Barry Doonan is preserving a vital piece of bush history by crafting historic stock bells.

Story By Sally Nicol

"Oh, I can't tell you that.” The stage whisper is delivered with a boyish grin. At 70 years of age, Barry Doonan is one of Australia’s leading bell-makers. He is one of the few men alive to hold the secret to making a genuine Condamine Bell. And it’s a secret he’s not willing to share just yet.
Barry’s weathered hand strokes the smooth finish of a stock bell he’s crafted. “Once they were so important that the bush couldn’t have been conquered without them,” he says. Barry’s talking of a time before trucks, trains and planes; a time when animal power was harnessed to open up the vast interior of Australia. In the unfenced wilderness, the pioneers used bells to locate their stock. For them, the sound of the bell meant safety because if you lost your horses it could be fatal. “Many people were saved by the sound of the Condamine Bells,” Barry says.
He tells the story of a drover temporarily blinded by sandy blight, who made it out of the bush by following the sound of the bells, which led him to his horses. Then there is the couple who found water on a journey through drought-stricken country by following the ring of the bell on their bull.
Back then, the bells were prized for the distance their sound would travel. Barry shakes his head over claims that the bells could be heard for 20 miles (32 kilometres). After some debate he concedes, “I suppose on a cold and frosty morning you might hear them for 10 miles (16km) – maybe.” Some bells were called ‘CM’ bells because you could ‘see ’em’ before you could ‘hear ’em’.
Barry’s friend Donald Cooney, a mulga country bushman from way back, has written the only known book on Australian stock bells, Bells of the Australian Bush. Due to continuing interest in the books, he intends to release a second edition this October through Dymocks Booksellers. “I realised that if no one took an interest in these reminders of our past, it would eventually be lost to everyone and to the country as a whole,” Donald says.
Donald’s fascination with the subject began with his father’s stories of “the music of the bells”. “Our pioneers knew the importance of the bells; they were their safety net – they thought of the sound of bells as music. As an old bushie once said, ‘It clutches your heart like a hand’.”

This story excerpt is from Issue #60

Outback Magazine: Aug/Sept 2008