This beautiful object is a hallmarked sterling silver hair comb that belonged to our grandmother Mary Gallagher, nee Friel. (See earlier post here ) It was given to me by her second daughter, my aunt Eileen, in the 1980s. Aunt Eileen had very generously given, to the best of my recollection, one of her mother’s possessions – a watch, a ring, a pendant and a hair comb – to each of four granddaughters – Cathy, Nuala, Eva and myself.
It never ceases to amaze me how few family artifacts pass down through the generations of ordinary people, but I am so honored and pleased to own this part of our family history. The hallmarks tell us that it was made by silversmiths, Reynolds & Westwood in Birmingham in 1905.
But how did she come to have it? Who gave it to her? Was it a gift from her parents? Had it belonged to her mother? A gift from a beloved sister? From her husband, our grandfather? On the birth of one of her children? Or was it a possession that was handed on to her when one of her family passed away? The manufacture date is useful in that it can only be connected to her family members alive after that date. As she and our grandfather married in 1915, it is possible it was a gift from him – perhaps instead of an engagement ring? – but even that date is ten years after it was made.
We will never know. We have three photographs of her. One taken at her marriage in 1915 and another after her first child was born in 1917. The watch, the ring, and the locket are clearly visible in these, but as the hair comb would have been worn at the back of her head, we don’t know if she was wearing it or not!
It is in fact quite a serious ‘comb’ with long prongs that would have been inserted into wrapped up long hair to keep it neat. I have not seen one of these being worn, nor can I find any instructions on how to use it. It is however very beautiful. In days before hair bobbles and hairclips, they would have been quite commonly seen as hair ornaments.
The third photograph we have of her is one that she wore in the locket. She appears to be much younger and certainly had a fine head of hair.
I often think of her sitting at the dressing table in the bedroom that I knew so well, tossing her hair, gathering it up and then picking up the comb to insert it and arranging herself. I often think of her, just looking at it and perhaps smiling as it is such a lovely thing. I often think of her holding it, admiring it, cleaning it. And I wonder if her five young children ever hung around her, watching her doing her hair.
So when would she have worn it – every day or for special occasions?
Did she wear it when living with her sisters? Did she wear it when she was a housekeeper for her brother the priest in Glenties? Did she wear it on her wedding day? It’s impossible to tell from the photograph.
When did she last wear it? She was quite ill for several years before she died. Would she have bothered with it then? Would she have worn it on days when she needed to feel good or to put up an appearance for her family who watched her suffering? Or did it lie abandoned in a drawer for the last years of her life?
This is the only object we have in my family that our grandmother owned. It will be passed on to my daughter, her great-granddaughter in time. I would like to think that the great-great grandaughters she now has – Sophie, Isabella Freya, Lee, Mary Catherine, Mia, Freya, and Eliza Mae might in time be interested in seeing it too.
It is particularly poignant to remember her today, on the 87th anniversary of her untimely death on 25 July 1931 at the age of 49. Her beautiful silver comb will keep her in family memory, hopefully for many years to come.