The priest who robbed the National Museum

With March zooming off into the distance, our gratitude to St Patrick for giving us the opportunity to be an island of saints and scholars begins to wane. But no such relief was given to the saint himself. Our forebears couldn’t wait till he died before they were taking bits and pieces from his body and clothes for relics. As his teeth fell out they were snatched up, and given as sacred objects to make early Christian churches more attractive for a deeply spiritual and suspicious people, who had recently set aside their gods of nature, and embraced a more intangible Christ. An old holy tooth was just the sort of tangibility they could understand. At least one church, Cill Fiacail (‘The church of the tooth’ ) near the town of Tipperary, bears testimony to this bizarre but common practice.

About the year 1820, a man named Reilly, said to be a native of Sligo, went about Cong in Co Mayo, claiming to have the good saint’s tooth in a little shrine. He was making a tidy sum “performing cures upon man and beast”. Ladies and ewes were said to hold the relic “with special regard”, and far and near the population and the flocks “were the better of the blessed tooth.”

One day the rather eccentric Rev Patrick Prenderghast, the last Lord Abbot of Cong (the ruins of Cong Abbey are among the most beautiful in Ireland ), met Reilly and asked to show him the Fiachal-Phádraig. “Whose is this?” said the abbot. “It belonged,” said Reilly, “to the canons of Cong.” “Then,” said the abbot, “I am the last of the Augustinian canons * of that monastery, so I’ll keep it!” Much to Reilly’s horror, the abbot rode off with the relic under his arm.

The old abbot, although a good scholar and worthy man, was notoriously careless with his relics and historic bits and pieces that he collected over the years. He had a valuable collection of leather bound ancient Irish manuscripts. He went out one day leaving a tailor working in his house. The tailor saw the books, thought the quality of the vellum was fine, and sliced the covers into strips to use as ‘measures’.

Exploring Mayo

As I take up Bernard O’Hara’s wonderful book, Exploring Mayo,** I am prompted to return to the hilly town of Cong, practically on the shores of Lough Corrib and the Mask, with its numerous cafés and shops, all attracting huge summer crowds hoping for a glimpse of Mary Danaher.

There is a long dispute between cartographers and rate collectors as to which county Cong belongs. Because of its tranquility and warm character Galway, naturally, claims her. But Mayo people, whose women, it is said, reflect the beauty of Cong, have long regarded it as their own. Roughly about the same time as St Patrick came to Co Meath, St Feichin built his church and monastery in Cong, traditionally known as Cunga-Fheichín, St Feichin’s ‘Land between the two Waters.’ The powerful walls of its ruin stand as an emblem of Mayo courage.

There is no doubt in O’Hara’s mind that Cong belongs to Mayo, and he firmly places it in the heart of his book. Space only allows him a brief visit but I am sure he could have filled several books such is Cong’s extraordinary history and numerous stories, but I have a little more freedom.

As for the tooth, the abbot lent it to Mrs Blake who kept it at her home near Cong until one of the Blakes at Menlo became ill and she sent it in to work its magic. I don’t know if it worked or not, but Sir William Wilde, the famous Dublin eye and ear surgeon and antiquarian, heard the story. He was alarmed at ancient shrines being hawked hither and thither. He called on the abbot.

Fr Pat Lavelle

When Sir William called, the abbot showed him some of his treasures. There was the Cathach of the O’Donnells (a heavily gilt silver box, reputed to have contained a copy of the Vulgate of St Jerome, and carried into battle to ensure victory for the O’Donnells ); a box containing Fuil-an-Ríogh (a cloth dipped in the blood of the executed King Charles 1, believed to have healing powers ); there was the St Patrick’s tooth in a shrine.

But Sir William was amazed when he saw, stuck in the back of a cupboard, the priceless Cross of Cong. Known as the Bachall-Bhuidhe (The Yellow Crozier ). It was made in Tuam, in ornate Book of Kells style lettering, silver filigree and jewels, to contain a relic of the True Cross. It was a gift from the pope to King Turlough O’Conor in 1123.

Sir William did his best to persuade the abbot to let him take the Cross to be kept safely in the National Museum. Already, there was damage to the Cross. Sir William could see that the crystal containing the relic was missing. But the Abbot would not hear of the Cross being moved. The Cross was part of the history of Cong, it was tangible evidence of the loyalty of the church down through the centuries. It contained a piece of wood from the cross on which the Redeemer was crucified, and was displayed every Christmas and Easter attracting thousands of people from the surrounding townlands to see it and hear Mass. Sir William left empty handed.

When the abbot died renewed efforts were made to persuade his successor Father Waldron to part with the Cross. But it took a further 10 years and a storm which damaged the roof of the church in Cong, before Fr Waldron let it go. Rather than have the cost of the repair to the roof borne by his poor parishioners, Fr Waldron accepted £100 from the National Museum in exchange for the cross.

When Fr Waldron died he was succeeded in 1869 by the famous champion of tenant farmers in Co Mayo, Fr Pat Lavelle. Fr Pat understood the anger and frustration of the people, and the importance of local religious objects of devotion. When his arguments for the return of the Cross was politely rejected by the museum, he took his trap to Claremorris, the train to the Broadstone Terminus, a cab to the museum in Kildare Street, walked in, and in broad daylight smashed the case containing the Cross. He walked out with it under his coat.

He did not get very far. He was arrested, there was an argument in the street, and the Cross was returned to the museum. Fr Pat, however, returned to a tremendous welcome in Cong. He was not successful in bringing their precious relic home, but he made the point, that, despite the manner of its keeping, certain religious objects represent the living presence of God in a community, and are probably better left there.

Next week: More about the Wildes in the west.

NOTES: * Abbot Prenderghast, who had lived through the reigns of the four Georges, died in 1829. He belonged to the Augustinian canons, separate from the regular Augustinians. The Augustinian canons were united with the Lateran Congregation, and for some reason, which I don’t know, he was a lord entitled to sit in the House of Lords, London. The title and its privileges, however, died with Abbot Prenderghast, who was also the parish priest of Cong.

** Exploring Mayo , by Bernard O’ Hara, published by Killasser/Callow Heritage Society, price €20, is virtually an encyclopaedia of Mayo, with a note on every village and town, its famous sons and daughters, its historic sites and spectacular beaches, its bays and lakes, and its generous angling and sporting facilities. I am reminded of the famous Shell Guide to Ireland, by Lord Killanin and Michael V Duignan (1967 ), now sadly out of print.

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