St Cuileáin's bell shrine

Irish, 7th or 8th (iron bell) and early 12th centuries AD
From Glankeen, County Tipperary, Ireland

A powerful lie detector

This magnificent bell-shrine is said to have been recovered from a tree at Kilcuilawn, and has survived rough treatment. The ancient iron hand bell inside was first used to call members of a monastic community to prayer. It comes from the ancient monastery of Glankeen founded by St Cuileáin in the seventh century. St Cuileáin was a powerful figure, the brother of Cormac, king-bishop of the rocky stronghold of Cashel nearby. It was venerated and later enshrined as a relic associated with him.

The iron bell is now incomplete. The elaborate outer brass case was added in the twelfth century. The case was cast in sections, some of which are missing. The front is now bare iron but once carried a jewelled crucifix. The back retains a brass plate engraved with a large cross. The elaborate open-work crest at the top is inlaid with copper and silver wires and further embellished with black niello and enamel. The intricate interlacing ornament is an Irish version of the Viking Ringerike style. It includes a typical looped knot on the front and a huge animal’s head on each shoulder.

The early medieval custom of enshrining the belongings of the founders of churches and monasteries came to a second peak in Ireland under royal patronage in the twelfth century. As well as bells, items including staffs (such as the ‘Kells crozier’ also in the British Museum), holy books, clothing, bones and teeth were cherished by later generations. Up to the nineteenth century the hereditary keepers of this bell, the Béarnan Cuileáin, used its power to detect false oaths; liars risked their heads being reversed.

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St Cuileáin's bell shrine

  • Back of bell shrine

    Back of bell shrine

  • Detail



More information


F. Henry, Irish art in the Romanesque pe (London, Methuen, 1970)

M. Bagnoli, H. Klein, C. G. Mann and J. Robinson, Treasures of Heaven: Saints, r (London, British Museum Press, 2011)

P. Harbison, The golden age of Irish art (London, Thames and Hudson, 1999)

S. Marzinzik, Masterpieces: Early medieval a (London, British Museum Press, 2013)

R. Ó Floinn, Irish shrines and reliquaries (National Museum of Ireland, Dublin, 1994)

E. Roesdahl and D.M. Wilson (eds), From Viking to crusader: the S (Sweden, Bohusläningens Boktryckeri, 1992)


Height: 30.000 cm (including shrine)
Width: 24.000 cm

Museum number

Britain, Europe and Prehistory


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