A family treasure

img_1856This 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!

gallagher wedding snap

Our grandparents’ wedding photograph. 1915. Locket, watch and ring are clearly visible


j d and m 1917

1917. Following the birth of her first child, our Aunt May

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.

mary gallagher

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?img_1858

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.


Filed under Family History, Ireland

10 responses to “A family treasure

  1. Margaret Phelan

    That’s a lovely article Angela. The comb is beautiful

  2. The comb looks so very Irish. Like a little crown. My grand daughter, who does Irish step dancing, wears something similar to this in appearance at times in her hair when she is all dressed up at a ‘fesh’ and dancing for competitions … I love your posts. Thank you. I am so glad for you that you have the comb!

    • It is actually English made Mary Anne. Some of the Irish dancing schools have very ornamntal dresses and hairdos alright! Thank you for the nice compliment – and thank you for dropping by! Angela

  3. Beautiful comb; and so lovely that it is cherished and remembered within your family. My aunt threw out the contents of my grandfather’s house when he died and we lost virtually all the photos and possessions of my grandmother. She considered it “junk” because it wasn’t to her taste. But heirlooms are not about monetary value or fitting in with fashion, and it is wonderful that your family appreciates that. I hope that continues down the generations.

  4. What a beautiful treasure from the past – you are fortunate to have it to pass down to your daughter! It make me think of perhaps a Spanish comb. It is sad that heirlooms get lost. You write with feeling about how and when she might have obtained it or wore it. My grandmother wore her hair piled high also but I don’t she ever had a comb as fine as this one.

    • It is indeed Spanish looking – I can imagine it with a mantilla attached! It is lovely to have it especially as she died so young. I would think that it would only stay put in very thick hair, although it is light…..but those long prongs!

  5. That’s nice SV, and it retains an air of mystery as to its journey from Reynolds & Westwood. They traded from Vyse Street, in the heart of the Jewellery Quarter (before it was known as such, of course).

  6. That’s a lovely comb! My guess is that it was purely ornamental, to be placed, like jewelry, in a chignon or bun that was held in place with traditional hair pins. How wonderful that it has stayed in your family and that you really appreciate it!

  7. That comb is exquisite – how wonderful to have inherited it. I can imagine the romance and love behind the gift. Perhaps her husband loved to pull the comb out and let her hair fall down?

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