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File photo of the Heart of Saint Laurence O'Toole relic and reliquary. Garda Press Office

Ireland's ancient relics - what are they and how have they survived?

From their religious classification to the clues they provide archaeologists about Ireland’s chieftains and kings, here’s your guide to Irish relics.

A SAINT’S HEART and fragments of the ‘true cross’ were just two of the high-profile relics thefts in Ireland last year.

Decorative crosses said to contain fragments of the cross on which Jesus was crucified were stolen from Holy Cross Abbey in Co Tipperary in October 2011. The items, made from silver, gold and bronze, were later recovered and had not been seriously damaged.

The preserved heart of Saint Laurence O’Toole was stolen from Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin city in March. The relic, dating from the 12th century, has not been recovered despite repeated appeals. Meanwhile, a relic known as the Precious Shrine of St Manchan was stolen from a church in Boher, Co Offaly, and was recovered shortly afterwards by gardaí.

But what is a relic?

The word relic comes from the Latin word ‘reliquiae’, meaning ‘remains’ or ‘something left behind’, while a reliquary is a shrine that houses a relic, or relics.

According to Catholic Church doctrine, a relic is a physical and personal memorial of a saint and relics are classified according to a grading system. That system considers corporeal relics (ie a saint’s body parts) as being of a higher ‘grade’ than associative relics (such as a saint’s clothing):

  • A first class relic is one associated directly either with Jesus’ life (ie a piece of the true cross) or the physical remains of a saint. Generally, a martyr’s relics are more highly venerated than those of other saints. A body part which specifically related to a saint’s life is more prized as a relic.
  • A second class relic is an item that the saint wore or frequently used, such as rosary beads or a prayer book.
  • A third class relic is any object that has been touched by a first or second class relic.

Relics, and their veneration, are reminders of the lives of the saints and are supposed to point worshippers in the direction of God.

“I suppose saints are primarily given as examples of how to live,” explains Tommy Burns, author and expert on St Oliver Plunkett. “We ask for their intercession on our behalf in praying to God. So the relics and blessed objects are venerated in the sense that we don’t expect miracles from them, but they are an important element of practising our faith.”

Under Canon Law, the sale of relics is strictly forbidden. Canon Law also states that relics “of great sigjnificance” or which are “honoured with great reverence by the people” cannot be transferred on a permanent basis without permission from the Holy See.

How have ancient relics survived in Ireland?

“One of the most characteristic things about relics in Ireland is that they tend to have been preserved by what are known as ‘hereditary keepers’,” the National Museum‘s Head of Collections Raghnall Ó Floinn said.

“There were families who were entrusted with relics from the Middle Ages and the time of the Reformation. Because there was no official Catholic Church in Ireland, many relics were damaged or destroyed at the time, while others hidden or entrusted to families were passed down from generation to generation. There are a couple we can trace back from the 19th century to the 12th century, such as St Patrick’s Bell.”

The family entrusted with the bell had their name inscribed on the bell’s shrine (or protective container), which dates from around 1100.

“The bell and its shrine were still with that family when they entered the public collection – that’s an exceptional continuity there,” Ó Floinn said. “In other cases, we know the names of the families because the items were acquired by collectors such as George Petrie.” (Petrie was a highly-regarded archaeologist and collector of antiquities in the 19th century. His wide collection of Irish antiquities was later bought from his family by the Irish government.)

There was a “changing of the guard” in the management and ownership of relics in the 19th century, as collectors increasingly acquired items entrusted to private families for their preservation. However, others have been held by religious communities for centuries.

St Oliver Plunkett’s head is one of the best-known and most-visited relics in Ireland. The relic is housed at St Peter’s Church in Drogheda, while other parts of his remains are venerated in dioceses in England and Germany.

“St Oliver’s poor body leant itself to relics because it was hung, drawn and quartered,” Tommy Burns told “So different communities have different relics from his body.”

Plunkett was executed in July 1681. Although his head was thrown on a fire, it was quickly recovered by some of his companions and taken to Rome. Decades later, it was returned to Ireland and secretly stored in a special casket in a grandfather clock by Dominican nuns at the Siena convent in Drogheda for safekeeping during years of Catholic persecution in Ireland.

“Because of penal times, he was largely forgotten about here,” Burns said. “The Irish church wasn’t thinking about specific martyrs at the time, it was trying to live from hand to mouth. It was only later there was a resurgence of interest in St Oliver.”

St Oliver Plunkett’s head in its shrine in Drogheda, Co Louth. (Image: IrishFireside/Flickr/Creative Commons)

Among the National Museum’s collection of relics, Ó Floinn says that the most important are the Cathach of St Columba (a book shrine said to contain a fragment of the psalms which dates to around 600AD; the manuscript is thought to have been written by St Columba) and the Bell of St Patrick.

The hand bell would have been used to call monks to prayer and is traditionally believed to have belong to St Patrick. “The bell can’t be dated really,” says Ó Floinn, “but its jewelled cover was made in the 11th century, and at that time it was believed to have belonged to St Patrick.”

The Irish relics and reliquaries are seen by historians and archaeologists as unique records of traditional metalworking, and can provide invaluable information about former kings and chieftains – and their patronage:

A lot of the Irish reliquaries have actual inscriptions on them so they give the names of the individuals who had them made, like Brian Boru’s son for example. He had a covering made for one of the book shrines. Sometimes these people are otherwise not mentioned in records and it means that we can fix them in a particular time or place through the inscription.

Are more likely to show up?

Because of the reverence and veneration associated with the relics and the reliquaries, many were not sold off or melted down as other valuable metal objects have been through the years.

“You wouldn’t have much in the line of secular silver plating from the Middle Ages because when you’re strapped for cash, you literally sell the family silver for melting and reusing,” Ó Floinn said.

Most of the items which turn up unexpectedly from that period now tend to be things like swords or axes and Ó Floinn said it is unlikely that there are many valuable relics which remain unaccounted for. A bishop’s staff was found in Lismore Castle, Co Waterford during renovations of the property in the early 19th century. The crosier, which bears an inscription linking it to an 11th-century abbot in Lismore, was apparently blocked up in part of the old mediaeval castle for safekeeping during the Middle Ages.

Lismore Castle, Co Waterford. (Image: jmenard48/Flickr/Creative Commons)

The most recent to have been accidentally discovered were a book shrine found in fragments by divers in Lough Kinale, Co Longford in the 1980s and another one found by a Lough Erne fisherman around 1900.

However, a number of relics which were recorded in ordinance survey research during the 1830s remain unaccounted for and it is possible that they were passed to other families or collectors since – or were taken out of the country by people emigrating in the Famine years. Ó Floinn says that there are no known cases of this happened to valuable Irish relics, but it is a possibility.

“There are a number [of relics] in our collection which came in without any history,” he adds. “So the question is, are some of these items the same as those documented in the 1830s and which changed hands before they were recorded by the museum, or are they completely different relics?”

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Metal thefts: sculptures and artefacts stolen around Ireland >

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