The Story of the Bells of St Nicholas

Christmas Miscellany 2010

The Collegiate Church of St Nicholas, dedicated to St Nicholas of Myra, patron saint of children (better known as ‘Santa Claus’ ) and of mariners, is the largest medieval parish church in Ireland in continuous use as a place of worship. Though there is some disagreement about when it was built, it was finished by 1320. The building was extended by the Lynch and ffrench families when the 14 tribes were at the peak of their power during the 16th century. Christopher Columbus prayed there during a visit to Galway in 1477, and the building suffered the iconoclasm of Cromwell’s troops, who used the church as a stable after the siege of Galway in 1652. Today it occupies the centre of the city, renowned for its annual Christmas carol service, which is attended by the mayor and members of the city council, and members of the corporation, all in robes, preceded by the symbols of the city; its silver sword and mace.

Below is the story of the bells of St Nicholas’ - which ring out the familiar carols every Christmastime. It is taken from a pamphlet which was published to mark the Service of Dedication and Thanksgiving which took place on October 10, 1935, to celebrate the newly recast bells.

There are ten bells in St Nicholas' Collegiate Church, cast at seven different dates from 1590 to 1898. They were hung for ringing by the late Mr H.S. Persse, when he gave two new bells in 1891. After some time it was seen that the vibration was putting a great stress on the old tower, and “chiming” was substituted for “ringing.” Unfortunately the method of chiming was not satisfactory, and one bell after another cracked, until in 1930 only three of the bells could be used, the clock bell being only used for the hour's strike, and the “Clifton” bell being out of tune.

The Vestry considered various plans, and after much thought, decided in 1934 to have the bells recast into a chime of ten bells. They obtained a loan, on the security of the Spiddal Church compensation money from the Representative Church Body. The Bishop of Tuam gave a grant from a fund at his disposal, and the Lord Primate gave £50 from the Beresford Fund.

The Vestry decided to expend as much of the available money as possible on the bells, so as to secure as heavy a chime as the old bells. They accordingly left to a future effort the enlargement of the louvres, which would permit the sound to escape from the steeple more clearly. In 1935, after several interviews with representatives of Messrs. Gillet & Johnston of Croydon, they placed a contract with that firm for the recasting of the bells, and with Messrs. Thomas McDonogh & Sons Ltd., Galway for the work of removing, transit and replacing of the bells in the steeple. All the old inscriptions have been recast on the bells.

The oldest bell, probably, was the “great bell” which was tolled on Sundays (Hardiman, p.260, note 36 ). It was “renewed be Master James Linche” in 1590, but was first cast by Hugh Butwall, when is not recorded. This “Master James Linche” was Mayor of Galway in 1590, and did a considerable amount of work including the raising of the tower, and casting of other bells. But some dispute arose between him and the Corporation about payment, and the matter was submitted to arbitrators who, in 1592, awarded the sum of £63, because, “sundry of said workes were beneficial and necessarie for the utilitye of the Commons and Corporation.” But the money was not paid, and in 1620 Ambrose Lynch, son of James, obtained an order from the Chancellor for the payment of the £63 with £40 interest.

The “French” bell is next in order of age, dated 1631. Hardiman's History gives the inscription, but affords no clue as to how or when the bell was hung in St Nicholas'. The decorations have been reproduced on the new bell, and the original decorations have been preserved, and will be an interesting memorial of this old bell.

John Clifton's bell is dated 1638. Hardiman does not mention the bell on his list, possibly because it was not used, it was out of tune, and apparently was not rung for over 100 years.

Two bells were cast in the Mayoralty of Colonel Theodore Russell, at the same time as the steeple was built on the tower. It is constructed of oak beams, sheeted with timber, and slated. It is not in keeping with the architecture of the church, but fortunately the idea of a stone steeple was not proceeded with. The idea was mooted early in the 19th century, and definitely abandoned: the weight would have been too much for the supporting piers.

Colonel Russell was Mayor from 1674-1685, and one of the Churchwardens, Simcockes, was Sheriff in 1680 and Mayor in 1694 and 1695.

In 1792, two more bells were added, Nos four and five of the old peal. Charles Gerry was Mayor. The names of the founder of the bells is given as Tobias Covey, and as the name Covey is found twice in the list of Sheriffs shortly after 1726, it would seem that these bells were cast in Galway by local craftsmen.

In 1890, Mr Henry S. Persse gave Nos one and two in memory of his wife, Eleanor Alice Persse, and so completed the peal of eight, and at the same time rehung all the bells in a new pitchpine frame, which, as it is perfectly sound, is used for the recast chime.

The last of the bells, the Clock bell, was given in 1898 by Bishop O'Sullivan, who had been Rector of Galway for 18 years. The clock, which formed part of the Bishop's gift, has been much appreciated by the citizens of Galway ever since, and is an excellent timekeeper. The Urban District Council supply the electricity for the illumination of the clock faces.

The bells have renewed their youth, after, in most cases, hundreds of years of service. May they continue to call men and women to the consideration of their spiritual needs, hopes and aspirations.

Sound forth then your chimes,

Proclaim it abroad,

That men at all times

Be mindful of God,

Whose mercy is tender,

And true to the end,

Our Maker, defender

Redeemer and friend.

Born in Belfast, poet and essayist Gerald Dawe moved to Galway during the 1970s, where he attended, and later taught in UCG. In 1988 he was appointed Lecturer in English at Trinity College Dublin, where he is now a Senior Lecturer, and the inaugural Director of the Oscar Wilde Centre for Irish Writing. This poem is from a sequence of poems about Galway. His most recent poetry book, Points West, was published in 2008 (Gallery Press, €11.95 ), and his new collection of essays, Conversations: on Poets & Poetry, will be published in 2011.

The Bells of St. Nicholas

The bells of St. Nicholas

reverberate through a fragile

morning and over broken glass

the cat is poised to climb

the Post Office tower or wait

there for hours until you

call out her name.

So mornings were the same –

stretching to find the sky

lowered around the sleeping

city, the bells of St. Nicholas

reach across bedsitting

rooms to the caravan camps

and over rooftops of quiet hotels,

a flight of gulls descend in tattered glory.

Galway 1985

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