Irish Treasures: The Ardagh Chalice

The Ardagh Chalice
The Ardagh Chalice

I've been looking through the photos I took in the National Museum and decided to do some more research on my favourite pieces. As a silversmith I'm drawn to the gold and metalwork collections. So I've decided to start with one of my all-time favourites (I even have a picture over my bench!) and the museum's most prized exhibit, the Ardagh Chalice.

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Over the centuries a lot of beautiful ancient artefacts have been found all around Ireland, buried deep in the soil on farms and in fields. Some were discovered by archaeologists working in an area known to be an ancient settlement. Others were found by treasure hunters with metal detectors. But a few major pieces were unearthed completely by chance by farmers or field workers going about their daily business. Imagine innocently digging up some soil and finding ornaments used by people thousands of years ago!

National Museum of Ireland building Kildare St

That's exactly what happened to two young men by the names of Jimmy Quinn and Paddy Flanagan, who went digging potatoes in the village of Ardagh, Co. Limerick, way back in 1868. The land was actually owned by the Sisters of Mercy, although Quinn's mother had rented around 15 – 20 acres of it from the nuns for farming. The men thought it would be a good idea to plant their crop inside a ring fort. Why? Who knows - maybe they thought the 'fairies' would protect it.

Burial and Discovery

The exact facts about what happened next aren't known anymore, but in any case, the two boys dug up what is now known as the Ardagh Hoard. It consisted of four brooches and a stemmed cup inside a highly elaborate chalice. Several sources claim that Flanagan, a farm worker employed by the Quinn family, was the one who first discovered the hoard but that Quinn took all the credit for himself. Naturally, Flanagan wasn't too happy and quit his job. Whatever happened, the hoard ended up in the hands of Mrs. Quinn who sold the bundle to the Bishop of Limerick for a mere £50. He in turn sold it to the Royal Irish Academy for £500. The Bishop may have realised that the items were worth something, but he had no idea just how valuable they really were.

From the style and way in which is was manufactured experts are fairly certain that the Ardagh Hoard dates from the eighth century. It was over 1000 years old when it was found, so Quinn and the Bishop greatly underestimated its worth. It's was most likely buried during the Viking period, and clearly done so in haste as the objects had just a slab of stone above them with no other protection. One common theory is that they were buried temporarily for safekeeping before an impending Viking raid, but were never reclaimed.

As for where the Chalice and its companions had been before then, nobody has any idea. Theories have been floated that it was one of a number of valuable pieces stolen from the monastery at Clonmacnoise in 1125 during a robbery by a Limerick Dane, a crime famous during that period. It's also possible that it came from somewhere in Munster as items in the Derrynaflan hoard, found in South Tipperary, contained another elaborate chalice relatively similar in style. It has been suggested that the person who hid it may have been Father Begley, a priest who was forced to leave the area in a hurry because of an alleged assault. However, none of these theories have any solid basis, so we can only guess.


Use and Significance

The chalice belongs to a special group of cups known as 'calices ministrales', or in other words, chalices used by minor clergymen and lay people. During mass it would have been filled with Eucharistic wine, which the priest then dispensed to the congregation. At the time of its construction it would have been considered to be an old fashioned style, similar to Byzantine and Western Chalices.

So, why is this chalice so special, apart from the fact that it's quite old? Because its construction and decoration shows incredible skill highly uncommon for that period of history, that's why! Although large for a Eucharistic chalice, it is actually quite small, measuring 7 inches in height and 9.5 inches in diameter, with the bowl being 4 inches deep. Within these reasonably small measurements there are 354 different parts, 6 metals (gold, silver, bronze, brass, copper and lead), and 48 different designs. Techniques used in its construction include hammering, engraving, lost-wax casting, filigree applique, cloisonne and enamelling (We still use lots of these processes when making our jewellery in the Claddagh Design workshop today!) It's decorated from top to bottom, inside and out, and would have taken more than one artists' best work – in fact it probably took several metalworkers and metallurgical artists to create the final finished piece. It's obvious why it now has pride of place in Ireland's national museum.



The chalice consists of three main components; the bowl, the stem and the base, which are all held in place by a copper bolt. The bowl was constructed from two hemispheres of beaten, lathe-polished sheet silver joined together with rivets, which have been hidden by a gilt-bronze band along the rim of the bowl. It is joined to the base (made from the same silver) by a copper stem of cast gilt-copper alloy. Metalworkers would have first melted down other artefacts before casting the appropriate shapes for each component. They were then riveted together and soldered to produce the basic shape of the chalice, without any decoration.

Next the individual pieces of decoration would have been added in layers, starting with the gold band around the outside of the bowl and the bottom side of the base, which had to conceal the end of the copper rod and further secure the piece. The stem, which also has elaborate embellishment, was next, so that any hint of copper was hidden from the naked eye. The two handles would have then been attached and once this was completed, the finer decoration was added. Ornamentation was done with a chisel and hammer, unusual for the time and style of the piece. This technique is known as chasing, and we still use this for adding decoration and texture to some of our custom made pieces. A hollow punch added the small annular dots around the gold band. Wirework on the two gold medallions on the centre-points of the outside of the bowl finished off the construction.


The decorative detail on the Ardagh Chalice is the most important aspect of it, and makes it the most beautiful Irish artefact ever to have been discovered. Everything from engravings, animals, interlaced patterns, and Greek bands feature in the design as well as exquisite ornamentation, known as repouseé and filigree wirework.

On the outside of the bowl, panels of gold filigree (metalwork using gold or silver beads and threads arranged into motifs and soldered) are used to decorate the stem. A silver band was added close to the rim of the bowl, with annular dots at intervals. In between these dots are twelve plaques of gold repouseé (metal which has been formed into a shape and hammered from the reverse side to make a low relief) with an interlaced pattern ending in dog heads in typical Celtic style as well as other zoomorphic images of animals and birds. In between the plaques (ie the spaces made by the annular dots) are twelve round enamelled beads. Engraved directly onto the silver of the bowl below this gold band is an inscription of the names of apostles (everybody except Judas).


The other embellishments on the bowl are two gold medallions at the centrepoints of the front and back sides, which feature similarly ornate filigree topped with wirework and beads. The wirewok is cast bronze in the form of a cross within a circle. The handles are probably the most ornate aspect, intricately detailed with gold panels, glass studs and more animal and human head carvings. The bottom of the base has even more applied gold, with a polished rock crystal at the centre disguising the edge of the copper stem. When you view the chalice in the National Museum they have place a mirror under it so you can see all the amazing detail underneath the base.

It's not unusual for objects from this time period to have such elaborate decoration as this, but what is unusual about the Ardagh Chalice is that all of the design elements were kept in proportion to the shape of the bowl. In other pieces from the same period, the decoration becomes so elaborate that it's almost ridiculous, but here it has been kept to simple symmetric embellishments that both stick to classical rules of proportion but still show a huge amount of skill and technique.

The upper rim of the chalice is now decayed and has split due to chemical reaction. However, the rest of it remains in remarkably good condition, especially considering it had no protection whatsoever from the soil it was buried in and it wasn't even pushed very deep underground. It truly is an Irish treasure.

So what happened to Quinn, Flanagan, and the Chalice? Flanagan lived a long life, although he never left Ardagh and was buried in a pauper's grave when he died. Quinn went to live in Australia, eventually dying over there. And the Chalice can still be seen in all its glory today in the National Museum in Dublin, taking pride of place in their collection.


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