Article Author: Michael G. Kennedy
“There are strange things done by the ……” so continues the words of Robert Service in a well-known poem. These words could apply to the story of the Urney Bell, once a hidden gem, now hanging in the grounds of St. Mary’s Church, Melmount, Strabane.
On one occasion the bell had been ‘stolen’ by the parish priest, and on another occasion buried in a graveyard for so many years that the parishioners forgot where it had been hidden!
In local folklore you could not make up such a tale!
The bell, measuring eight (8) feet in circumference, cost the parish of Urney the princely sum of £72-10-0 in 1869. It was purchased by the Most Reverend James Connolly P.P., to mark the opening of the church of St. Columba at Doneyloop, on the Donegal side of the border between Clady and Castlefinn. The bell and the church were officially dedicated by the Most Reverend Francis Kelly D.D. for the Honour and Service of God. At this time Urney was part of the greater parish of Castlederg, Sion Mills, Melmount and Clady. The centre of the parish was at Doneyloop, where the parochial house was located.
A church on the northern edge of the parish had been built near Strabane at Melmount in 1846 by Fr. Paul Bradley who had succeeded Fr. Denis McDevitt as Parish Priest of Urney.
In 1904 the Rev. Father John McElhatton was appointed P.P. of Urney. McElhatton was a formidable gentleman who immersed himself in local politics, especially in the Home Rule movement. In 1906 the land on which the present Church of St. Mary’s, Melmount now stands became available. Fr. McElhatton purchased the land and proceeded to build a large stately dwelling as the parochial house. He decided to move from Doneyloop and took up residence there.
Fr. McElhatton then took the decision to dismantle the bell outside St. Columba’s Church and had it transferred to Melmount. There it was erected on a stone plinth on the left hand side of the main entrance to the old St. Mary’s Church at Melmount. It remained there for 34 years. Needless to say the parishioners of Urney were less than happy the bell, erected to commemorate their church, with the inscription “Dedicated to St. Colmcille, Doneyloop, by the Most Rev. Fr. Francis Kelly, D.D……” now stood outside St. Mary’s of Melmount.
In 1939 the Second World War broke out. By 1940 the campaign was going badly for Britain. Because of the shortage of armament stocks it became necessary for the Government to requisition iron and metal objects for recycling in order to help provide munitions. In the Strabane area soldiers were commissioned to gather in any metals that would help the war effort. These included metal gates, railings and bells! To this day there remains evidence of metal stumps outside houses where railings were removed.
However local parishioners at Melmount, fearful of losing ‘their’ precious bell, took action. One night a group of them arranged to meet outside the church, they removed the bell and buried it in a secret location at the rear of the cemetery.
There it remained, buried, secure and forgotten – for so long in fact that no one could quite remember where it had been hidden. When parishioners began again to question the empty plinth the then new curate in Melmount, Rev. Fr. John Convery began a search. Eventually it was discovered in the rear of the graveyard, 30 yards south of the large wooden holy cross, in an insignificant plot. The grave had a single name to mark the spot – A. Bell.
In 1970 a new modern church of St. Mary’s was built on the other side of the road, to replace the old church. It was built in front of the old parochial house. In 1978 Rev. Fr. Anthony Mulvey was appointed P.P. Melmount and several years later he had a new plinth constructed outside the new church and had the bell once again erected.
Although the bell continues to stand there, and ring out its chimes, the people of Urney still believe that the bell was wrongly removed and should rightly stand outside the Church of St. Columba’s at Doneyloop.