An intriguing object on loan to Galway City Museum from the Dominican Sisters, Galway, is a silver eighteenth-century reliquary, complete with a key, containing a human skull. The reliquary has three glass panels framed in silver with a hinged copper door at the rear. The base panel is also copper and the reliquary stands on four bulbous feet. The silver platform, which has a silver pillar at each corner, and a decorated dome with an orb and finial cross, is stamped in four places with the initials of its maker Richard Joyce ‘R.I’.’
An inscription around the dome attributes the skull to St Ursula and reads:
‘Pray for sist Margt of ye Rosary Joyce who procured ye inclosed Reliqics of St Ursalla for ye Dominican Convent of Nuns Gallway & adorned my with y case ye 18 of June 1723’
The skull was reputedly brought to Galway from Rome, Italy by Sr Margaret Joyce, believed to be a niece of Richard Joyce (Ticher 1977). It is likely the reliquary was commissioned especially to house it. The skull sits on a crimson velvet cushion adorned with stringed pearls of unknown date.
From the Hearth Money roll for Galway in 1724, Richard Joyce was known to have resided in Shop Street, Galway and from the marks on various pieces, was producing silverware from 1691 until at least 1737 – Joyce also used the mark for Galway town, an anchor in a shaped stamp (Mulveen 1994, 51; Ticher 1977). Some of the earliest Claddagh rings also bear the initials of Richard Joyce. According to tradition, Joyce learned his trade from a Turkish goldsmith. Having been captured en route to the West Indies by an Algerian corsair or pirate, Joyce was purchased in Algiers by a wealthy Turk who taught him his trade. Joyce eventually returned to Galway where he established his own goldsmith shop (Hardiman 1820).
The Dominican Sisters have a long history in Galway, establishing a convent here in 1644. The reliquary is just one piece of a collection of Dominican silverware currently on loan to the Museum, which includes a silver crucifix, also by Joyce, and chalices and candlesticks by Mark Fallon, another Galway-based goldsmith who also operated in the early eighteenth century. Both Joyce and Fallon were renowned for their ecclesiastical ware, especially silver and silver gilt chalices (Mulveen 1994, 43).
- Hardiman, J., 1820 The history of the town and county of the town of Galway: from the earliest period to the present time. Dublin.
- Mulveen, J., 1994 Galway Goldsmiths, their marks and ware. Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society 46, 43-64.
- Ticher, K., 1977 Galway Silver in a Dominican Convent. The Antique Dealer and Collectors Guide, October 1977.
14 October 2020