Riches of Clare:
The Nihil and Fr Fogarty Chalices

Clare Champion, Friday, October 18, 2002

The Riches of Clare exhibition at the Clare Museum
charts the county's history over 6,000 years using
authentic artifacts. In the latest article examining
the historical artifacts, museum curator John Rattigan
writes about the Nihil and Fr Fogarty chalices….

The Nihil and Fr Fogarty Chalices are two examples
of Roman Catholic Eucharistic vessels from the Diocese
of Killaloe. It is interesting to compare and contrast them both as they very much reflect the political environment that produced them.

At about 8 inches in height, the Nihil chalice is a small silver altar vessel that comes from St Tola's Church, Ruan. The cup of the chalice is plain and undecorated, while halfway down the stem there is a knob, necessary for secure handling by priest, with motifs of ears of wheat and vine leaves, signifying the bread and wine of the Last Supper. Beneath that, the chalice has a broad hexagonal-shaped base, which prevents the chalice from tilting over. Largely undecorated, each hexagonal component is made up of a single panel, and on every second panel there are engravings of various Christian symbols. These symbols tell the story of The Passion of Jesus, as is obvious on the first panel which shows a representation of the Crucified Christ. On the second engraved panel, there is a column, a Passion symbol, with a cock perched on top, a traditional Christian symbol of the resurrection.

At the base of the column are a number of images, including a scourge that was used to whip Jesus before he was crucified. The dice that were cast for his clothing can be seen beside this, and beneath both of these are eight pieces of silver taken in payment by Judas Iscariot for the betrayal of Jesus. A third panel features a ladder representing a link between heaven and earth, a spear that pierced Our Lord side and a staff with a sponge of vinegar used to quench his thirst on the cross. There is also a hammer and pliers, the tools used to perform the crucifixion.

The Fogarty Chalice is a taller more ornate vessel. It carries a Latin inscription on the base that translates "Pray for the soul of Fr Dan Fogarty PP, Toomevara, died 8 January, 1903, aged 54", and has been willed to the Sister of Mercy, Ennis by Fr Fogarty. The chalice is very much in keeping with guidelines of the Catholic Church, which states for example, that pictures or emblems should be about an inch below the lip of the chalice. On the Fogarty chalice the top inch of the cup is undecorated, but below that there are floral-type motifs in relief. The stem is highly decorated, with the knob in the centre inset with domed semi-precious stones, probably garnets.

However, it is the broad base of the cup that is most interesting, as it is heavily decorated with shamrock motifs, four of which are inset semi-precious stones. These stones are probably agates. Above these shamrocks are four engraved panels, again featuring images of The Passion. The first shows Jesus on his knees in the Garden of Gethsemane, while the second is an image of the Last Supper. The third is a crucifixion scene while the fourth portrays the resurrection.

When compared, these two chalices tell us much about the how the Catholic Church had evolved in Ireland over nearly two centuries, which separate their manufacture.

The Nihil chalice is a simple vessel. Engraved on the base is the inscription "Lawrence and Alice Nihil January 1st 1713". Who the Nihil's were, and how they could afford to patronise a silver chalice at this turbulent time in Irish history, remains a mystery. It carries no features that identify it as uniquely Irish in terms of motifs, and is largely plain with the exception of the Christian symbols that were universal through the Roman Catholic Church. It is a small, discrete, functional chalice. Indeed, the chalice lacks a hallmark that suggests that the object was possibly manufactured outside Ireland, paid for by Irish living abroad, and then smuggled into the country. This scenario is plausible, as the date 1713 was at the height of the Penal Laws.

The Fr Fogarty Chalice differs from the Nihil Chalice as there are no traditional Christian Symbols on this vessel but there are four biblical scenes relating to The Passion. The hallmark tells us that it was manufactured in Ireland in 1887, and its larger size and more ornate appearance reflect the aspirations of the more confident and wealthy Roman Catholic Church that emerged after the Great Famine.The shamrock motifs are consistent with the Gaelic Revival that was influencing the political agenda at that time. Indeed, the full decoration of the Fr Fogarty Chalice, although not Celtic in style, could be interpreted as an attempt to link the Irish Catholic Church with the Early Christian Church and the Ardagh Chalice from 8th Century Ireland.

View the Nihil Chalice / Fr Fogarty Chalice

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