Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks, 1928 – the Sam Maguire Cup, by Hopkins & Hopkins

Inspired by the Ardagh Chalice, the Sam Maguire Cup is the holy grail of Gaelic football. Could its lineage stretch back to the real Holy Grail?

For the year 1928 we look at the Sam Maguire cup, and trace its origins back to the Ardagh Chalice. With thanks to the GAA, National Museum of Ireland and the RIA.

 

It is the Holy Grail of Gaelic football: the Sam Maguire Cup, presented every year to the winners of the All-Ireland final. A group of Maguire’s friends raised the considerable sum of £300 for a trophy to commemorate the GAA and IRA activist, who died in 1927.

The great silver cup was commissioned in 1928 from a Dublin jewellery firm, Hopkins & Hopkins, based next to O’Connell Bridge, which had by this time established a reputation for the production of replicas of early Irish metalwork.

It in turn seems to have sought help for this large commission from Matthew Staunton, a silversmith based nearby, on D’Olier Street. (Staunton’s mentor Edmond Johnson had already made the Liam McCarthy Cup, the All-Ireland hurling trophy.)

It is unclear who precisely was responsible for the design and making of the cup, but it is the most famous product of the search for a visual identity for the new Ireland rooted in the golden age of early Christian art in the eighth and ninth centuries.

Hopkins & Hopkins advertised its services as a manufacturer of “reproductions of Antique Irish Ornaments in gold and silver”, so it may well be that the committee that commissioned the trophy already had the idea that it should be just such a reproduction.

For the Sam Maguire, the model selected was one of Ireland’s most celebrated artefacts: the eighth-century Ardagh Chalice, which Hopkins & Hopkins had already copied for smaller “presentation cups”. The chalice had been discovered secreted in the bank of a ring fort in Co Limerick 60 years earlier. It won instant renown, admired for the intricacy and complexity of its decoration, which was paralleled only by the equally renowned Tara Brooch.

It also presented something of a puzzle. Chalices of the early medieval period are typically smaller and slenderer than this one, and lack its distinctive handles, causing scholars of the time to declare the distinctive size and shape of the Ardagh Chalice unique anachronisms.

Although some purists have questioned the appropriateness of celebrating great sporting achievements with a trophy in the shape of a sacred chalice, what they may not realise is that the chalice itself was most likely a copy of an even more sacred object.

In the late seventh century a Frankish bishop named Arculf was shipwrecked off the coast of the Columban monastery at Iona. There he recounted the marvels that he had seen in the Holy Land, which were recorded by the Irish abbot of the monastery, Adomnán.

Included in this account was a description of one of the great relics of the Holy Land, the “Cup of the Lord”, used at the Last Supper, which he described as silver, holding a sextarius – or sixth of a gallon – with two small handles on either side: the original Holy Grail. The GAA’s holy grail really is the Holy Grail.

The original Sam Maguire Cup was retired in 1988, as it had been damaged in overly enthusiastic celebrations over 60 years. It was replaced by an exact copy – the fourth in a series of reproductions whose lineage turns out, after all, not to be quite so purely Irish.

You can read more about this week’s artwork in the Royal Irish Academy’s Art and Architecture of Ireland (see ria.ie)

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