A Bell for Bangor

Holg + Donagh 2

The man standing on the platform in the picture is Holger Lönze. You might remember him from Umha Aois, a post I put up last year about a group of artists and ‘experimental archaeologists’ who use Bronze Age metal working techniques to produce replicas of ancient tools, weapons and musical instruments. Holger – a sculptor – is a key member of that group: his workshop is in Schull and he has just completed a commission to make an enormous bell. You can see the project in progress on the right of the picture. On the left is Donagh Carey, another West Cork artist who worked on the casting.

Left: the original Bangor Bell – the inspiration for the new work – and, right: an early sketch design by Holger of the proposed bell sculpture

The story begins in the sixth century when Columbanus (the Latinised form of Columbán, meaning White Dove) was born in the Kingdom of Meath, now part of Leinster, Ireland, in 543. That’s about 50 years after the death (aged 120) of St Patrick. Patrick, of course, is the best known of the missionaries building up Christianity in Ireland, but he wasn’t Irish himself, having been born a Roman Briton. Columbanus was Irish, and he saw his mission as spreading Christianity from Ireland throughout the Continent of Europe. His mission was successful and St Columbanus is recognised in Europe as a founder of many monastic settlements during his travels in Gaul, Burgundy, the Alps and finally Italy where he established the great monastery at Bobbio, beside the River Trebbia. Columbanus died at Bobbio in 615 and his remains are buried in the crypt there.

Bobbio_bridge

The medieval bridge at Bobbio with St Columbanus’ great monastery beyond (photo by Herbert Ortner, Vienna, Austria)

There are great stories told about the life of Columbanus. When he walked in the woods, birds would land on his shoulders to be caressed, and squirrels ran down from the trees and nestled in the folds of his cowl. He is also said to have tamed a bear and trained it to pull the plough. Wolves would not harm him. He is usually depicted with a book and an Irish satchel, sometimes with sunbeams over his head. I’m not sure why but Columbanus is known as the patron saint of motorcyclists.

Saint Columbanus – left: depicted on a medieval fresco with book and sunbeams (note he is carrying a bell) and, right: sailing off to Europe with his companions

Getting back to West Cork and the bell: Columbanus travelled to Bangor, County Down – in the far north east of the island of Ireland – where he studied in the  Abbey until he was 40. A beautifully decorated bronze handbell was found near the Abbey by gravediggers in the 18th century; it is assumed to have been buried to keep it safe from Viking invaders in the 9th century. The Abbey is seen as the starting point for Columbanus’s missionary work in Europe and the bell (now in the North Down Museum) is associated with him, although unlikely to have been contemporary with his time there. Holger Lönze has always been fascinated by medieval bronze bells and has made replicas of many surviving examples. He cast a copy of the Bangor Abbey handbell using Medieval metalworking techniques in 2012, and the process is recorded in this video.

Holger’s full-sized replica of the Bangor Bell and (right) Holger in his studio explaining his techniques to Robert

The new sculpture – titled Fluctus Angelorum (Wave of Angels) was commissioned by Ards and North Down Borough Council for Bangor Abbey  as one of a series of works inspired by the extraordinary achievements of Columbanus and his companions. Based on the proportions of the original bell, the surface of the sculpture is shaped like the surface of the ocean. The sea-blue patina and breaking waves are a metaphor for Columbanus’ remarkable sea voyage. The 4m high bell was fabricated in bronze plate in West Cork using the ancient repoussé process – by alternating annealing and hammering and finally welding. It took no less than 400,000 hammer blows to transform flat sheets of bronze into this piece of sculpture!

Bell surface

In the workshop: the surface of the 4m high bell reflects the surface of the ocean and (right) the inside of the great bell: it is mounted on a stone plinth and lit at night. Both bells and waves are striking metaphors to mark the Saint’s 1400 miles journey from Bangor to Bobbio – 1400 years ago

The medieval Bangor Bell didn’t have a clapper: it was carried around and hit with a hammer. Taking me back to my days as a percussionist, Holger allowed me to hit the giant bell… It made a mighty sound! From West Cork the bell travelled the whole length of Ireland, passing its 8th Century sister bells in Cashel, Co Meath and Bangor. It is now installed in the Abbey grounds and was formally unveiled on 13th June. The sculpture is not yet complete – Holger is making a number of smaller ‘satellite’ bells which will be set around it, but even on its own it is a most impressive sight: the largest bell ever made in Ireland.

holger with bell

Artist Karen Hendy and Holger Lönze showing the maquette for the bell project in Schull and, below, the bell in its setting at Bangor Abbey

bangor context

I’m often repeating the message but there is no doubt that West Cork is the most creative place I have ever lived! All manner of culture flourishes here and we are privileged to live in a community where we can readily meet and appreciate the work of so many artists; and we have excellent galleries to showcase this work – The Blue House Gallery in Schull (next door to Holger’s workshop), Uillinn in Skibbereen, Catherine Hammond‘s excellent gallery, now also in Skibbereen and The Aisling Gallery in Ballydehob. We are spoiled!

