Monday 18 June 2018

Hearts, heads and a holy hat: Ireland's keepers of religious relics reveal all

The stolen heart of St Laurence O'Toole grabbed headlines - but it's far from Ireland's only religious artefact. Here, our reporter finds out what these relics mean to the devout, and meets the keepers of a priest's hat with mysterious powers

Healing: Anne and Michael Forde, custodians of Father Moore's hat. Photo: Fran Veale
Healing: Anne and Michael Forde, custodians of Father Moore's hat. Photo: Fran Veale
Tommy Burns, historian and expert on the life of St Oliver Plunkett, stands in front of the saint's head which is displayed at St Peter's church in Drogheda. Photo: Arthur Carron
The heart of St Laurence O'Toole which was returned to Christchurch Cathedral in Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Niamh Wycherley, author of The Cult of Relics in Early Medieval Ireland. Photo: Tony Gavin

Alex Meehan

Mention the subject of relics to any Irish person of a certain age, and the odds are that the first thing they'll think of is Father Ted and the Holy Stone of Clonrichert. But for the devout, religious relics are an important focus of their faith and not a joking matter.

All over the country, relics of greater or lesser importance are venerated, but it's only occasionally that one makes it into the headlines. Last month the heart of the patron saint of Dublin, St Laurence O'Toole, was returned to Christ Church Cathedral, having been stolen six years ago in mysterious circumstances.

Kept in a wooden heart-shaped container and sealed within an iron cage, the relic was stolen in March 2012, when a thief stayed in the cathedral overnight in order to cut the bars of the cage and carry off the heart.

Despite valuable silver being present, nothing else was taken, and it's thought the relic was specifically targeted.

Tommy Burns, historian and expert on the life of St Oliver Plunkett, stands in front of the saint's head which is displayed at St Peter's church in Drogheda. Photo: Arthur Carron
Tommy Burns, historian and expert on the life of St Oliver Plunkett, stands in front of the saint's head which is displayed at St Peter's church in Drogheda. Photo: Arthur Carron

It was recovered by Gardaí in the Phoenix Park and handed back to Archbishop of Dublin and Glendalough Michael Jackson by Assistant Garda Commissioner Pat Leahy in a special ceremony in the cathedral.

"Laurence left the monastic city of Glendalough, of which he was Abbot, to become Archbishop of Dublin, hence cementing a vibrant relationship that continues unabated to this day," said Jackson. "For those of us associated with the life of the dioceses, the return of his heart brings again to the fore the close relationship between Glendalough and Dublin, a relationship of more than 800 years."

The crime is thought to be connected to a number of other suspicious thefts of relics in recent years. A 14th-century crucifix supposedly containing fragments of the 'true cross' was stolen from Holy Cross Abbey in Co Tipperary in 2011 and recovered the following year, while St Manchan's Shrine - a yew wood and bronze box dating from the 12th century which contains the relics of St Manchan, stolen from Ballycumber, Co Offaly, in June 2012 - was also recovered shortly afterwards.

There is a long and colourful history of the veneration of relics in Ireland, and while St Laurence O'Toole's heart is among the best-known of those relics, many others exist and are housed in the National Museum and in churches around the country, as well as in private hands.

Many are a grim reminder of the persecution of Catholics that took place in times gone by. Take St Oliver Plunkett's head, currently housed in a reliquary in St Peter's Church in Drogheda, where it is on display to both tourists and the devout.

Plunkett was the Catholic Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland in the 17th century, but was persecuted by the English and eventually arrested and tried for treason in London. Today parts of the saint can be found in dioceses in Britain, Germany and further afield. The reason? He was hung, drawn and quartered in 1681 and his body split up.

The heart of St Laurence O'Toole which was returned to Christchurch Cathedral in Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
The heart of St Laurence O'Toole which was returned to Christchurch Cathedral in Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

"There has always been a tradition in Catholicism of preserving relics, going back to Roman times when bodies were stored in catacombs. There has been a tradition of setting relics into altars, particularly when they came from the body of a martyr," says Tommy Burns, historian and expert on the life of St Oliver Plunkett.

"The major part of Plunkett's body was buried in London, but it was moved. His head eventually came to Drogheda in 1921 and has been there since.

"It has a long history and, at one point, was secretly kept by a group of nuns in the town during penal times. Thousands of people come to venerate it and offer prayers, remembering of course that in the Catholic tradition we don't pray to saints directly - rather we pray for them to intercede with God on our behalf."

According to historian Niamh Wycherley, author of The Cult of Relics in Early Medieval Ireland, venerating relics is common around the world.

"It's age old and widespread. There was no particular time in history when it began and it'll never end. From all my studies of relics, it seems to just be something in human nature that manifests itself in different ways," she says.

The Catholic Church adopted the use of relics from the earliest days after the death of Christ, but relics have always been important, according to Wycherley.

The heart of St Laurence O'Toole which was returned to Christchurch Cathedral in Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
The heart of St Laurence O'Toole which was returned to Christchurch Cathedral in Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

"In Catholicism, they're the physical manifestation of the cult of the saint, and they give people a tangible connection to the saint they're praying to. The saint is someone who lived on Earth but, through their good deeds, is now in heaven and can act as a go-between with God and the people on Earth," she says.

"A believer could pray to the saint and they might perform a miracle through interceding with God. If the believer had a relic, or was in the presence of a relic, that would intensify the connection between them and that saint, so if you were in really dire need, that was thought to be really helpful."

According to Wycherley, the most significant Irish relics remaining today from medieval times are those on display in the National Museum on Kildare Street in Dublin.

"They're really the most precious we have. St Patrick's Bell and the shrine it was stored in, as well as the Cathach of St Columba, are both on display. The interesting thing is that often the relic itself is fairly worthless from a secular point of view. It might be a book or a bell or a body part, or something like that - valuable to the believer, but not otherwise," she says.

