Galway Rosary Beads. Artist unknown
Galway Rosary beads
c.1700-1800, Ireland
white metal, amber beads
84 cm long
Acquired 2018

Some of my earliest memories in life revolve around Rosary beads, and Galway beads in particular. Reflecting on those years today, I have no doubt that Rosary beads as a Catholic icon were second only to the crucifix. My mother and father grew up on farms just outside Galway city. Both belonged to large Catholic families: Dad was the fourth of eleven children and Mum was the youngest of thirteen. Their Catholic faith was intense and constant. The Rosary at night was a regular event.

Mum and Dad migrated to New Zealand, where I was born the second of four siblings. We moved to Australia when I was ten, and the evening Rosary, consisting of five decades each time, occurred on most week nights both in New Zealand and Australia. We would kneel and rest our arms on a chair or lounge, and Mum or Dad would direct one of us to lead in a decade. All of us had Rosary beads. Both Mum and Dad had brought theirs from ‘home’, as they called Galway. I can’t remember Mum’s beads, but Dad’s beads were made of wood. They were brown, solid and Dad’s treasure.

Against this as background, I am delighted that the university has acquired, for the ACU Art Collection, a set of eighteenth-century Galway Rosary beads. That they have a Spanish connection is not surprising. When Francis Drake scuttled the Spanish Armada in 1588, it struck a fierce storm off Ireland’s west coast, and many a Spaniard was washed ashore near Galway. The village of Claddagh outside the walled city of Galway became a Spanish enclave. This influx of Spaniards is credited with the evolution of the ‘Black Irish’, individuals with dark hair and olive skin compared to the traditional fair–ginger complexion of the Irish. It is therefore not surprising that the Galway Rosary beads the university has acquired can be traced back to Spanish craftsmen and their specific skills.

The Rosary never left my life. As I approached adulthood I noticed that my late pious mother was in the habit of saying fifteen decades of the Rosary at Sunday mass. She railed against the change of the language of the mass from Latin to English. As I pointed out to Mum, she never understood Latin, so why was she concerned. Her answer was very Irish, and then she reverted to the Rosary. What could I say?

In my own life in politics, there was usually a soldier’s Rosary ring in my pocket; when things got tough, I would squeeze the ten beads and cross fiercely and plead for wisdom. I don’t think I was any more superstitious than my Irish mother, but I believed then as I do today that Mary as the Mother of God has formidable influence in the kingdom of God.

The Rosary is still a powerful and meaningful form of worship. It will always be a central plank for active Catholics. To have the Galway beads in the collection is a constant reminder of the timeless value of seeking intersession to our Saviour through the Mother of God. This is just as appropriate today as it was when these beads were made in Galway more than 200 years ago.

John Fahey


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