Irish Treasures: The Derrynaflan Chalice


Ireland has a long history of human activity; its early inhabitants were building great stone structures long before the Pyramids of Egypt, the Colosseum of Rome or the Temples of Angkor were even in the planning stages. These early civilisations weren’t just skilled builders however – they were also a dab hand at metalwork, making weapons, jewellery and other practical objects to make their daily lives easier and more efficient (as well as more beautiful and more dangerous too!) As the centuries went on, people’s skills became more and more refined, Christianity was introduced to the country, and as a result some exquisite religious objects such as chalices, book shrines, crosiers and the like came into existence. The Derrynaflan Chalice is one of these prized medieval treasure that has now been given pride of place in Ireland’s foremost National Museum. Although it is often overshadowed by its more well known sister, the Ardagh Chalice, it is nonetheless a stunning piece of metalwork with an equally intriguing history.

Discovery of The Derrynaflan Hoard

The chalice was the largest and most beautifully decorated of a collection of five liturgical vessels, known as the Derrynaflan Hoard. Derrynaflan is an island of pastureland surrounded by waterlogged bogs near the small town of Killenaule in county Tipperary. The island was the site of an abbey from early Christian times. Since 1930 the ruins of the site had been protected under a preservation order by the National Monuments Act, making it illegal to interfere with or damage the site in any way. So in 1980 when a man by the name of Michael Webb and his son came to the site from Clonmel to indulge their hobby of exploring with metal detectors, they were granted permission by the owner to investigate but were forbidden from doing any digging whatsoever.

However, they came across an obviously highly significant deposit of metal and decided to unearth it anyway. They discovered the chalice, a silver paten, a hoop probably used as a stand for the paten, and a liturgical strainer inside a large overturned bronze bowl. With the chalice bearing an uncanny resemblance to the well known Ardagh Chalice, which was found not too far away in county Limerick, Webb knew he had hit the jackpot. Knowing that their activities would not be looked on kindly despite finding something of enormous value, they kept the discovery hidden for three weeks. Eventually he approached a noted archaeologist, who immediately alerted the National Museum. An excavation discovered several missing parts of each object, and the Webbs were named as national heroes and given a £10,000 reward. Unhappy with this given the obviously value of the hoard, they began legal proceedings lasting almost 7 years and brought a case all the way to the Supreme Court, in which they unsuccessfully sought £5 million in compensation for the discovery. As a result, a complete overhaul of treasure trove laws was implemented in Ireland, giving automatic ownership of all archaeological objects to the state and forbidding their concealment or trading. Things didn’t turn out so badly for the Webbs though; the state voluntarily offered them a further £50,000 reward for their troubles!

Source: National Museum of Ireland
Source: National Museum of Ireland

Origins of the Chalice

Historians estimate that the hoard was probably placed in the ground at some point during the 10th to 12th centuries, at a turbulent time in Ireland’s history when the country was being raided by Vikings and under stress from various dynastic battles. Monasteries at this time were some of the wealthiest places in Ireland as they were centres of education and learning as well as religious hubs. Monks were highly learned people and highly trained in various arts, and it was they who crafted these beautiful ornaments. Monasteries were a natural target for the Vikings, and having little means of protection, monks would regularly bury their most valuable items when a raid was imminent. Therefore, hoards such as the one discovered in Derrynaflan were not uncommon. What is rare about it however, is that it is one of the best and most beautiful examples of ecclesiastical art of the time.

The monastery at Derrynaflan monastic site was founded in the 6th century by Ruadhan of Lorrha. Its name comes from the Irish Doire na bhFlann or ‘the wood of the two Flanns’, the two Flanns being co patrons of the area who later became saints. Although surrounded by marshy bogs, several tracks on roads led to and from the site, so it was far from remote. In fact it had strong ties with churches in Lismore, Emly and even Cork, and was allied with the Eile and the Eoghanacht tribes who held sway in the surrounding land. This interaction with various sources would only have improved the skills of the monks, and given them plenty of inspiration for creating their works.

