Ireland’s Treasures: The Ardagh Chalice

Written by Ryan Grace on 28/04/2022

You may or may not have heard of one of Ireland’s greatest historical treasures; the Ardagh Chalice. Discovered in 1868, this silver chalice is one of the most prized and celebrated examples of 8th century metalwork still in existence.

The Ardagh Chalice was used for the act of dispensing Eucharistic wine during the celebration of Mass. Historians and academics are often quick to point out that the chalice, at the time of creation, was both artistically and technically centuries ahead of its time.

In this article we are going to examine one of Ireland’s most renowned metalwork treasures, the design and creation of the Ardagh Chalice, and its subsequent discovery decades later as part of the Ardagh Hoard.

The Wonder of the Ardagh Chalice

The Ardagh Chalice is an ecclesiastical artefact, which basically means it was created to be used by or for the Christian Church or its clergy. It’s a large, two-handled silver cup that has been carefully decorated with gold, bronze, and brass.

Interestingly the chalice has actually been assembled from over 350 separate pieces, a complex practice which was not uncommon when dealing with early Irish metalwork for the Catholic Church.

If you look closely at the golden band that encircles the bowl, the names of the eleven apostles and St. Paul have been inscribed on the chalice in Latin. The shape of the chalice can be attributed to the style of late Roman silverware. However, the method of construction and the complexity of the piece, which we touched on earlier, is indicative of Irish metalwork and early medieval craftsmanship.

Placing the creation of the Ardagh Chalice to any particular metalwork shop has proved impossible for historians, archaeologists, and academics alike. However, certain links have been made between the decoration of the chalice and the decoration of another 8th century metalwork treasure known as the Tara Brooch.

It’s widely believed that due to the religious nature of the Ardagh Chalice, it is likely to have formed part of a wider treasury of an early Irish church or monastery before being hidden away for safekeeping.

The Ardagh Hoard: An Unexpected Discovery

Like many historical artefacts and global treasures, the Ardagh Chalice was found by accident. In 1868, two young men local to Ardagh in County Limerick were attempting to plant and grow potatoes inside of a nearby ring fort. It’s believed they were attempting to avoid the effects of the potato blight when they happened upon a solid object in the ground between the roots of a thorn bush.

What followed was the discovery of a copper-alloy cup, several types of brooches, and you guessed it, the Ardagh Chalice. This unexpected discovery of priceless historical treasures became known as the Ardagh Hoard.

The Legacy of the Ardagh Chalice

Believe it or not, but the influence and legacy of the Ardagh Chalice can be found in modern Irish culture more often than you would assume. Firstly, the chalice was featured on a £1 postage stamp issued by An Post (Ireland’s national postal service), in the early 1990s as part of an ‘Irish Heritage and Treasures’ stamp series.

Moreover, the shape and design of the Ardagh Chalice influenced two major Irish sporting trophies; the O’Duffy Cup presented to the annual winners of the All-Ireland Senior Camogie Championship, and the Sam Maguire Cup which is awarded to the winners of the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship each year*.

*Note: The football referred to here is Gaelic Football, not soccer.

Today the Ardagh Chalice is housed in the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, and is certainly worth a visit the next time you find yourself in Ireland’s capital.

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