By Ruth Garvey-Williams
(From the July - September 2019 issue of VOX)
On a bright morning in May, a diverse group of people eagerly climb the bell tower at St. Mary’s church in Dunmanway, West Cork. An observer might be forgiven for wondering what they could possibly have in common - old and young, men and women, from different faith traditions and different nationalities, these enthusiasts are united by an ancient, and rather uncommon skill; they are all bell ringers.
For 20 minutes each Sunday, the Sam Maguire Community Bells ring out over Dunmanway. They have become a beautiful symbol of peace and reconciliation in an area that suffered much violence and pain during the Irish War of Independence.
The final resting place of Sam Maguire lies just below the bell tower. Best known today for the cup named in his honour, Sam Maguire was an Irish republican and Gaelic football player who was born in Dunmanway to a local Protestant family.
Sam spent much of his working life in London, where he was a prominent member of the GAA and captained the London Hibernians. In the 1920s, he returned to Ireland at a time of great turmoil and pain in Irish politics. Falling out of favour with his superiors in the newly-formed Irish Civil Service, he returned to West Cork where he died, in poverty, from malnutrition and TB in 1927, aged 49.
After his death, a group of friends raised funds for a permanent commemoration in his name. The Sam Maguire Cup, modelled on the design of the 8th Century Ardagh Chalice, was presented to the GAA in 1928. While the original cup now resides in the GAA museum in Croke Park, an exact replica is awarded each year to the winners of the all-Ireland Gaelic Football Championship.
[Ed note: Created by a local knitting club, a life-size knitted replica of the cup sits in the window of St. Mary’s bell tower!]
As minister of St. Mary’s church, Rev. Cliff Jeffers wanted to find an appropriate way to tell the Sam Maguire story but also to bring the local community together in a reconciliation project. An experienced bell ringer himself, Cliff came up with the idea for the Sam Maguire Community Bells. Sponsorship from the GAA helped to install the eight bells in 2017: six from a church in Wales that had closed and another two that were newly cast.
People from across the community came together to form the bell ringing team from children (one of whom has to stand on a box to reach the bell rope) to pensioners. It took months of training and preparation but now they ring for Sunday services in St. Mary’s as well as for weddings and funerals in both the Roman Catholic and Church of Ireland parishes and special occasions like New Year.
“Each of the eight bells has a theme relating to the story of Sam Maguire and the history of the local area. The colour of the sally (handgrip) on the bell rope is green and white - the local GAA club colours,” explained Margaret and Marja, two of the bell ringers. “We practice every Wednesday night. When we are ringing, the conductor calls out instructions to change the order in which the bells are rung, which changes the tune.”
In April, the Sam Maguire Community Bells project was honoured with an award for tourism in the West Cork Community Awards Ceremony. One reason for developing the bells and telling Sam Maguire’s story is to attract visitors to the town using the Sam Maguire Passport Trail. St. Mary’s church is the last of seven stops.
Rev Cliff explained, “We are developing ways to weave the story of Sam Maguire, our church community and the Christian story together for the locals and visitors who come to explore Sam’s fascinating but tragic story.”
The Celtic cross on Sam’s grave has the inscription IHS representing the Latin words Iesus Hominum Salvator - “Jesus, the saver of humankind”. His epitaph also reads - Ar dheis Dé go raibh a h’anam. This translates “May his soul be at God’s right hand side”. On Sam’s Celtic Cross these two motifs come together. For those who believe that ‘IHS’ is true, then Ar dheis Dé go raibh a h’anam is promised in the Scriptures. (Acts 16:31)