AN Irish gang, who gardai believe to be members of the Travelling community and which has been linked to the international trade of rhino horns for the Chinese market, is suspected of the theft of the preserved heart of St Laurence O'Toole.
The 890-year-old relic was stolen last month from Dublin's Christ Church Cathedral by two men, who prised open the cage that had protected the relic and had been in place since the Middle Ages.
It follows the theft of a silver press, containing a relic said to be of St Brigid, from the church of the same name in Killester, Dublin, on January 30 and the stealing last October of a piece of the "true Cross" from Holycross Abbey in Thurles. The latter was returned in January.
Gardai investigating possible links between the reliquary thefts in Ireland are understood to have established a connection with a gang suspected of involvement in the highly lucrative theft of rhinoceros horn, which is sold in powdered form as a traditional medicine in China.
As a result of the rhinoceros horn thefts, museums and other institutions around the world have been replacing their exhibits with fake fibreglass replicas, two of which apparently fooled thieves.
There are now growing concerns about the vast amount of religious relics on public display throughout Europe in the light of the theft of St Laurence O'Toole's heart in Dublin. Gardai are trying to establish if the gang have found yet another niche market for stolen relics. They are in contact with other European police forces.
The dean of Christ Church Dublin, the Very Rev Dermot Dunne, said yesterday the theft of the St Laurence relic "felt like part of the fabric of the cathedral has gone". He said it had evoked a lot sympathy among the public who had expressed the hope that it would be returned safely.
Dean Dunne said that while he was mystified as to who might have stolen the relic, he had done some research online and had found there is a market for "class one" relics, which are reputedly the remains of real saints. The markets seems to be in the Americas and the Far East.
Irish gangs have been involved in the theft of antiques for more than two generations, firstly targeting big country houses. During the Eighties and Nineties many Irish houses were stripped of antiques and examples of fine Irish Georgian silver, which were shipped to Britain and then further into Europe to be sold at antique fairs.
Some of these gangs, which target specialist markets in stolen antiques and artefacts, have links with other international gangs catering for collectors who are prepared to buy stolen goods.
A spokesman for Ecclesiastical Insurance in the UK said that the theft of artefacts and more particularly lead roof flashing from churches in England had reached "epidemic proportions" in the past three years.