This is the story of a quest to find and hear a bell that once rang out over the fields of the townland of Ballingate about 5 kilometres from Carnew where I grew up travelled to Zambia.
It all started with Facebook. During the first Covid-19 lockdown, local Carnew historian Kevin Lee posted many stories on Facebook about the history of the area.
One of his stories was about the opening and consecration of Our Lady Queen of the Most Holy Rosary church in Carnew on December 5, 1954. This was a momentous occasion for the town of Carnew. An issue of this newspaper dated December 11, 1954 described the event as the 'answer to prayer of many generations'. The Bishop of Ferns James Staunton attended the event and was greeted with banners, bands, and a guard of honour drawn from the North Wexford Battalion of the FCA under Captain PJ O'Loughlin OC, my Grandfather.
When I asked my Dad Joe about the occasion, he remembered it very well. It was one of the biggest events in Carnew for years. The people of Carnew had to wait a long time for their new church, but there was a problem. The church was still not quite complete. There was no church bell to call the people of the parish to worship for the first Mass.
My grandfather PJ O'Loughlin came to the rescue and provided a bell taken from Ballingate House Upper, which belonged to our family but was falling into ruin.
On the evening before the first Mass, my Grandfather and my Dad built a frame outside the church and brought the Ballingate Bell down from the house. The bell was used in Carnew until the current bell arrived.
My Dad told me that the Ballingate Bell was given to Fr Theophilus Murphy by my Grandfather PJ who was his first cousin. Fr Theophilus Murphy was a Franciscan Missionary in Zambia visiting Carnew, My Grandfather gave him the bell to take back to Africa with him. Dad did not know when this donation took place. My curiousity was immediate. Does the bell still exist? Could I track it down? Could I hear it?
Ballingate House Upper was built on the Coolattin Estate of Earl Fitzwilliam in 1847. The house and farm were purchased by my grand-uncle Pat Hurley in 1942. An undated photo of Ballingate House Upper clearly shows a bell on the roof at the west end of the house. This bell is typical of those used on the Coolattin Estate to mark the time of day. I spoke to a neighbour, Rita Tighe, who grew up just one field away. She remembers hearing it and told me that the bell rang at 8 a.m. to signal the start of the working day. It rang again at 12 noon, and again at 6 p.m. There was an expression that workers had to be 'there at the bell' at 8 a.m. to start work.
There are other bells in the locality, including one on the roof of Coolattin House - the bell can still be seen on the walk between the 16th and 17th holes of Coolattin Golf Club. The Ballingate Bell was given to Fr Theophilus sometime after it ceased to be used as the temporary bell at Carnew church. Finding out more about him seemed a good place to start my quest.
A quick Google search led me to the Zambian Capuchin Facebook page. I contacted the administrator and was quickly put in touch with Br Noel Brennan, a native of Kilkenny. Br Noel knew Theophilus and he immediately offered to help, providing me with details of important dates. I learned that Theophilus joined the Franciscans in 1946 and was ordained a priest on May 23 1954. Within four months, he was on his way to Zambia.
Br Noel provides several photographs of Theophilus with his Franciscan companions. Interestingly, in one of the photos is Br Crispin Brennan, brother of the late former TD for Wicklow Paudge Brennan. Fr Theophilus arrived in Zambia on August 31, 1954 - thre months before Carnew Church was consecrated, so he could not have been given the bell and brought it with him at that time. When did my Grandfather give him the bell? How could I establish this after so much time had passed?
In those days, friars were only allowed trips home every eight years - this would mean 1962 for his earliest visit home. Could I place him in Carnew at this time to get the bell?
My Dad recalls that Fr Theophilus visited Carnew and our house in Ballingate sometime in the early 1960s when he dedicated our house to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The dedication certificate still hangs in the kitchen in our family home and is signed by Fr Theophilus. I also came across a family photograph, dated 1962, of Fr Theophilus with his sister Monica. So, I know he was in Ireland in 1962 and that he visited our family home, which in turn means that he was in Carnew in 1962. So, this could have been when he was given the bell by my Grandfather.
I visited Fr Jude McKenna at the Capuchin Friary in Raheny to find out more about the Missions in Zambia. He is now retired but spent many years in Zambia and knew Fr Theophilus very well. He spoke about being a missionary in the early years, and that the three-month trips back home were treasured occasions. He told me his own story about bringing a bell all the way from New Jersey in the United States to Zambia. When leaving Zambia for visits home, he recalled often being told to 'get a bell if you can' for the Missions. He also told me that he brought car parts and anything they could get their hands on from Ireland back to Zambia.
The next stage was to discover where the bell could be in Zambia. I decided to start my search for the bell in Mangango where I found out that Fr Theophilus was based between 1962 and 1968. However, Mangango was quickly ruled out as the church there uses part of a railway line for a bell and a hammer to 'ring' it.
This was a bad start, but I kept going. Why wouldn't Theophilus use the Ballingate Bell to replace a piece of railway line for his new parish? Theophilus was based in Sichili from 1954 to 1961, so this was the next place for Fr Noel to search. He told me he found a bell and sent photos. Unfortunately, this bell was also ruled out as it was stamped with a date in 1959 and so could not have been the Ballingate Bell.
We then turned our attention to Carnew native, Br Crispin Brennan, who joined the Franciscans in 1937 and arrived in Zambia on November 29, 1946. We discover that he was the Education Secretary and Superior of the Malengwa community near Mongu in Western Zambia from 1957 to 1965 - this places him in the town of Malengwa in 1962.
Fr Noel and I wonder if Fr Theophilus gave the bell to Br Crispin. In a nice coincidence with Theophilus's visit to Ballingate and Carnew in 1962, Fr Noel tells me that a new church was built and dedicated in Malengwa in the same year. Fr Noel's colleague, Br Owen Mweene, took some photos of the Malengwa Bell, and sent them to us. The shape looks like the Ballingate Bell, but we need firmer evidence. The first observation is that the Malengwa Bell is stamped with the date 1889. Ballingate House was built in 1847 and the dates don't match unless the bell was added to the house at a later date.
There was a crest on the bell, but it was difficult to make out with only the letters 'in' visible. Fr Noel suggests it might be 'Coolattin'. Br Owen is sent up the ladder again and cleans the crest. In new photos, we could see the wording on the crest, 'Murphy Founder Dublin'. This was an Irish bell made in Dublin. So. is this the Ballingate Bell?
While everything looked positive, I had some doubts about the size of the bell. Br Owen sends the measurements: 50cm wide at the base, and 60cm tall. It is similar in shape to the Coolattin bell but looks a little bit bigger. There is only perspm to go to about this - my Dad Joe. He says the Ballingate Bell was not a small bell and that the measurements seemed about right to him. We think of it as an up-side-down bucket and he is even more convinced that the size is right. All the evidence we have points to the Malengwa Bell and the Ballingate Bell being one and the same.
Br Owen sent me a video of the bell ringing, so I could see and hear it. A bell that started out marking the time of day in Ballingate, is now calling the faithful to prayer 5,000 miles away in Zambia.