March 2014, Isle of Iona, Adomnán’s Bell, St Oran’s Chapel

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Looking at early Christian hand bells as an artefact and symbol of belief that links the islands of Iona, Lewis and Skye. Made of iron and bronze and quadrangular in shape, these bells are synonymous with the early insular church and their distribution may show the spread of influence of the first Columban monks. [1] These bells would have been used to summon monks to prayer at intervals throughout the day. The Irish for bell is, “cloc”, “clocc” or “clag” and the similarity to the English, “clock” is no coincidence. But these bells were much more than timepieces, many were associated with saints and were regarded as holy relics; rung during funeral processions, touched during oath takings and upturned to hold holy water to dispense to the sick. We know from Adomnán’s Life of St. Columba that Columba had an iron bell at the monastery on Iona; Adomnán relates more than one incidence when, following a vision, Columba gathers the monks to pray together to offer protection to their brothers, seen by Columba to be in great distress.[2]

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[1] Bourke, Cormac, “The Handbells of the early Scottish Church”, in Proc Soc Antiq Scot, 113 (1983), 464-468

[2] Sharpe, R. (trans.) 1995, Adomnán of Iona: Life of St. Columba, Penguin Books, London.

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