Ring My Bell!

It is often that we come across noteworthy cases and anecdotes of unknown origin here in the National Folklore Collection. They demonstrate the unique character of the collection as well as the extensive and often surprising work undertaken by it’s predecessors. If you wander into the Tierney building on the UCD campus, from the corner of your eye you may catch a glimpse of a cracked old bell sitting on a modest wooden box to the left of the main entrance. On the bell are the words “Give thanks unto the Lord, for He is gracious“. A small plaque reads:

The first bell of John Henry Newman’s University Church, Dublin. Presented to University College, Dublin, by the Franciscan community of Rosnowlagh in 1973.

It is indeed the first bell which hung in the belfry of Cardinal Newman’s University Church on St. Stephen’s Green, in Dublin’s south inner city. The church was completed in 1856 and later bought by Newman and a number of trustees, who granted the University full access to it. However, the story of how the bell found its way to Belfield is not as straightforward as one may think. In fact, the credit lies with the Department of Irish Folklore, the forerunner to the National Folklore Collection.

A lecturer and key figure in the Department, Kevin Danaher’s role and the scope of the work he carried out is often understated. His travels throughout the country engaging in fieldwork and delivering lectures demonstrate his motivation and dedication to a life study of folklore and ethnology. A folklorist never stops enquiring, often stopping at the side of the road to note down the features of a certain holy well or vernacular dwelling. So too was the case when Danaher stumbled upon an old bell on a small pedestal in the Franciscan Friary at Rossnowlagh, Co. Donegal in August 1972. He wrote:

I observed the bell on a small pedestal in the grounds, bearing a notice which stated that it was the bell from Newman’s University Chapel.

Subsequently, a conversation was struck up with Fr. Diarmuid Ryan. It was suggested that the bell should be given to University College Dublin to be suitably hung or mounted in Belfield as a memorial to Cardinal Newman’s connection with the University. Fr. Diarmuid then discussed the matter with the Irish chapter of the Franciscan Order, all of whom agreed to the suggestion. Having liaised with the then president of UCD, Dr Thomas Murphy, it was agreed that Kevin Danaher would collect the bell himself and bring it to it’s new home in Belfield. On the 14th and 15th of June 1973, Danaher along with Leo Corduff, a colleague in the Department of Irish Folklore, took loan of the UCD Botany minibus and set out to bring the bell back to UCD. Dr Murphy who was in the first year of his Presidency acknowledged the work Danaher was doing in a letter which ended:

I should like to thank you for the trouble you are taking about this matter.

Phone conversation between Danaher and Fr. Cormac Daly

Phone conversation between Danaher and Fr. Cormac Daly, 23rd July 1973 [NFC].

Having recovered the bell, Danaher began some investigation work. Information surfaced on the bell which complicated matters further. Around 1882 the bell was taken down from the University Church to be replaced with a larger one by Murphy Bell Foundry Dublin. It appears that it was then missing for some time. In fact, it was out of sight until 1946 when it was presented to the Franciscans in Rossnowlagh by J. J. Murphy, a building contractor who took the bell from a cellar in Merchants Quay and brought it to Donegal. Fr. Cormac Daly who said the first mass in the Fransciscan Friary in Rossnowlagh was apparently a friend of Murphy. Danaher was told that the bell arrived “together with the cross of the Eucharistic Congress” used in the Phoenix Park in 1932.

It is apparent that not all were happy with the bell being in the possession of the Franciscans. In a letter to Danaher in 1973 Brendan Lawless, writing on behalf of Dublin’s Pro Cathedral, said that:

The church (and bell!) were bought from Newman by the Archbishops of Ireland, and the property is still theirs. No-one had any right to give the bell to the Franciscans… Would you not consider asking Monsignor Hurley for the more recent bell and presenting the original one to Newman’s Church?

Clearly, this request was not granted. From correspondence with the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London, and between Danaher and the UCD President, Dr Thomas Murphy, it appears that there were plans to construct a belfry in Belfield. This was to be a tower or framework from which the bell would be hung once it had been restored. The plan was not seen as urgent however. Writing to the President Danaher stated:

The cost of putting the bell to a ringing state would be slightly over £300, not including the cost of the tower or framework on which it would be hung.

The structure was then estimated at nearly £4,000. It was the opinion of UCD that such an endeavour could wait until new buildings were erected, at which point provision could be made to house the bell. It was suggested that the bell could be mounted on a “plain cube-shaped stand about 3 feet by 3 feet, with a plaque giving details” and kept in the administration building on the campus, in a space shared by all faculties.

As a formal thank you to the Franciscans, a cheque of £100 was gifted to them from UCD. With this, they decided to design and make a suitable processional cross for the Sunday liturgy in Rossnowlagh. Over forty years later, it is fair to say that the bell, tucked away on its stand in Belfield’s Tierney Building, is one of UCD’s hidden gems, a tangible link to the foundation of the University. It rests today on its cube-shaped stand, and still bears a crack at the crown. The credit for the long journey it took to find a home in Belfield lies with the generosity of the Franciscans, the extensive work of the Department of Irish Folklore the UCD Botany minibus, and the keen eye of Kevin Danaher.

  • This post was researched and written by Claire Doohan, National Folklore Collection.

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