St. Patrick’s Bell

John Healy
St. Patrick in the Far West | start of essay


Shrine of the Bell of St. Patrick

Shrine of the Bell of St. Patrick

The bells from the earliest days in the Western Church were blessed, or as it came to be said later on, they were baptised—that is sprinkled with holy water and salt, and anointed with the Holy Chrism, and had a special name given to them. The very oldest form of blessing that we have shows that the bells were not only used for calling the people to the Divine Offices of the Church, but their sound was regarded also as powerful to drive away demons, and repel storms and lightning. In Ireland these blessed bells were especially esteemed; and one of them was always regarded as an essential part of the equipment of Bishop or Abbot. He was to have a bell, a book, a crozier or bachul, and a menistir or chalice, with its paten and altar stone, and when St. Patrick had St. Fiaac consecrated Bishop of Sletty, he gave him a case containing all these four articles. This explains why the voice of the blessed bell was so powerful, and why the demons could not bear its sound or its presence. The voice of Patrick’s Bell on the Holy Mountain was, as it were, the voice of God proclaiming the routing of the demons and the victory of the Cross. And hence, it is said in some of the Lives that all the men of Erin heard the voice of Patrick’s Bell on the Reek—sounding the triumph of the Cross—and from the same lone height, in one sense at least, it may be said that its voice is still heard all over the land. It was heard on the 16th August just passed; and with the blessing of God the voice of Patrick’s Bell will be heard every year by all who dwell along these western shores, far over land and sea. It is no new sound; it verily and indeed is the voice of Patrick’s Bell that you will hear coming down to us through the ages, and sounding once more from the Reek over all the land.

In the might of God and by the power of God, Patrick drove off the demons from the Reek and from the West—let us hope, for ever. He was victorious, but worn out after the long conflict, and his Angel Victor suggested that he might now leave the Sacred Hill, and return to Aghagower to celebrate Easter.


And to console Patrick, the whole mountain summit was filled with beautiful white birds, which sang most melodious strains; and the voices of the mountain and the sea were mingled with their melody; so that the Reek became for a time, as it were, the paradise of God, and gave one a foretaste of the joys of heaven. “Now get thee gone,” said the Angel, “you have suffered, but you have been comforted. These white birds are God’s saints and angels come to visit and to console you; and the spirits of all the saints of Erin, present, past, and future, are here by God’s high command to visit their father, and to join him in blessing all this land, and show him what a bountiful harvest his labours will reap for God in this land of Erin.” The Book of Armagh goes no further, but the Tripartite and the later authorities add much more.


Taking Colgan’s version of the narrative, he tells us that God’s angel promised to Patrick that through his prayers and labours as many souls would be saved as would fill all the space over land and sea so far as his eye could reach—more numerous far than all the flocks of birds he beheld. Furthermore, by his prayers and merits seven souls every Thursday and twelve every Saturday were to be taken out of Purgatory until the day of doom; and thirdly, whoever recited the last stanza of Patrick’s Hymn in a spirit of penance would endure no torments in the world to come. Moreover he prayed, and it was granted to him, that as many souls should be saved from torments as there were hairs in his chasuble, also that those Whitely Stokes calls the Outlanders should never obtain permanent dominion over the men of Erin; that the sea would spread over Ireland seven years before the Judgment day, to save its people from the awful temptation and terrors of the reign of Antichrist; and that Patrick himself would be like the Apostles over Israel, and judge the men of Erin on the Last Day; and this too was granted, but not without great difficulty. Such is the substance of the wrestling of Patrick on the Holy Hill, and the wonderful favours he obtained for the men of Erin by his strong prayers. What wonder, then, that the Reek has been esteemed the holiest hill in all Erin; that it has been from the beginning a place of pilgrimage, and that somehow an idea has got abroad that whoever did penance, like Patrick, on this Holy Hill would have his special blessing, and by the powerful prayers of the Saint, escape eternal punishment?


But Patrick was not content with praying for his beloved flock, and watching over them during his own life: he left holy men of his family, it is said, to watch over the men of Erin until the Day of Doom. One he left, first of all, on the Reek itself, to watch over all this western land and over the islands of the main, and his bell, they say, is often heard, although he himself cannot be seen. Another he left on Ben Bulbin, which, after the Reek, is the most beautiful hill in Erin, and he watches over the north-west; a third he left on Slieve Donard, who gave his name to that grand mountain overlooking all the north-east; a fourth on Drumman Beg, to watch over the plains of Meath; a fifth at Clonard, and a sixth at Slieve Cua, the great ridge overlooking at once the plains of Tipperary and the beautiful valley of the Black-water. Well, all I can say is, if the men of Patrick’s family have not kept watch and ward on these lonely heights for the past fourteen hundred years, God’s Angel-guardians have done it; for, otherwise, the Irish race and the Faith of St. Patrick would have been utterly rooted out of the land.


It is a common belief that it was from the Reek that St. Patrick drove all the poisonous reptiles and serpents into the sea, so that none has ever since been found in Erin. I find no trace of this ancient tradition in the Book of Armagh or in the Tripartite, or other more ancient lives of the Saint. Still the tradition is very ancient.

Jocelyn, in his life of St. Patrick written towards the close of the twelfth century, expressly states that from the day the Saint blessed the Reek, and from the Reek all the land of Ireland, with all the men of Erin, no poisonous thing has appeared in Ireland. Patrick expelled them all by the strength of his prayers, and the virtue of the Staff of Jesus which he bore in his hand.

Gerald Barry, who wrote some years later, in the beginning of the thirteenth century, refers to the same popular belief as almost universal. He himself, however, does not attribute the absence of all poisonous reptiles to the power of Patrick and his crozier. He says rather that it is due to certain properties in the air and in the soil of the land which render it fatal to all venomous things; and he quotes Venerable Bede, who wrote in the eighth century and states the same. The Welshman declares, furthermore, that if anything poisonous was brought from other lands, it perished at once when it touched the soil of Ireland. I will not attempt to settle this controversy, or decide on the truth of the alleged facts. For eight hundred years at least the popular voice has attributed this immunity to the merits of St. Patrick and his blessing of Ireland from the Reek. That he drove away the demons of infidelity and paganism, corporeal or incorporeal, cannot be questioned; and Jocelyn says he drove away the toads and serpents also, in order that the demons, if they returned, might have no congenial abode in which to take refuge.

Patrick having received all these great favours from God descended the mountain on Holy Saturday, and returned to Aghagower, where he celebrated the great Easter festival with his beloved friends, Senach the Bishop, Mathona the Nun, and Aengus the student, who was then learning his catechism and his psalms.