On a recent visit to the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, I saw glass cases full of what look like huge cow bells – cast over a thousand years ago. They are religious, hand-held bells and quite uniquely Irish. And the McEnhill family was the custodian of one such bell – The Black Bell.
The story runs that it was rediscovered about 200 years ago under a bridge. Two families contested ownership – the Campbells and McEnhills. So, a member of each family walked over the bridge separately. The bell tolled unaided when the McEnhill strolled across and so it fell into their hands.
An Clog Dubh – The Black Bell in Gaelic – was retained by the oldest McEnhill. When he died, the bell was said to ring of its own volition. The reason the bell signalled an affinity to the McEnhills was because they had been its original owner in the Dark Ages.
In this period of history, the family had been “erenachs” – or guardians of church land. They attained this high social position by being, essentially, a “sept” or sub-division of the very powerful O’Neill clan, who dominated Ulster politics.
One McEnhill (spelt Conor MacConchoille) climbed the ecclesiastical ladder so successfully he ended up being abbot of abbot of the abbey of St Peter and St Paul in Armagh in the 12th century.
How the bell was lost is shrouded in some mystery (different theories abound of course) but then having been recovered, it was kept by the oldest family male member. That was until James McEnhill (1865-1933) decided to give it to the Sacred Heart church in Drumragh, Tyrone for safekeeping.
It had hung in the rafters of James’s kitchen and suffered some abuse from his children who rang it as a joke when he was out. His wife Jane used to stuff it with newspaper to stop it being rung – which could presumably have signalled that her own husband was dead!
The Catholic church took possession of the bell and over time seem to have decided that they were the rightful owners. The McEnhills have acquiesced in this arrangement, to my knowledge, though my grandmother’s brother Hugh did go and visit it in the 1960s.
Hugh McEnhill (1911-1964) and the Black Bell of the McEnhill family that had been handed over to the church to protect it. The ninth century bell was owned in the past by the oldest male in the family and carried in procession when he died.