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Rare 15th Century Bells Donated to the National Museum of Ireland

Three rare 15th century medieval bronze bells which once hung in the bellcote at St Mary’s Abbey Church, Howth, Co. Dublin have been donated by the Gaisford St Lawrence family to the National Museum of Ireland.

Bearing gothic inscriptions, these three bells have been a part of Howth’s history for centuries. They sounded the hours, called seafarers, and the people of the Howth peninsula to prayer for three hundred years before being taken to Howth Castle in the mid eighteenth century for their safety, where they have remained ever since.Image: Donation of the Bells of St Mary’s Howth

The St Lawrence family were the Lords of Howth since the 12th century are likely to have commissioned the bells.

Very few late medieval bells in Ireland survived the Reformation when many were sold and melted down. It is even more unusual to have a set of such bells surviving from one church.

The castle, which was built by the St Lawrence family, has recently been sold and its contents auctioned. Key objects have been purchased by the National Museum of Ireland with funding from the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media. The medieval Great Sword of Howth has been acquired by the museum in this purchase.

The Gaisford St Lawrence family recognized the importance of the bells to the Howth peninsula and to the wider history of medieval church in Ireland.

The bells will be conserved and displayed in the National Museum of Ireland, Kildare Street while appropriate signage will be placed in St Mary’s Abbey church, Howth which is in the care of the Office of Public Works.

Lynn Scarff, Director of the National Museum of Ireland said, “I would like to extend my sincere thanks to the Gainsford St Lawrence family for their donation of these three medieval bells to the National Museum of Ireland so that they can be viewed and enjoyed by visitors to the museum into the future. It is our honour to take on the responsibility of caring for these precious artefacts and ensure their history as part of St Mary’s Abbey and connection to the community of Howth is communicated to all who come into contact with them. The bells illustrate that wonderful connection between our material, built and natural heritage and it has been a pleasure to work with our colleagues in the National Monuments Service and Office of Public Works as well as the Gaisford St Lawrence family to reach this important day.”

Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage Minister Darragh O’Brien TD said, “we owe a huge debt of gratitude to the St Lawrence family for their custodianship of these historic bells for over 200 years. That duty of care is now being handed over to the National Museum of Ireland. While the bells have not rang across Howth for many centuries, their future display in NMI in Kildare Street will ensure that the story of St Mary’s Abbey and that of the generous custodianship of the St Lawrence family will become an integral part of the story of Ireland’s past and better known to the museum’s many visitors from across the world.”

Minister of State with responsibility for the OPW, Patrick O’Donovan TD said, “caring for heritage is a responsibility borne by many, and none more so than the St Lawrence family who have been the careful keepers of these bells for centuries. On behalf of the OPW, I acknowledge that care with thanks. We will ensure that new interpretative information at the original location of the bells at St Mary’s Abbey in Howth will tell the wonderful story of the bells and of those who have ensured that they have stayed safe for so long to allow our understanding of the country’s heritage to be enriched.”

Christopher Gaisford St Lawrence said, “the story of these bells is the story of Howth. They were such a part of peoples’ daily lives and it only seems right that they will now be able to be enjoyed by everyone in the National Museum.”

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