Early Christian book shrine caused much soul searching

State papers: debate over ownership of €2.5m artefact found in Lough Kinale

The government considered whether to claim ownership of an early Christian book shrine, valued at up to £2 million (€2.54 million), on the basis that it was found at the bottom of a State lake.

Instead, it agreed to pay the finders £100,000 (€127,000), according to documents contained in the 1986 State Papers.

A memo to government, brought by taoiseach Garret FitzGerald on December 16th, 1986 and contained in the attorney general’s file, sought additional funding for the National Museum to buy the shrine.

The memo said it had been found six months earlier by a group of divers in Lough Sheelin, Co Cavan. It emerged later that the shrine had actually been found at the bottom of Lough Kinale, near Lough Sheelin.


It described the object as box-shaped, possibly from the 7th century, and made of wood covered in gilt bronze. “The front of the shrine is almost intact and it bears a cross, possibly of gilt bronze, decorated with five bosses, each containing a setting of coloured glass or garnet.”

The back plate was “plain and incomplete” and the sides were “silver or tinned bronze plates”.

The memo said it pre-dated other shrines in the national collection by 500 years.

Important piece

“The importance of the piece and its decoration will have a far-reaching effect on many diverse aspects of the archaeology and art history of the period,” it said.

The director of antiquities at the National Museum “strongly recommended” payment and said the item could fetch £2 million (€2.54 million) on the open market.

In a letter to the taoiseach’s department, director of the museum, Breandán Ó Ríordáin, described the object as “most important” and said the sum being asked for the shrine was “not excessive”.

“The find is of immense importance, having major implications for the dating and provenancing of other metalwork and manuscripts of the period,” Ó Ríordáin’s letter said.

He said representatives of the museum had been asked to sign a contract before taking the object into safekeeping, but had refused.

The memo also said attorney general John Rogers had advised the State that it might claim ownership rights to the object based on the fact that it was found on State property.

“A payment by the National Museum, which was strictly made ex-gratia, would not, in law, defeat any rights of the State to ownership,” Rogers advised.

FitzGerald said that in view of the value and importance of the object, he wished to see it purchased and sought, “as an exceptional measure”, the additional funding.

Funding approved

The government approved the funding and the book shrine subsequently went on display for six months, immersed in a tank of water.

Parts of the Lough Kinale Shrine are on display at the National Museum, but the front panel is still undergoing conservation. Assistant keeper Dr Paul Mullarkey, who is carrying out the work, has said it will be a couple more years before it is available for display.

Fiona Gartland

Fiona Gartland

Fiona Gartland is a crime writer and former Irish Times journalist