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'Does my Granny hold the secret to who stole the Crown Jewels from Dublin Castle?'

Filmmaker Oisín Mistéil set out to answer that question in a new documentary to be aired tomorrow.

MANY FAMILIES HAVE interesting stories tucked away in their history, but Oisín Mistéil’s family has a particularly curious one: his great-great-grandmother was the cleaner who discovered the Irish Crown Jewels had been stolen from Dublin Castle.

“It was one of those stories that I would have heard in passing that my granny would have mentioned,” Mistéil tells TheJournal.ie. “And I suppose a lot of times when your parents or grandparents are talking as a child you tend to zone out, but that was something I always thought was fascinating.”

When Mistéil started working for a production company this year, the executive producer said he was thinking of doing a programme on the disappearance of the crown jewels. The jewels have never been recovered after going missing on 6 July 1907.

“I said that’s a coincidence… and it went from there,” says Mistéil of their initial conversation. That chat turned into a documentary which is set to air tomorrow on TG4. 

The documentary is on one hand a whodunnit, but more than that it’s a family story, says Mistéil. “It became more of a personal thing, because my granny got on board with it straight away. And she is really the star of the piece and it takes on a new tone with her.”

His granny, Emer Cosgrave, is the granddaughter of Mary O’Farrell, who was a cleaner at Dublin Castle under the employ of Arthur Vicars. In Dublin Castle – under Vicars’ care – was a safe that contained the crown jewels. One morning, O’Farrell turned up to work to find the safe open, and the jewels gone.

The crown jewels were created in 1831 for the Sovereign and Grand Master order of St Patrick, which was an order of knighthood established by George III. 

“She would have been in her 40s when this happened, and she had been a cook initially,” explains Mistéil. “In the late 1890s her husband was working for Guinness – he was a cooper, but had a problem with alcohol and he moved to America and died of alcoholism.

“Mary was left with the kids and couldn’t work as a cook during the day. She got this job from Arthur Vicars which meant she could work in the morning. It was tough enough for her.”

“I think of all the people who worked [in Dublin Castle] after the event, she might have been only one of a few people who got to keep her job.”

Suspicion

Source: TG4/YouTube

The eye of suspicion was cast over Vicars, and also on Frank Shackleton, the brother of explorer Ernest, but the thief has never been officially named and the jewels have never been located. 

“What we wanted to do was explore the rumours that different families heard and what different families have been left with and how varying they are,” says Mistéil. “The most common theory has always been that Frank Shackleton was the thief, but there is no hard evidence for that.”

“It is not just a straightforward history documentary – it has a more lighthearted, more of a personal touch,” he adds. “A lot of our contributors have a family connection to the story.”

“It’s all about family lore and rumours, and what people remember about what their grandparents told them.”

The documentary also examines the headlines around the case which stemmed from alleged ‘gay orgies’ at Dublin Castle, and whether Arthur Vicar was involved with them.

“People like to read the headline ‘there were gay orgies in the castle’,” says Mistéil. “Whether there’s any truth to it it’s hard to believe, you would think. At the time, if there was a hint of someone being homosexual they had to be scandalised. You weren’t just gay – you were having raging orgies in Dublin Castle. There was no in-between.”

As the experts in his documentary outline, the case highlights the homophobic attitudes of the time, driven by the then-illegality of homosexuality. 

“It’s a fascinating side of the story and certainly something that isn’t talked about that much in terms of the movement of gay rights in Ireland,” says Mistéil, adding that the sexuality of those involved played a huge role in how the case was treated in the press in particular, and also by those involved.

Family ties

It’s not many people who get to make a documentary with their 98-year-old grandmother – so has the process brought them closer?

Mistéil, who lives in Galway while Cosgrave lives in Dublin, says yes: “It has definitely, and as well for the wider family. My great granddad was a senator in his later years and was a journalist. It’s great to find out more about these more distant family members through a living family member who you grow a stronger bond with.”

“We are looking forward to having a family premiere on the 28th.”

His grandmother was “delighted” to take part. “She’s in great form for 98 years old,” says Mistéil. “She is really excited for her TV debut.”

Does he think the jewels will ever be found? “I can’t imagine they will because any of that evidence is long gone, but the only way it could ever be figured out is if they turned up some day, or some jewellery expert recognises the rubies.”

“I love the romantic idea that they are still intact sitting in an attic somewhere or hidden away in a wall, whereas other people think they were broken up. My granny and great grandfather had a theory they are back in Buckingham Palace.”

Ar Thóir na Crown Jewels will air on TG4 at 7.15pm on 28 December.

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