The Cloch-Bann ~ The Bell of Seagoe|
by Ken Austin
One of the treasures of the Catholic Church in County Armagh is the Cloch Bann, or Clog Ban, or Clog Beannighte (Sacred Bell) or The Bell of Seagoe in the common tongue. Discovered in the 17th century this ancient relic is steeped in mystery and legend.
The bell is a hand bell measuring 12½ inches high including the handle, and the width of the mouth is 11 inches by 8 inches. It is oblong in shape with rounded corners. The body of the bell is of light coloured bronze while the clapper and handle are made of iron. Etched into the side of the bell is written:
OROITABCHUN | MASCACHAM | AILELLO |
These words in the ancient tongue have been translated by many scholars with many different interpretations over the years, but recent research has shown that they translate as:
A PRAYER FOR CUMUSCACH SON OF AILILL
Cumuscach was an economist and treasurer of Armagh Cathedral, whose death is recorded in the 'Annals of the Four Masters' to have taken place in the year A.D. 904. Son of Ailill and Gormlaith, he was grandson to Murdach, King of Ulster. The bell was made to ring at his funeral as his body was carried in procession to his last resting place. After the death of Cumuscach, the bell was used on many occasions to mark the passing of local residents and it was at this time that the 'Legend of the Cloch' came into being. It manifested itself in a strange moisture that appeared on the bell, prior to a death in the community. This has been explained by scientists as a result of the air in the heated chamber in which it was housed was so condensed on the cold metal of the bell that occasionally small streams trickled down its sides. This "heavy sweating" of the bell, as it was termed, was regarded by everyone with peculiar horror, and deemed a certain prediction of coming death.
The bell then passed out of memory for over 700 years until 1602 when it was taken from the Parish of Seagoe and found its way to the Castle of Dromore. In 1641 it was regained by the Catholics and again nothing more was heard of it until 1725. The Rev Bernard O'Hagan (Roman Catholic clergyman, formerly at Newry and Laurencetown, Co. Down) wrote an interesting account of those lost 84 years on March 1, 1883.
"The bell made its way to St. Bruno's Church, Kilbroney (Rostrevor), and was hung in the fork or hollow of a tree, which in time grew around it, and long after the destruction of the church, the bell could only be heard during such storms as shook the woods around. All could hear the bell on such occasions, but none could ascertain the precise tree in which it was concealed, until about fifty years later, when the tree fell, and the bell was discovered. It was taken by the late Rt. Rev. Dr. Clarke to Newry, and for years was used as a hand-bell at the old chapel, for the purpose of calling the people to attend devotions. It became useless after a time for that purpose, as it decayed in a particular spot, and the sound was destroyed."
In 1815 the bell moved from Newry and was in the possession of a Paul Hennon, a cottager who lived on the low road half way between Lurgan and Portadown, in the townland of Aughacommon. As guardian of the bell, Paul Hennon had repaired the bell so that it's death knell could be heard once more. People frequently went to Hennon's to declare, in the presence of the bell, their innocence of crimes of which they were accused. This is not a modern custom. In ancient times these bells were kept by each of the chief judges in their respective circuits. It was the custom to have the Bell rung in front of funerals. The man who rang it held it up above his head with both hands. In ancient times oaths used to be sworn upon such bells, and the Judge of the Assize used to carry one with him. The widow of a former Parish Clerk of Seagoe, then living and in her 94th year, remembered seeing a coffin being carried thrice round old Seagoe Church, and being made to touch the four corners of the Church at each round, whilst the old Cloch-Bann was rung, and the Keeners chanted alternately. It was publicly used for the last time at the funeral of John Hennon, in 1836.
Mrs. Hennon, John's widow died about 1838, and it is stated that the bell was not rung at her funeral. On her death, her son, Bernard Hennon, remained in their house, and had been the nominal guardian of the bell since his father's death. It did not, however, remain long in his possession. He committed, a breach of the Excise laws regulating the sale of alcoholic liquors; and, as it was his second offence, a heavy fine was inflicted upon him. Being unable to pay the fine he was sent to Armagh jail. The late Archdeacon Saurin, rector of Seagoe, took much interest in Hennon's case, visited him in the jail, and eventually by his exertions got the fine almost entirely remitted. Hennon and his family were very grateful to Archdeacon Saurin for his kind interposition; and as the most convincing proof of their gratitude, as well as that which was most acceptable to the Archdeacon, the sacred bell was presented to him, with the concurrence of the parish priest. This was in the year 1839. In 1840 Archdeacon Saurin gave it to the Very Rev. Henry R. Dawson, Dean of St. Patrick's, a most distinguished antiquarian, and on his death at an early age, in 1842, his collection of antiquities (including the Bell) passed into the hands of the Royal Irish Academy who are its present guardians. The Bell is at present to be seen in the room containing the collection of Irish antiquities in the Museum in Kildare Street, Dublin along with 18 other similar hand bells.
For over 1100 years the Cloch Bann has been a symbol of sorrow and respect for the dead and although it has been removed from its once condensation filled perch, it still sweats from time to time, but its death knell is heard no more.
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