. Conall Cael, a 6th century saint whose monastery was located on Inishkeel Island, Co. Donegal. The original 6th century bell is a simple object, fashioned out of sheet of iron, that was probably used to call worshippers to pray. However, its association with St. Conall Cael saw it become an item of religious devotion that required further ornamentation. In around the year 1000 AD it was covered in decorative bronze plates, while additional embellishments occurred in the 15th century, when an elaborate silver ‘bell shrine’ was made to protect the relic.
In subsequent centuries the bell shrine became integral to the celebration of St. Conall’s feast day, when pilgrims gathered at his well on the island of Inishkeel. John O’Donovan, writing for the ordnance survey in 1835, describes this local ritual, ‘This chain O’Breslin [the traditional keeper of the bell] threw around his neck, and from it the bell hung down his breast, exhibiting to the enthusiastic pilgrims the glittering gems and the symbol of the bloody sacrifice‘ (source). After the suppression of this turas (pilgrimage) by local clergy in the early 19th century, the bell came into the possession of Major Nesbitt of Woodhill House, Ardara. After his death the bell and shrine passed through the hands of various collectors before eventually finding its way to the British Museum in 1889 (via Donegal County Museum).
However, the bell is now returning to Donegal (on loan), thanks to the efforts of the local County Museum. The bell and shrine will be available for public viewing in Donegal County Museum, High Road, Letterkenny, from 1 pm on Saturday 20th June until Saturday 11th July. Donegal County Museum is also facilitating the visit of the bell and shrine to the Dolmen Centre, Kilclooney on Monday 13th July before it returns to the British Museum. The Dolmen Centre is located close to Inishkeel Island where St. Conall Cael founded a monastery sometime in the 6th century.