Saint Patrick’s Bell and Shrine

Associated with the founder of Christianity in Ireland, this medieval bell and its ornate shrine is one of the treasures of medieval Ireland.

Saint Patrick’s Bell and Shrine; bell: 8th–9th century C.E., iron; shrine: c. 1100 C.E., copper-alloy box, silver gilt, gold, silver, gilt-copper, rock crystal, colored stones, 26.7 x 15.5 cm (National Museum of Ireland, Dublin)

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re in the Archeological Museum in Dublin, looking at the Bell of Saint Patrick and its cover, one of the great medieval treasures of Ireland, both in terms of its artistic quality but also in terms of its religious significance.

Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:18] The Bell of Saint Patrick is this small iron trapezoidal-shaped hand bell with a clapper inside. The bell dates to around the 6th century, maybe as late as the 8th century. The shrine that eventually encased it dates to around 1100. It is covered in luxurious decoration.

Dr. Zucker: [0:36] The bell itself is this roughly surfaced iron, but the shrine made to encase it so many centuries later is a testament to the importance of this much plainer object in its incredible ornamentation.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:50] The bell is associated with Saint Patrick, who is considered the founder of Christianity in Ireland in the 5th century. One of the places where he establishes an important center is Armagh, north of Dublin, and we know that this bell, and especially its shrine, were made in Armagh.

Dr. Zucker: [1:07] The idea was to associate Patrick with Armagh and therefore to boost Armagh’s religious and political importance.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:14] In the century after Patrick dies, his tomb is opened, and there is reportedly a bell that was found with him. We cannot say with any certainty whether this is the exact bell, but clearly, the idea of a hand bell is associated with Patrick and his importance in early medieval Ireland.

Dr. Zucker: [1:31] Let’s talk about the use of hand bells in early Christianity in Ireland. They were used in a monastic setting to mark significant points of the day, to call monks to prayer, and other key moments during the monastic calendar.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:44] And monasticism is so important to the history of early medieval Ireland. Beginning in the 6th century is when you have the establishment of these important monastic centers. Many of those founders become saints, and so hand bells often become associated with these founder saints, like Patrick.

Dr. Zucker: [2:03] And that word, associate, is important here because this is known as an associative relic, distinct from the kinds of relics that you might find so often in continental Europe, where you’ll have an element of a saint’s actual body.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:15] Associative relics are much more prominent, whether that’s hand bells, books, or other items that were thought to be associated with or touched by or created by some of these important early saints.

Dr. Zucker: [2:26] Medieval pilgrims would travel a great distance to come into contact with them, to help assure their passage into heaven, but also even for more immediate aims, for example to heal the sick.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:37] So we have this early iron hand bell that then is encased in this elaborate shrine.

Dr. Zucker: [2:42] The front is magnificent, and it recalls the illuminated manuscripts that had been produced in Ireland or at monasteries that were associated with Ireland in the earlier medieval era.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:53] On the front, we see these individual panels with this elaborate gold filigree filled with interlace and animal imagery that reminds me of the “Book of Kells.”

Dr. Zucker: [3:03] The front depicts a cross. There is a thick frame that surrounds it, and the surface is studded with large gems or semiprecious stones. Then there is this elaborate and minute metalwork.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:14] We also have rock crystal embedded here. We see one in this circular ornament in the center of the cross. It looks like there was another one on the other side that’s now missing. There’s also indications of the artist looking to more contemporary Norse- or Viking-inspired styles.

[3:32] Some of the elaborate filigree and the decoration on the shrine is the Urnes style, which is a style prominent in Scandinavia — for instance, at the Urnes Stave Church in Norway — that shows often a beast or an animal with delicate intertwined snakes.

Dr. Zucker: [3:49] That’s not surprising, because in the 11th century, when this was made, Vikings were quite familiar. They had for the previous several centuries raided Ireland and then settled here, taking control of the very city in which this museum sits, in Dublin.

[4:03] The side panels are especially elaborate, and you can see that the filigree work is one layer that’s set upon a metal ground behind it.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [4:11] Beyond the complicated interlacing and design, we have bronze, we have silver, gold, stones, enamel, rock crystal, a mixture of textures and colors. It’s hard to focus on any one particular place.

Dr. Zucker: [4:25] And on a more practical note, you can see the remnants of a handle. Perhaps there was a chain that would have hooked around and would have allowed one to pick up this reliquary easily.

[4:33] Let’s move around to the back panel. Here, the geometry is more regularized. It’s simplified. We can see that it is a complex patterning of the cross.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [4:43] This is common on bell shrines, but it’s also one that we see on book shrines. If we look closely, we see that there is an inscription that runs along the edge of the entire back panel.

[4:54] It starts off by saying, “A prayer for Domhnall Mac Lochlainn,” who was the king of Ireland, aspiring to be the high king of Ireland, and who commissioned the shrine.

[5:03] After that, it notes a prayer for another Domhnall, the successor of Patrick, who was the abbot at Armagh. The inscription proceeds to note who made it, not only the metalworkers, but also the keeper of the bell, who was a member of the Mulholland family.

Dr. Zucker: [5:21] And so the inscription reaches across time. It refers to the abbot who took over for Patrick, and then it jumps several centuries into the future and speaks to the fact that this reliquary had royal patronage.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [5:32] Around 1100, Armagh is trying to claim that it is the most important center of Christianity in Ireland because of its association with Patrick. It’s at a time when you have lots of different places trying to make a similar claim. This bell and its shrine was used in those political and religious claims for primacy in the Irish church.

[5:54] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Saint Patrick’s Bell and Shrine," in Smarthistory, December 21, 2022, accessed May 24, 2024,