GARDAI investigating the theft of the preserved heart of Dublin's patron saint are enhancing video images of a number of potential suspects.
Church officials now fear a "relic hunter" may be behind the theft of the heart of St Laurence O'Toole from Christ Church Cathedral last weekend.
And there are suggestions the same person may be responsible for last year's theft of the True Cross from the Holy Cross Abbey in Co Tipperary as well as the attempted theft of a relic of St Brigid from a church in Dublin.
Christ Church Cathedral spokeswoman Nuala Kavanagh said there were fears high-profile relics -- such as the head of St Oliver Plunkett which is encased in glass at St Peter's Church in Drogheda, Co Louth -- could also be targeted.
"The dean believes that these are being stolen to order," she told the Irish Independent.
Although there is no monetary value on the preserved heart, it would be of great value to collectors.
"It's black and it's weird and it's eerie," she said.
The video images being enhanced by gardai were collected from an extensive trawl of footage from CCTV cameras in the area last weekend. Senior garda officers are now satisfied that the preserved heart was stolen from an iron-barred cage in St Laud's chapel, some time between 10.30am and midday last Saturday.
They have ruled out earlier suggestions that the thief, or thieves, might have stayed overnight on Friday in the cathedral.
"The men on the camera footage could be crucial to our investigation and, at this stage, we are anxious to identify them, if only to eliminate them from our inquiries," one officer said last night.
But the motive for the theft remains a mystery. Valuable chalices and candlesticks were ignored and nothing else was missing, gardai said.
The relic was kept in a wooden, heart-shaped container, sealed within the small cage and the old bars were prised open for the robbery.
The Catholic and Protestant Archbishops of Dublin joined forces with the capital's lord mayor yesterday to launch an appeal for the return of the heart.
Catholic Archbishop and Primate of Ireland, Dr Diarmuid Martin, said St Laurence O'Toole was the principal patron of the diocese and his relic was venerated there.
He described the relic as the spiritual heart of the city, which belonged to the people of Dublin and the wider Christian community.
Both Catholic and Protestant churches had stepped up security, Ms Kavanagh confirmed.
"We need to be really careful. There's now a call on all institutions for increased security," she said.
Some churches already have security cameras in place, while others have permanent web cameras in place for live streaming of Mass.
The recent spate of relic thefts, which featured in an article this week in the 'New York Times' has made headlines around the world.
The Church of Ireland Archbishop Dr Michael Jackson said the theft had caused shock and distress -- not only in Dublin but worldwide.
"We've been inundated with calls," said Ms Kavanagh. "There is worldwide outrage."
"What we really long to see is the return of the relic, discreetly, so that it may again take its time-honoured place in the cathedral for everyone to see and use in the context of their own tradition and spirituality," Dr Jackson added.
Lord Mayor Andrew Montague said the relic belonged to the city of Dublin and it was important that it was returned to its rightful place.