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Wassail Bowl

Where can you see this Wassail Bowl on display?

This Wassail Bowl is on display in the Plantation to Power Sharing Gallery, in the History Zone of the Ulster Museum.

Wassail BowlWhy is this Wassail Bowl so important?

The ceremony of Wassail (from the Anglo-Saxon ‘Waes Hail’, meaning ‘Be You Healthy’)  belongs to the production of cider and reflects several traditions of south and south-western England related to the fruitfulness of cider trees. The bowl was used to serve the Wassail drink, which consisted of hot, mulled cider, ale or mead topped with toasted bread. Over time, wassailing became particularly associated with the celebration of Christmastide in those parts.  

This Wassail bowl is made from lignum vitae, a hard tropical wood treasured for its durability. It was found in the forests of Central America and in the 1500s was an exotic and precious substance.  

The Wassail Bowl’s importance rests in the cultural and historical links it represents. An ancient label inside its lid indicates that it was probably brought to Ireland by Sir Arthur Chichester, a relative of the Dukes of Devon and a native of south-west England.

Image above: Wassail bowl belonging to the Chichester family, Earls of Donegall. Click to enlarge.

Portrait of Arthur ChichesterArthur Chichester came to Ireland in 1598 as Governor of Carrickfergus following the death in battle of the previous Governor, his brother John. He was an experienced mariner and soldier, who had accompanied Sir Francis Drake on his last expedition to the Americas. He was knighted in 1596 for his exploits as Commander of the attack on Cadiz in the Anglo-Spanish War. Appointed Deputy General of Ireland in 1604, he became a leading figure on the Plantation of Ulster and played a key role in the expansion of Belfast, building a castle there in 1611 on a site still known as Castle Place. The names of many other Belfast streets bear testimony to the lasting local significance of the Chichester, later the Donegall, family.

Image Right: Portrait of Arthur Chitchester. Click to enlarge.

In Ulster, this Wassail Bowl was an alien object, both in substance and function. To Arthur Chichester, however, it was a piece of family tradition and status and a reminder of his local English roots, made even made more poignant and valuable because it was his brother’s brutal death which brought both it and him to Ireland.

McKelvey's artistic impression of Belfast Castle in the 1600sWhat should you look out for when you go to see this Wassail Bowl?

The bowl, base and lid have all been turned on a lathe. The lid is surmounted by a turned and finely carved receptacle for holding the spices used to flavour the wassail drink, and this is topped with delicate finial work to match. The hole visible on the right hand side of the bowl would have held a silver tap, which over the years has been lost. The lid is pierced with a further four holes, which would have probably held drinking vessels. The rich dark sheen of the bowl is the natural colour of the wood, aglow with the patina of many, many years.

Image above: An artist's impression of Belfast Castle in the 1600s. Click to enlarge.