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The Luker Chalice

The Luker Chalice is one of the most intriguing and beautiful objects in the Medieval Museum. Skilfully decorated with images of the crucifixion, the Virgin, St. Bridget etc., it has a fascinating history. Rarely does an object have so many associations with different eras in history and so many diverse places.

Known as the Luker Chalice because the base is inscribed in Latin with the words ‘John Luker of Waterford OFM had me made 1595’.

The Lukers were a Waterford family of some substance; almost certainly merchants, many of them are recorded as freemen of the city in the late 1500s and early 1600s. A John Luker is recorded in the Great Parchment Book of Waterford as having rented the middle rooms in Reginald’s Tower from the City Council in 1599.

John Luker was very probably the son or close relative of the Luker who rented the rooms in the tower. It was John who commissioned the chalice, a commission financed by his family and friends possibly to mark his ordination. The chalice was almost certainly made in Waterford in 1595 for we know that there were a number of goldsmiths working in Waterford at this time. The very impressive stone carved tomb stone of Cornelius Hurley, the goldsmith who died in 1582, can still be seen today in the nave of the ruined Franciscan Friary in Greyfriars Street. The goldsmith was no doubt a devotee of the Franciscans.

When John Luker had the chalice made the Greyfriars monastery, standing within a few feet of Reginald’s Tower, must have been a very familiar site to him. However, in 1595 when the chalice was made, it was no longer a friary but a charity called the Holy Ghost Hospital. The charity was founded by the Walsh family of Waterford who had acquired the former friary buildings following the dissolution of the monasteries by King Henry VIII in 1541. Henry had closed the monasteries as part of his reformation of the Church in England and Ireland and made himself head of the Church.

The Walsh family received a charter from the king to create the charity as a legal entity. The charity survives to this day. Operating from premises on the Cork Road it is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, surviving charity in Ireland.

With the closing of the monasteries all the monks were in theory expelled; however in most Irish towns and cities they continued in secret to minister to the citizens. It is very likely that John Luker ministered to the inmates of the Holy Ghost Hospital and the citizens of Waterford by celebrating Mass in the former friary if not in secret certainly without state approval or formal knowledge.

We know from the writing of Luke Wadding (1588-1657), Waterford’s and indeed Ireland’s most famous Franciscan, that when John Luker died he was buried not in the friary, as he had wished, but in the grounds of the abandoned church of Our Lady in Lady Lane. The church in Lady Lane like all other churches in the city was taken over by the Established or State Church during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603). With the vast majority of the citizens remaining loyal to the old religion, the new State Church had too few members to maintain all the Roman Catholic Church buildings and so the Lady Lane church fell into disuse and was eventually demolished. Though it disappeared from the city streetscape it is still remembered in the name of the street on which it stood, Lady Lane. It was not until the 1830s, following Catholic emancipation, that the Franciscans built the present Franciscan Friary on the site of the medieval Church of Our Lady.

Luke Wadding also tells us that it was John Luker’s wish to be buried in the Franciscan Friary but the political climate did not allow this and instead he was laid to rest in the Church of Our Lady. However, some years after his death in the 1600s a group of merchants, including Wadding’s father with the connivance of the Holy Ghost Hospital, decided to fulfil John’s dying wish. In the dark of night with the light of candles they exhumed his body and reinterred his remains in the former friary as he had wished.

Wadding also tells us that as a young boy he witnessed the exhumation of John Luker’s body which was found to be incorrupt, even his sandals were perfect. Wadding took this as a sign of his saintly life and was so impressed that he immediately decided to become a Franciscan.

Wadding’s account of Luker’s exhumation ensured his name would live on in history. However, what brought Luker to the fore in more recent times was the chance discovery of his chalice in 1895 at the bottom of a well in Leighlinbridge, Co. Carlow. The chalice was recovered by an old woman at the bottom of the well when during a dry spell in her search for water she tried to dig the well deeper. The chalice that had been wrapped in cloths was brought to the local parish priest by the lady who found it.

How it got to the well we will never know. Perhaps it was hidden there during the wars of religion in the 17th century by a priest on the run from government forces. Following its discovery, the local parish priest used it to celebrate Mass during the annual pattern or pilgrimage to the holy well. Such patterns were common throughout 19th century Ireland and formed a major part of popular religious devotion.

The pattern continues to this day remembering the Waterford Franciscan whose family were associated with Reginald’s Tower and who in death influenced one of the great figures of 17th century Ireland, Luke Wadding. Waterford Treasures is deeply appreciative of the generosity of Fr. Declan Foley and the parishioners of Leighlinbridge for loaning the chalice to the museum. The chalice is each year returned for the pattern so that the tradition continues.

The chalice is a remarkable object linking us to the fallout of the dissolution of the monasteries, the great Franciscan scholar Luke Wadding, the suppression of the Catholic faith in the 17th century and the popular religious devotion of the patterns in the late 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. Today, the chalice is displayed in a specially-commissioned showcase and forms the centre piece of the late-medieval gallery in the award winning Medieval Museum here in Waterford city.