Hamill’s Beat - Derry’s ‘Christmas bell’ with a difference

The ancient bronze church bell bearing the date 1411 which has been uncovered in Derry. (0612SL40)
The ancient bronze church bell bearing the date 1411 which has been uncovered in Derry. (0612SL40)

An ancient artefact has been re-discovered in the North West. It’s a bell with a difference. This one is 600 years old and its owner invited me to see it last week.

It pre-dates the start of the Reformation by over 100 years and the Flight of the Earls by almost 200 years. Its sheer age and good condition make it a truly significant ‘find’.

SHANTALLOW BELL. . . .Pictured at a Press conference on the discovery of the 'Shantallow Bell' on Wednesday at Shantallow Area Partnership, Northside are from left, Ian Leech, Templemore Archaeological Society, Councillor Tony Hasson, Pat and George Cairns, Templemore Archaeological Society and Lorraine McWilliams, Shantallow Area Partnership. 0912JM09

SHANTALLOW BELL. . . .Pictured at a Press conference on the discovery of the 'Shantallow Bell' on Wednesday at Shantallow Area Partnership, Northside are from left, Ian Leech, Templemore Archaeological Society, Councillor Tony Hasson, Pat and George Cairns, Templemore Archaeological Society and Lorraine McWilliams, Shantallow Area Partnership. 0912JM09

For many decades it hung above the chimney breast of a small house in a farmyard about three miles north west of the city at Upper Galliagh.

Its owner was well aware that it was there and he even remembers it being rung twice a day in the early 1940s to call workers in from the fields for their meals. After decades of intending to have it taken down from its little tower above the building’s gable, he finally had it brought down a few weeks ago.

It’s a bronze church bell bearing the date 1411. It has three figures, at one third intervals around its circumference. One is of the crucifixion, one is of a woman with a child, probably the Madonna and the third is of a Bishop. He may be St Patrick as around him are several shamrocks.

It was last ‘discovered’ around 1933. It’s possible that W. J. Porter, owner of the city’s famous ‘All Cash Stores,’ found it on the site of an ancient abbey or nunnery on his land. That would have been when he was building Glenabbey Cottages on the hill at Upper Galliagh. W. J. lived at nearby Glengalliagh Hall and he may have had the bell erected in his home farm at that time. Alternatively, it may have been installed in the grounds of the Hall at an earlier date by its previous owners, the McCorkell family of shipping fame.

The bell also pre-dates the nearby Gaelic O’Doherty Castle. The castle was built by Neactan O’Donnell for his father-in-law O’Doherty, sometime during the century after the bell was made. It was captured before the Plantation by Sir Henry Docwra who garrisoned it with 150 men. All that survives of the O’Doherty Castle today is a pier of rubble about 13 ft thick and 25 ft high. It’s remarkable that we have a bell even older than the ruins of this ancient castle.

The bell’s historical significance is currently being assessed by experts and its owner is considering what’s to be done with it but does hope it will remain in the city. Derry is fortunate to have a church bell of such antiquity.

Read more from Norman Hamill in the Journal every Tuesday