"However, it was common in the Middle Ages, at the height of the cult of the relic, for wealthy people to commission shrines and storage cases, to house the relic, that were themselves great works of art. They featured gold, silver and precious jewels."

The organisers of a nationwide tour of the casket containing the remains of St Theresa of Lisieux in 2001 claimed the relic was seen by three million people. It's unlikely such an event would draw crowds like that today, but Wycherley says many of us are still making pilgrimages, even if they aren't religious ones.

"People go to Graceland to visit the tomb of Elvis, to Moscow to see Lenin, or to Père Lachaise in Paris to see Jim Morrison's grave," she says. "Their lives were meaningful to people, and visiting them allows people to feel closer to them."

There is also still folk tradition at work in Ireland, with a surprising number of relics in private hands. One of note is a silk chimney hat in Co Westmeath reputed to have healing properties and to have been owned by the 19th-century priest Fr John Moore.

"There's someone here to visit the hat nearly every day. It's extremely popular. It belonged to Fr John Moore, who died when he was 47, and he left it in our family to be handed down through the generations," says Anne Forde.

Along with her husband, Michael, Anne is one of the current custodians of the hat. The object has been in the family since Fr Moore's death in March 1826 and has been in their personal care for over 30 years.

"There are many cures attributed to Fr Moore, but the story of the hat is interesting. The Forde family owned a forge a long time ago, and Fr Moore rode a horse and would come to get his horse shod. One day, great-grandfather Forde had a very bad headache and asked for the priest to come and bless his head. Fr Moore couldn't come but sent his hat instead, and it seems to have cured the headache," says Anne.

After that, Fr Moore left the hat with the family and it's been an object of veneration ever since.

"The family tried to give the hat back after it first cured great-grandfather Forde's headache but Fr Moore said, 'No, leave it with the family.' He left instructions for it to be left on a specific dresser near the door. This was in an old thatched cottage and that's where the hat stayed until 30 years ago, when the cottage was sold. Obviously, we couldn't leave the hat so it came to our house."

Anne Forde feels it's important to say that the family doesn't charge for access to the hat. It is closely associated with a nearby holy well, also known as Fr Moore's Well. The priest is said to have blessed the well and some of his reputed healing powers passed into it. "Fr John Moore lived in Rathbride in Kildare and that's where his well is. People flock to that," Forde says. "There's someone there every day, and nearly every day we have someone here at the house looking to see the hat, hold it, maybe wear it and say a prayer." What kind of ailments are these pilgrims seeking relief from? "People mostly come with depression and illnesses of the head, as well as other misfortunes. We're very careful to tell them not to stop taking prescribed medication and that they should listen to their doctor, but we often hear later on that the person was cured," says Anne. "People do tell me it works and that it makes them feel great. It's a spiritual thing, not a material thing, so if people get relief from it, why not?"

She describes the family's relationship with the local Catholic parish and clergy as very amicable, but also says this wasn't always the case. "The local church are fine now, but years ago they weren't too keen on it for some reason."

Being entrusted with the care of the hat clearly means a lot to Anne and Michael. "We're very protective of Fr Moore's hat; it's a treasure. We used to bring it around the country to various hospitals when people would ring and ask for it because they had sick family members. We did that when we were younger but we're older people now, and it's hard work going from Tallaght to Kilkenny and then to Galway, for example. We can't be doing that anymore, but people are welcome to come to the house for it.

"It's a good thing to have in the family and it's part of the tradition. I feel privileged to have the chance to look after it in our lifetime and it will be passed down to one of our family - we have two boys and a girl - and it will stay in the Forde name."

So while attempting to heal an illness with one of Padre Pio's gloves - or turning to a relic of St Anthony to try to find something that's been lost - might now be a rarity, the practice of venerating relics, it seems, is likely to go on.

 

What makes a relic?

Different religions have different definitions of just what makes a relic special, but in Catholicism relics are usually made up of the physical remains of a saint or the personal effects of someone known for being unusually good. Today they're divided up into class one, two and three relics.

A first-class relic is the body or fragments of the body of a saint, such as pieces of bone or flesh. Second-class relics are something that a saint personally owned, such as a shirt or book, or parts of those items.

A third-class relic could be something that a saint merely touched or even something that has been touched off a first-, second- or another third-class relic of a saint.

 

The appeal of Padre Pio

Perhaps the most recently canonised saint to inspire devotion in Ireland, St Padre Pio was an Italian Capuchin priest who died in 1968 and was raised to sainthood in 2002 by Pope John Paul II. Best known for exhibiting stigmata - bleeding from wounds supposedly positioned where Jesus Christ was crucified - he inspires an unusual level of devotion in Ireland.

"People can identify with Padre Pio, because he only died in 1968. He lived in the modern era, unlike a lot of saints. You can see him on YouTube and there are plenty of colour photographs of him," says Fr Bryan Shortall, a Capuchin priest based in St Michan's Parish in Dublin.

"The stigmata appeared on his body around 1918. He prayed to feel the sufferings of Christ in the hope that this would enable him to identify with the suffering of others around him. It was a kind of gift that very few holy men and women are given."

Because Padre Pio bled from his hands and feet and from his side, he was bandaged daily and he wore fingerless mittens on his hands for hygiene reasons. These were changed regularly and over time they developed a reputation of allowing devotees to get spiritually closer to Pio. There are many examples of these mittens around the world, with some kept in Ireland and lent out to people who wish to pray for the recovery of sick relatives while holding them.

"People like to pray while holding a mitten or an item of his clothing - I suppose because they feel that it brings them closer to him and helps them. It's probably no different from a young person treasuring a jersey from a football player they admire," says Shortall.

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