With many thanks to Holger for allowing me to use some of his own images of the work progressing…

Umha Aois

spearhead

There’s a magic to the working of metal: you can pick this up when you are doing it, or when you are watching others do it. It could be the arcane transformation of rough nuggets of ore, first into liquid and then into beautiful solid objects that inspires that impression – or perhaps it’s because the senses are battered by the fierce heat, the molten rivulets, the streaming sparks, the incessant hammering, the sheer excitement… It’s no wonder that our ancestors embraced the emerging technologies hundreds of generation ago, and created spectacular objects which, today, we place in our museums and venerate.

sparking

Umha Aois are artists and sculptors working as ‘experimental archaeologists’ who have been in Skibbereen this week as part of the Skibberen Arts Festival. They use Bronze Age metal working techniques to produce replicas of ancient tools, weapons and musical instruments and also contemporary art objects. We went to their workshops set up in the grounds of Liss Ard House and met Holger Lönze – a locally based sculptor – James Hayes from Bray and their colleagues who are researching and using stone and clay moulds, ‘lost wax’ processes and charcoal pit-furnaces.

Robert holding a recently cast bronze bell, while Finola tries out an adze

It’s very appropriate that we should be looking at Bronze Age metalwork in our own corner of West Cork as we are in the shadow of Mount Gabriel, site of substantial copper mine workings probably dating from some three and a half thousand years ago. A number of Bronze Age mines have been found on the Mizen Peninsula: it must have been a significant local activity and source of trade. It has of course continued almost up to the present day; our own townland of Cappaghglass saw considerable copper extraction during the nineteenth century.

copper mountain

Copper Mountain – on Mount Gabriel can be found the sites of 32 separate workings dating from 1700 – 1400 BC, but there is no evidence of smelting or metalworking in the same vicinity: perhaps the ‘magic’ of the process required it to be carried out in more secret places?

Back to the Umha Aois project (it’s pronounced oowah eesh and means Bronze Age): we saw pieces in various stages of production, including axe heads, adze heads and spear heads, cast from stone moulds. They are elegant objects, especially when they have been polished to a gleaming finish.

axe heads

Bronze axe head, showing the mould used to cast it

The group was using pit furnaces which they had constructed on site. These consisted of basin shaped depressions in the ground lined with clay, and pipework of clay running from two sets of bellows. The clay pits were filled with charcoal and fired to a high temperature to convert the ore in the crucibles to a molten state.

empty furnace

Top – the principle components of a Bronze Age pit furnace; below left – crucible being heated; below right – the bellows in action

In another shelter we were also shown the ‘lost wax’ process: small objects were shaped in wax and then encased in clay. The wax was melted, leaving a mould in the clay cavity which was then filled with molten metal. Once hardened, the clay moulds are broken apart; the copper or bronze objects are then finished and polished. Here is a BBC video that demonstrates these techniques. There are incredible examples of this type of worked metal in the National Museum in Dublin, including some in gold – thousands of years old and yet so elegant and sophisticated.

melting out the waxClay moulds used in the ‘lost wax’ process

Holger has also made a Bronze Age musical instrument, which he demonstrated for us. The pattern is based on ‘trumpets’ which have been found in Europe, the finest being the Loughnashade trumpet, discovered during drainage works at the site of a former lake in County Armagh. Holger’s trumpet is a bronze cast: some finds have been made from curved and rivetted sheets of bronze. Here is a link to a recording of the sound made by a similar reconstructed instrument.

Holger Lönze conjuring up ancient music!

By exploring techniques, lifestyles and behaviour of our forebears through practical application, experimental archaeologists such as Umha Aois help us to understand that people who lived in the Bronze Age were not intellectually ‘primitive’ as was once thought; they have passed down to us their own aesthetic appreciation of art, music and their highly developed knowledge of sciences that enabled them to construct the complex megalithic monuments – and enigmatic Rock Art – which are yet beyond our own understanding.

Experimental archaeology in the walled garden at Liss Ard

Our ancestors left behind rugged stone monuments, landscapes which have shaped the pattern of our countryside, and sublimely beautiful objects: magic to our eyes and senses.

This Bronze Age gold disc – now in the National Museum, Dublin – was found at Sparrograda, Ballydehob:

sparrograda disc