Rare chalice purchased by National Museum prior to sale

Galway tribe the Kirwans donated chalice at a time when Penal Laws ruled Ireland

Collection of early 18th-century Catholic altar pieces from the Kirwan family has been bought by the National Museum of Ireland

Collection of early 18th-century Catholic altar pieces from the Kirwan family has been bought by the National Museum of Ireland


A silver Irish chalice due to be auctioned at Adam’s next week has been bought in advance by the National Museum of Ireland for an undisclosed sum. The Stephen Kirwan Chalice is one of four artefacts from a collection of early 18th century Catholic altarpieces from the Kirwan family in Galway.

The chalice, paten, altar stone and a Roman missal (dating from 1647) were due to be auctioned at Townley Hall in Drogheda next Tuesday and were carrying an estimate of €20,000-€30,000.

Dr Audrey Whitty, head of Learning and Collections at the National Museum said: “It is really like an 18th-century hoard, as all the pieces would have been used together, and reflect a significant period in Irish history. Galway silver is not plentiful and this is hallmarked by Bartholomew Fallon. The fact that the paten bears a hallmark is very unusual too.”

It is the second Irish chalice in recent weeks to have been removed from an auction prior to sale. A goblet from the 17th century, which had been stolen in 1988, was discovered three weeks ago when it was put up for sale at a Dublin city auction. Gardaí seized the chalice before it went under the hammer, and it has now been repatriated to Ardee, Co Louth.

Dr Whitty says this most recent acquisition is interesting due to a mark on the base of the chalice that dates from 1718. “We think it may be based on a medieval type of decoration, as it resembles some pieces from the collection of Irish silver from medieval times.”

Public display

The collection is undergoing research and will be placed on public display at Collins Barracks, where it will sit with the State’s silver collection.

The Kirwan family were one of the oldest of the 14 tribes of Galway and donated this chalice, to become known as the Stephen Kirwan Chalice after its donor, at a time when Penal Laws ruled Ireland.

This included a ban on celebration of the Catholic Mass, forcing priests and worshippers to find hidden rural spots to perform the rite. The priest would carry four items to celebrate the Mass, such as these in the Kirwan collection.

“These pieces are now owned by the people of Ireland,” said Dr Whitty “and tell the story of a time in Ireland when religion was on the run.”

Speaking of the sale ahead of the auction, James O’Halloran of Adam’s said: “We are delighted that our clients have agreed to sell this piece of historic Irish silver to the National Museum of Ireland. The vendors of the chalice are also delighted that their family heirloom will now go on view to the public.”