One quick look at the Derrynaflan chalice will make it clear what was influencing the monks who would have worked on it; it bears an uncanny resemblance to another of Ireland’s national treasures, the Ardagh Chalice. The Ardagh Chalice dates from before the Derrynaflan Chalice and since it still takes people’s breath away today, its impact would no doubt have been felt in monasteries all around Ireland when it was first finished. Although smaller, with less decoration and crafted with an inferior level of skill, the Derrynaflan chalice still shows evidence of the development of metalwork construction techniques, and is just as beautiful as its predecessor.

Source: National Museum of Ireland
Source: National Museum of Ireland

Construction and Decoration of the Chalice

The Derrynaflan chalice is made up of multiple parts, the two main ones being the bowl and the base, which are attached by a hollow cast copper alloy pin that locks in place with a catch plate on the underside of the base. It is much more secure than the Ardagh Chalice and constructed from better quality materials, showing the progress that had been made in the skills and techniques of the craftsmen. Bowl and base are constructed from beaten silver that has been lathe-polished, and the whole piece stands 19.2cm high with a diameter of 21cm. Attached to the bowl are two handles either side, and both bowl and base have several panels of gold filigree as well as 54 amber studs. The bowl and base would have been decorated separately before being attached and then finished.

A band of gold filigree work lines the outside of the chalice bowl and the upper flat section of the base plate, each one interspersed with amber studs at equal distances. The stem section where the bowl meets the base is also covered in gold ornamental panels, and the handles too contain recesses which filigree panels have been set into and held in place with stitching. The handles and stem are the most ornately decorated elements of the chalice, with circular and diamond panels in contrast with the simple band decoration and square shaped studs along the base and bowl. The handles consist of one large central circular panel with three smaller circles forming a triangle, with filigree panels in between. The stem section is alternating diamond and circular panels.

Within the filigree panels, interlacing panes and depictions of beasts and beast heads are most common, including wingless griffons and dogs. The style of the animals is similar to that seen on ornate brooches from the same period, suggesting that the chalice was crafted in the 9th century towards the beginning of the Viking raids of Ireland. The animals are outlined in beaded wire, and conical spirals are also incorporated regularly into the design. Although the overall design and decoration is remarkably similar to the Ardagh Chalice (with the exception of the latter’s medallions on the front and back of the bowl), the differences in skill, materials and techniques makes it clear that they were not manufactured in the same place or by the same people.

Source: National Museum of Ireland
Source: National Museum of Ireland

The Derrynaflan Paten

It is worth noting some of the decorative detail and techniques of the Derrynalfan paten, found alongside the chalice, since much more effort seems to have gone into this object. A paten is a flat dish that would have been used to hold and distribute communion during mass celebrations, used alongside the chalice, which would have been filled with wine and given to certain celebrants during the Eucharist portion of the ceremony. The Derrynaflan paten was assembled from over 300 separate components and is the only large scale paten to survive from early medieval Europe.

The plate itself is made from beaten silver, trimmed with silver wire mesh and, like the chalice, bordered by a ring of gold filigree panels. Fine gold wire is used to form zoomorphic patterns surrounded by Celtic knot patterns. The filigree panels also feature depictions of men kneeling, triskeles and patterns, eagles, serpents. The rim of the paten contains 24 separate panels each richly and intricately decorated with the above designs, which are pressed onto gold and silver foil bordered by copper and silver wire. The panels are interspersed with 24 gold, polychrome glass and niello studs. Overall, the workmanship on the paten suggests Viking as well as Celtic influence, which correlates with the suggestion that the plate was made at around the time of the first Viking raids.

Since the objects in the Derrynaflan hoard are highly decorated, they are likely to have been kept for occasional use only, i.e for the most important ceremonies of the year or for the most important abbots to use. However, as they are not quite as elaborate as other examples such as the Ardagh Chalice or the Tara Brooch, it is likely that they were used more regularly than these. However, it’s equally likely that they were considered just as prestigious as their sister objects by the monks of Derrynaflan, since they had crafted them using the best skills and techniques they knew. Either way, both the Ardagh Chalice and the Derrynaflan chalice are exquisite examples of medieval metalwork.

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