The Bells of St Mary’s Cathedral Kilkenny

richard scriven

By Fr Richard Scriven PP Castlecomer

The Bells of St. Mary’s was a 1945 American musical comedy-drama film starring Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman. Crosby in the persona of Fr O’Malley and Bergman as Sr. Mary Benedict try to save their parish schoolBut what of the Bells of St Mary’s here in the marble city?

But what of the Bells of St Mary’s here in the marble city?

The Bell in the Cathedral Tower

There are two aspects of the bell in the cathedral tower worth considering. The bell itself is the work of Dublin based Murphy Foundry and is dated 1869. It hangs on a mechanism which is the invention of another Dublin based foundry: The Byrne Foundry.

Firstly, the Bell. John Murphy (1837 – 1879), a coppersmith, established his business at 109 James’s Street, Dublin in 1837. In 1843 he branched out into bell founding, casting a bell for the church of Tuam and in the years that followed casting many single bells and at least eight rings of bells. His work can be seen and heard in many churches throughout Ireland and abroad: the cathedral churches of Thurles, Cork and Melbourne, the Redemptorist Monastery in Limerick, and St Augustine’s Church in Dublin. Distinctive in their design Murphy’s bells were thinner in profile than other bells of this period. The Archbishop of Cashel, Patrick Leahy, wrote of Murphy’s work in October 1869: ‘No one needs to go to England or the Continent to look for a fine peal of bells , while they can be had as cheap, and certainly as good at home in the workshop of John Murphy of Dublin’

The bell, which was dedicated to St Kieran, was first placed in a wooden structure on 18th December 1869 and on Thursday 21st November 1872 it was placed in the present position in the tower. It weighs 32 cwt or 1625 kilograms. The bell is decorated with the crowned harp. The crowned harp was used by the Dublin Assay Office to assay and hallmark all gold and silver produced in Ireland since 1637. The crowned harp is clearly visible on the waist of the bell.

The bell is suspended upon a mechanism invented by Matthew Byrne. In 1840 Byrne, a former chief engineer in the Royal Navy, founded The Fountain Head Iron Foundry in Dublin. In 1887 the ‘M Byrne Patent Rotary Mounting’ was patented. This was a cast iron headstock through which a tapered boss on the crown of the bell was inserted and bolted in place using the crown staple bolt. A significant difference with this system was that simply by slacking the nuts the bell can be rotated thus presenting a new striking face to the hammer to strike thus increasing the life of the bell. The tower bell in St Mary’s hangs on this system.


Moving into the church itself there are three bells: one presented by Dr Duigan, another from John Birch and the1930s bell.


Firstly, a cast brass bell is dated 1867 and the inscription reads:

To God’s temple from Dr and Mrs Duigan in gratitude for a novena heard 1867.

Daniel Duigan was born on 23 April 1821; his father was Michael Duigan and his mother was Bridget Tully; a sister Anne was born on 30 July 1830. He is listed as a student (Daniel Deigan) at St Kieran’s College from 1830-39; no home address is given. Nine years a student would suggest that he may have spent some time in the seminary. He qualified as a doctor in Dublin in 1844.

Duigan was awarded the Italian Gallantry Medal for Oriental Campaign, which is exhibited in the British Science Museum, Kensington, London; it is inscribed ‘Daniel J Duigan, MD Naval Brigade (1855-1856)’.

Daniel J Duigan MD RN and Margaret Cavanagh witnessed the marriage of John Dunphy and Ellen Dunphy celebrated by Most Rev Edward Walsh, Bishop of Ossory on 21st August 1857. While originally thought to have been married in St Mary’s his marriage took place in New York: ‘John Duigan MD FRCS, Kilkenny Surgeion Her Britannic Majesty’s Royal Navy, Medical Staff, Hospital, Jamaica, West Indies, was married to Mary Agnes, Eldest daughter of the late Patrick McCormick, Esq. of New York. The marriage was celebrated on October 23 1862 at the residence of the brides mother by is Grace the Archbishop of New York, John Hughes, assisted by Rev. Mr Starrs , Vicar General of New York Archdiocese.’

Dr Duigan’s name appears also on the inscription on the base of the holy water fonts at the front door of the cathedral. Bassett’s Kilkenny City and County (1884) describes the two Holy Water Fonts: “At the main entrance are two mammoth ocean shells, the gift of Naval Surgeon Daniel J Duigan, 1877. They are mounted on blocks of polished white marble and serve admirably the purposes of holy water fonts”. Perhaps Duigan acquired these shells on one of his journeys out east. Margaret Phelan (St Mary’s Cathedral Kilkenny, 1972) notes that the two ocean shells are now at the entrance to Castlecomer Parish Church.

He retired in 1876 and died on 3 December 1884 leaving a widow, two sons and a daughter.


The third bell, again dome in shape, is inscribed: Presented by John and Ellen Birch to St Mary’s Cathedral, 1880. The marriage of John Birch and Ellen Madigan is recorded in the marriage register of St Patrick’s Parish on 17 January 1865. Their address is given as Moates; the celebrant was Fr Hayden and the witnesses were James Birch and Hanna Madigan.

The Parish Baptismal Register of St Mary’s Cathedral records a daughter Mary to John Birch and Ellen Madigan of High Street on March 27, 1868. Fr M Kavanagh was the priest, and the godparents were Richard Birch and Margaret Madigan. (Fr Kavanagh was the priest who brought the relics of St Victoria to the Cathedral in 1867).

The Ulster Bank bought a premises – 27 High Street – from a John Birch in 1912. The Bank had been in Parliament Street – more recently the premises of Messrs Crotty Solicitors – and the move to High Street occupied a site that had once been two shops: Birch’s and Powers. In the 1901 census Powers (No 26 High St) is listed as a shop and the Birch house (No 27 High St) is referenced as a Public House. The 1911 census gives details of 27 High Street: John Birch and Johanna Kelly. The census record tells us that there were eight rooms in the house and that Birch was a grocer and spirit merchant. Johanna Kelly is listed as a servant.


The bell used most recently during Mass dates to the 1930s.

Mr Vincent Byrne of Irish Church Metals restored the bell in 2023. He commented that the workmanship of the bells is of the 1930s and manufactured by John Smith of Wicklow Street, Dublin. Vincent’s grandfather trained and worked in this company.

Smyth & Sons had as many as fifty workers employed at their factory in the manufacture of the various sacred vessels and articles of altar decoration. About 5,000 ounces of silver were annually used by the firm. John Smith who founded the company in 1840 was later joined by his sons John, Thomas, and Francis.

This article was compiled by Fr Richard Scriven when he was Adm’ at St Mary’s Cathedral Kilkenny


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