The bells of Selskar Abbey

A number of sources in Ireland tell us that

'The old churches of St. Selskar, St. Patrick, St. Mary, St. Bridget, St. John, St. Peter, and St. Maud or .Maud I in town, were destroyed in 1649, by Oliver Cromwell,—who, "not satisfied with levelling these various places of worship, together with the plate belonging to the priory of St. Selskar, took possession of a very fine ring of bells, which he shipped for Chester, but which, being of a superior description, were removed a few years afterwards to the Old Church, near Rjver-street, in Liverpool, where they remain to this day."'

(1846 'Parliamentary gazetteer of Ireland' (Volume 3, page 541).) But is there any truth in this?

Well, this is Merseybells. At this point we don't have the information to know whether the bells went from Wexford - or to Chester. But local opinion in Liverpool is that the bells never came there. Local bell historian Bryan McCahey wrote as follows in August 2011:
'About 15 years ago, a gentleman from Wexford contacted us in the hope of finding documentary evidence for bells having arrived from Selskar (St. Sepulchre's) Priory, Wexford. It all seems to be anecdotal though and I couldn't find any original sources in the local records office. I visited the ruins at Wexford a year or so later but again, nothing forthcoming. Curiously, in the base of the ruined tower, a bell wheel was propped against the wall, but I suspect this was just "set dressing". It's safe to say that the tradition about Selkar bells long pre-dates the Irish bells at Bootle / Grassendale.

So Liverpool believes that the bells never came there. Of course, it's impossible to prove a negative, but we can look and see if the story is plausible. So let's step through what is alleged to have happened:

Did Cromwell demolish Selskar Abbey? The 1649 Sack of Wexford is well documented. It seems reasonable to assume that the Abbey was destroyed.

Did the bells go to Chester? For the moment, that's outside our scope. If time allows, then one day we may look at this.

Did the bells go from Chester to Liverpool? The story suggests that the bells were taken from humble Chester to mighty Liverpool. This wasn't true at the time. In 1646, Chester had a population of around 17 000 while Liverpool's population at the start of the Civil Wars was probably no more than 2 500.

Where could the bells have gone in Liverpool? There seems to be no record of bells arriving in Liverpool at around the right time (presumably some time after the Sack of Wexford in 1649). Liverpool did not become a parish in its own right until 1699, although there was a long standing chapel at the Pier Head. Presumably this is what is meant by 'the church near River Street', although there is no River Street in today's Liverpool, and does not seem to be one on Cole and Roper's 1801 map of the city. This chapel (St Nicholas) did have bells - but they were cast in Walsall in 1636, and augmented in 1659 with bells made in Wigan, and then recast in 1724 by Abraham Rudhall of Gloucester . There seems to be no record of any other churches at that time in the Liverpool of that time (a much smaller place than today's city) - but other churches in today's Liverpool that then existed (Walton on the Hill, Childwall) had bells that can be traced, and which didn't come from Ireland. There's more information to show this point on Sam Austin's Bells of Liverpool site.

So it looks as if the bells of Selskar never came to Liverpool. But, as we've already said, it's impossible to prove a negative. And against this, Councillor Jim Allen of Wexford Borough Council points out that the distinguished 19th century Wexford historian Herbert Francis Hore also quoted the account - and indeed, the earliest source found in this article references the tale as being from elsewhere - but frustratingly, does not give that source.  If there is evidence out there that the bells did come to Liverpool, then it could be for you to find it and share it...

Giles Blundell. Written 20 August 2011, last updated 1 November 2011
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