Every St. Patrick’s Day brings back happy memories of when I was a seminarian at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie. In celebration of our local church’s patronal feast, we would always be given the day off from class so we could serve the Cardinal’s Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral before observing the famous parade up Fifth Avenue. It was a custom to bring with us our seminary’s prized possession for the Cardinal to use as he celebrated Mass, the famed “MacSwiney Chalice.”
This is not a chalice of pure gold with diamonds and jewels but something far more simple, yet remarkably special. It was made in 1640 and is designed to be taken apart into three pieces for easy concealment as it was used throughout the days of the Penal Laws in Ireland when the Catholic faith was outlawed and priests were hunted men.
New York’s celebration of St. Patrick’s Day is the largest in the world. The use of the MacSwiney Chalice at the heart of it is a moving reminder to our secular modern world of St. Patrick’s legacy that never ought to be overlooked amid the day’s revelry. Patrick brought the Gospel of Christ to the Irish people and this chalice symbolizes their persevering faith even amidst the fiercest persecutions.
The MacSwiney Chalice comes from the most heroic period in the history of the Irish Church. Since the reign of King Henry VIII, Catholic Ireland stood in the shadows of a great Protestant power in neighboring Britain. The Irish were dehumanized as their rights, land and food were all taken from them. The one thing the British were never able to take, however, was their cherished Catholic faith. No matter what form the persecutions took, the faith endured. The Masses where the MacSwiney Chalice was used were offered in hidden away places like homes, barns and fields. The priests and the people who worshipped God with this sacred vessel were willing to risk their lives for the graces of the Eucharist.
The worst of the persecutions began under Oliver Cromwell, who invaded Ireland in 1649 and immediately began enacting harsh Penal laws against the Irish Catholics. Cromwell gave priests 20 days to leave the country. Many dared to stay, putting their lives in peril. These “underground” priests would visit the sick by night and celebrate Mass just before dawn in hiding places such as upon “Mass rocks” out in remote fields with scouts on lookout for soldiers. If the priest were ever caught, and hundreds were, he would be tortured and executed.
The Penal Laws would remain for another 150 years where Catholics were barred from voting, holding public office, owning land, attending Mass, and teaching the catechism to their children.
The inscription on the base of the MacSwiney Chalice reads: “ORATE PRO ANIMA D: DANIELIS SWYNE SACERDOTIS LISMORESIS DIAECESIS QUI ME FIERI FECITA 1640, Pray for the soul of Mister Daniel Swyne, priest of the Diocese of Lismore, who had me made in the year 1640.” It would be kept in the MacSwiney family for the next 268 years and was used by various priests of the family. With our mind’s eye, we can picture the stirring image of these brave priests providing the graces of the Mass in hidden away barns and fields to the poorest and most deprived members of Christ the Good Shepherd’s flock.
The first inheritor of the chalice was Owen MacSwiney, the Bishop of Kilmore, who was the last bishop left in Ireland at the time of Cromwell’s purge. He was the only bishop in Ireland from the end of 1661 until October or November 1662 and from 1654 until October 1659. He was unable to leave the country for safety on account of his old age and infirmity. He died in 1669.
Another notable inheritor of the chalice was Father Patrick MacSwiney (1791-1865), who became dean of the Irish College in Paris, one of many seminaries founded in continental Europe to train Irish priests during the suppression of Catholic schooling in Ireland. In turn, he willed it to his nephew, Father Denis MacSwiney (1824-1906), who was working back in Ireland as the vicar general of the Diocese of Cork and Ross. In 1896, Father Denis sent the chalice to the next generation of family priests who had immigrated to America.
Among these emigres were four brothers who all became priests. They were the cousins of Father Denis. Their names are inscribed upon the chalice: “MACSWEENY FRATRES SACREDOTES NEO EBORACENSES A.D. 1862-1908 R.R. DD PATRICIUS, EDUARDUS, JOANNES ET FRANCISCUS, MacSweeny Brothers, Priests of New York, Right Reverend Doctors of Divinity Patrick, Edwin, John and Francis.” Father Patrick set sail for America in 1848 at age 11 with his father, O’Callaghan MacSwiney, on the Famine Ship named Swatara. In 1850, the mother, Honoria Harnett MacSweeny, sailed to New York with the remainder of the family on the Brig Garland.
In 1908, the chalice finally left the care of the MacSwiney family when it was donated to St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie.
In reference to His coming Passion, Our Lord Jesus asks: “Are you able to drink the chalice that I am to drink?” (Matthew 20:22). Those brave souls risking their lives to attend Mass where the MacSwiney Chalice was used during “those days of blood” gave a firm “yes” to this all important question. Through the intercession of St. Patrick, may we be able to say the same for ourselves.
Father Connolly is parochial vicar of St. Joseph’s parish in Middletown.
Information on the life of Bishop Owen MacSwiney of Kilmore:
“The Briefny Antiquarian and Historical Society Journal, 1927. Vol. III. No. 1,” At Cavan Library. http://www.cavanlibrary.ie/file/Local-Studies/Library-Scanned-Docs/Breifny-Antiquarian-Society-Journal-1927-Vol-III-(No%20I,%20II%20&%20III).pdf.
Information on the provenance of the MacSwiney Chalice:
“Dedication of the Altar and Blessing of the Chapel of Our Lady March 21, 2017,” At Xavier High School New York. https://www.xavierhs.org/s/81/images/editor_documents/enews/chapelprogramlr.pdf.
“McSweeney Chalice Used for 1964 Reunion Mass,” At Xavier High School New York. https://www.xavierhs.org/s/81/rd16/index.aspx?sid=81&gid=1&calcid=6981&calpgid=61&pgid=267&ecid=4416&crid=0.
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