Irish Chalices

General Information

A chalice is defined as a sacramental wine cup used at Mass. The accompanying plate to hold the sacramental bread is termed a paten. As ordained by the rubrics, a chalice should have a bowl of sufficient capacity for the wine, a foot large enough to enable it to stand firmly, and a stem with a knop to ensure a firm grip between the index, middle fingers and the thumb.

Many of the late medieval chalices are now composite, i.e. made up of parts of two or even three different vessels (Buckley). This is accounted for by the fact that chalices, in general, are made in three separate parts, viz., the bowl, the stem with the knop, and the foot. These are "assembled" and held together by means of screwed sockets. Quite easily then, the components of different vessels may be interchanged. Or again the bowl may have become so much worn by frequent purifying that it was necessary to replace it by a new one.

The chalice is normally crafted in silver, and the bowl is gilt internally. It is perhaps surprising to find relatively poor rural communities using vessels fashioned from precious metals, rather than baser materials. This was primarily due to a number of pronouncements issued from Councils and Synods since the ninth century. Base metals (such as wood, stone, earthenware, horn, copper, bronze and lead) were not deemed adequate since the chalice was one of the most sacred possessions of the parish church. Pewter was borderline for many years, primarily because of the wide variety of alloys which could legitimately be termed pewter. Whilst Fine Pewter was almost pure tin with a small quantity of hardening agent (such as copper, bismuth or antimony), Lay Pewter could comprise as little as three quarters tin and one quarter lead (Hatcher & Barker). The latter low grade of pewter probably prompted the authorities to decree that pewter chalices were not to be consecrated because they induced nausea (lead poisoning), and the use of pewter chalices was generally restricted to ceremonial burial with bishops, consequently known as Coffin Chalices.

The Company of Goldsmiths in Dublin was organised in 1637, and were granted a royal charter on 22nd December of that year (Wyse Jackson). Hall marks were introduced in 1638, but are not usually found on the earlier pieces of Irish altar plate, and only become widespread in the eighteenth century (Buckley). In the absence of hall marks, most chalices may be dated by style, since examples of each style bear inscriptions recording the benefactor and the date of the donation.

The present shape of chalice has been developed over a period of centuries. Chalices of the early period, such as the Ardagh and Derrynaflan chalices, were double-handled, short-stemmed and rather squat, with a shallow bowl and a circular foot. The development of the conventional chalice as we know it today can be traced back to the thirteenth century, and the design belongs to the Norman and Gothic traditions of western Europe (Wyse Jackson).

Around 1320, the rubric of turning down the chalice on its side on the paten after the celebrant had drunk the purificatory water was established, and a hexagonal base was adopted to prevent the chalices from rolling on the altar table (Buckley).

This rubric also prompted modifications to the bowl. The early chalices generally had hemispherical bowls which prevented the ablution from completely draining off. The bowl was then given a conical or parabolic outline which facilitated the draining. This alteration undoubtedly resulted in the deliberate destruction of many early chalices as obsolete (Egan).

The stem grew taller, and the decorated knop more significant. The fluted or writhen knop of the fourteenth century became lobed in the fifteenth century, and was often chased with angel's heads, lozenges or quatrefoil flowers.

The early hexagonal foot had incurved sides, a form which lasted well into the fifteenth century. Around 1490, the points of the incurved hexagonal base tended to be ornamented by crescent or foliage finials (Clayton). Soon after 1500, the hexafoil foot made its appearance and endured as late as the seventeenth century when the octofoil foot became popular. The foot is almost invariably the most important component, from the historical point of view, since it was around the lower part of it that it was customary to engrave the dedicatory inscription, including the name of the donor and the date.

Only a small proportion of Irish chalices are accompanied by patens, and of these but a very few can with certainty be claimed to have been made for the chalices with which they are associated (Buckley).

The Flannery Clan Chalices

The Flannery Clan (Clann Fhlannabhra) held its inaugural Clan Gathering in Dublin on the August Bank Holiday weekend 2000. The highlight of the festive weekend was the presence of both chalices, which were generously loaned by their respective custodians. The chalices were the focal point of the heritage exhibition, and were used in the Clan Mass concelebrated by Fr. Austin Flannery OP and Fr. Michael Flannery PP Inverin (see photo below).

It is remarkable that these precious artefacts, with a combined age of nearly two thirds of a millennium, should spring to life to inspire the current generation of the Flannery Clan. We wish to record our profound debt of gratitude to their custodians, Dr. Thomas A. Finnegan, Bishop of Killala, and Fr. Cathal Geraghty, PP Loughrea, for their kind permission to borrow the chalices. Thanks are also due to Robert M. Chapple M.A., and Colleen Flannery, for bringing the existence of the two artefacts to the attention of the Flannery Clan.

[The Flannery Clan Chalices; photo courtesy of Pádraig Ó Flannabhra]

Please report additional information to the webmaster.