Triumphal celebrations as heart is returned to cathedral
A service was held to celebrate the return to Christ Church of an 800-year-old relic, writes Liam Collins
After a sojourn of more than five years, the heart of St Laurence O'Toole was returned to Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin last Thursday evening with all the pomp and circumstance befitting an 800-year-old desiccated relic.
The cathedral had known for more than a week that the stolen heart of Dublin's patron saint had been found in the Phoenix Park. An evensong was laid on to mark the return, with choral voices soaring through plumes of incense to the high vaulted ceilings, with vergers parading through the ancient church before their Archbishop and Dean as drums and trumpets led the thanksgiving.
"Forgive us if our celebration seems triumphal," Archbishop Michael Jackson told the congregation of parishioners, the curious and the odd intrigued tourist.
Afterwards, I was among those who queued to touch the ancient heart-shaped wooden box encased in bands of iron, containing the heart, which sat on a brocaded cushion as it lay in state in the Chapel of St Laud, from where it was originally stolen.
Later, in the crypt, among other ancient stone and brass artefacts, Assistant Garda Commissioner Pat Leahy pointed to Detective Superintendent Sean Campbell, standing quietly behind a pillar, telling delighted parishioners: "You can thank him."
A modest man who has put away murderers and terrorists in his time, he declined to give any details of where the relic has been over these five years. Returned intact and undamaged, the story is that there is an "on-going investigation" and nothing more can be revealed.
"But it means a lot to me that it's back," said Det Supt Campbell. "I was born within the sound of the bells of this church. I was the lead investigator when the robbery was discovered and I've never forgotten it down through the years."
It was a big thing too for the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin Michael Jackson, and the Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Dermot Dunne. "It disappeared on their watch and now it's been returned on their watch - we're all very relieved," said an onlooker.
The relic was cut from a metal cage on March 4, 2012, by thieves who, it is believed, had hidden in the cathedral after it closed for the evening. It had a devastating effect on the church authorities, who blamed themselves for not having one of the most ancient religious relics of the city of Dublin, pre-dating the Reformation, under better security.
Investigators later believed it was stolen by criminals to use as a "bargaining chip" with gardai, as the item itself had no intrinsic value. In 2012 the Sunday World said a pair of Dublin criminals had intimated they knew where the heart could be located, but said they were not involved in stealing it themselves.
Talk of a "ransom" came to nothing and the trail went cold.
One of the more novel theories was that the relic of the saint, who died in 1180, was cursed. The theory is that the heart was stolen by a gang of Eastern European criminals who believed they could sell it back to the Cathedral. After putting out 'feelers', members of the gang were afflicted by a series of heart attacks themselves. Because of their own religious superstition, they were afraid to tamper with it and eventually offloaded to local criminals, who contacted gardai and arranged for it to be "found".
Although the relic was found in the Phoenix Park, wrapped in plastic, given that it was undamaged, it seems that this was a "drop-off" point where gardai picked it up, rather than where it had been stored.
There is nothing new about criminals stealing ancient relics, artefacts and paintings. It is often their use as part of a cat-and-mouse game between criminals and gardai and not their intrinsic value that is at stake because - like St Laurence O'Toole's heart - most of these easily identifiable items are worth nothing in monetary terms and no 'fence' would touch them because of the likely consequences.
An exception to that was the Dublin criminal Martin Cahill, known as The General, who stole a hoard of 18 valuable paintings in 1986, including works by Vermeer, Metsu, Rubens and Goya, from Russborough House near Blessington, Co Wicklow. The robbery was partly aimed at embarrassing gardai but was also carried out in the mistaken belief he could sell or barter the paintings on the 'dark' market.
"Groups such as the IRA have no need for a legitimate market; the stolen art is instead traded for its value in illicit drugs or weapons," said Brian Williams of the Online Museum of Damaged, Forged or Stolen Art. "This black-market bartering was only speculated by art crime detectives until 1993, when Scotland Yard, in a joint operation with Irish and Belgian police, set up an undercover sting and caught Irish criminals using stolen art as collateral for a loan to buy drugs in Antwerp."
Although 16 of the 18 Beit paintings were recovered by 2002, the remaining two were still believed to be buried in a bog near the Featherbeds in the Dublin Mountains.
Thieves, by their nature, can't resist stealing things that aren't nailed down. The 12th century St Manchan's shrine was stolen from Boher Church in Doon, Co Offaly, in 2012 and later recovered. Paintings by Evie Hone stolen from a church in 2013 were recovered three years later and a 14th-century cross was among items stolen from Holy Cross Abbey in Tipperary in 2011.
Maybe an Irish 'cold case unit' should now be sent to Rome to search for the heart of Daniel O'Connell, interred in a little chapel in Rome called Sant'Agata dei Goti after his death in 1847. Enclosed in an intricate silver case paid for by Bianconi, pioneer of Irish carriage travel, it is believed to have disappeared from behind a wall plaque during renovations in 1910. The disappearance of the heart was discovered in 1927 when it was proposed to move it to the present Irish College.
The disappearance of the Irish Crown Jewels from Dublin Castle is another long-running mystery that resurfaces every so often, but because of the passage of time, is never likely to be resolved. Countless ancient Celtic and other historic artefacts have also disappeared over the centuries from monastic sites and churches. Because many were never documented, these effectively now belong to whoever has them on the basis that 'possession is nine-tenths of the law.'
In 1956, a couple of Irish students stole a Morisot painting from the Tate in London to highlight Ireland's claim to the 'Lane Paintings' but it was returned within a few days.
For the Archbishop of Dublin, the return of St Laurence O'Toole's heart symbolised more than just the relic itself.
"The heart has come back into this cathedral," he said, articulating the real sense of loss caused by the pointless robbery. "This is a special piece of our history and story and now it has returned to its original home. I am truly grateful for those involved in its recovery, to the gardai for all their efforts in successfully locating the heart and safely returning it to us."
The authorities hope to have the relic of St Laurence O'Toole displayed in a dedicated area in the church by the time of his feast day, November 14, so that it will again be a place where Dubliners, visitors and pilgrims can see a relic that now has the added value of mystery.