A man and his son used metal detectors to unearth one of the most exciting archaeological finds in Irish art history on Tipperary’s Derrynaflan Island.
“Go up there and dip your finger in the holy water – it’s always full,” the farmer insisted on his way to Derrynaflan Island. I was fortunate to run into him because there was no signage directing me along a stony path to this sacred spot, which was mostly known only to locals.
Derrynaflan is not your average island. This tiny 44-acre privately owned mound in Ireland’s largest inland county is not surrounded by water. It appears as a vibrant green mirage from the Bog of Lurgoe in Tipperary’s vast brown swampy peatlands. Nonetheless, it is categorically an island, according to the dictionary.
I’d travelled to this remote bogland to see where Ireland’s first hermetic monks sought solitude beginning in the 6th century. While most of Europe was mired in the post-Roman chaos of the Dark Ages, the land of saints and scholars (as Ireland became known) defied the trend by entering a remarkable golden age of scholasticism and artistic achievement, typified by monastic settlements such as Derrynaflan.
But what makes Derrynaflan so intriguing is the priceless buried treasure that the monks are likely to have left here. It changed Irish law and turned out to be one of the most exciting archaeological finds in the history of Irish art when it was discovered only a few decades ago.
I gently climbed a short 200m to the ethereal ruins that still crown the island today, taking care not to disturb the munching bullocks. At the summit, I wandered into the ruins of a 12th-century abbey that had replaced an earlier monastery. A soft apricot evening light streamed through pane-less windows onto a long-gone altar. All that remained were two stumpy stone vessels. One, a mediaeval bullaun (bowl) stone, had been hollowed out sufficiently to collect the farmer’s promised “holy” water (rain) water. As instructed, I blessed myself agnostically.
An information sign at the abbey revealed that Derrynaflan is much more than meets the ecclesiastical eye. The little-known mystical landmass shot to international archaeology fame in 1980, when a father and son from the nearby town of Clonmel unearthed an intricately decorated cup and plate using hobby metal detectors.
The “cup” was actually a chalice from the ninth century. According to Nessa O’Connor, curator and archaeologist at the National Museum of Ireland, the “plate” is an 8th-century paten used for holding the bread during the eucharist in Ireland’s mediaeval church. “They are elite objects with a very, very high level of craftsmanship created at the pinnacle of the early Irish church,” she explained.
According to O’Connor, the silver chalice and paten are decorated with outstanding examples of ancient Celtic goldsmithing. Fine interlaced gold-wire work known as “filigree” is illustrated on postage stamp-sized intricate art scenes around the edge of the paten in an Irish style. The paten is also the only surviving example of its kind from early mediaeval Western Europe.
The combination of the objects is unique… it’s a complete altar set
A wine strainer and stand (for the paten) rounded out a priceless collection of Insular Art (shared art style in Ireland and Britain around 600 to 900 CE, heavily influenced by the expansion of the Irish monastic tradition). “The combination of the objects is one-of-a-kind… It’s an entire altar set “During Viking raids and the dynastic turmoil of the 10th to 12th centuries, burying valuables was common, according to O’Connor. “It appears to have been purposefully deposited [by the monks] at a time of high risk.” Archaeologists have meticulously surveyed the island since, and nothing else has been discovered, she added.
The Derrynaflan Hoard, along with other exceptional finds from the Insular Art period, can now be seen at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin. The Ardagh Chalice, discovered in 1868 by a young man digging potatoes near Ardagh in County Limerick. O’Connor compared its artistry and style to the elaborately illustrated Book of Kells, which is considered “Ireland’s greatest cultural treasure” by Trinity College Dublin, where it is on display.
Boglands’ natural conditions have proven to be extraordinarily effective at preserving ancient artefacts. Because of the soil’s low temperature, lack of oxygen, and high acidity, organic matter can survive for thousands of years. A 3,000-year-old butter keg was discovered in an Irish peat bog. Hair and nails have been discovered on bodies dating back more than 2,000 years. However, before you start thinking about getting rich quick by treasure hunting, keep in mind that Ireland has some of the most stringent laws in Europe regarding metal detecting and excavation – and it was the Derrynaflan treasure discovery that tightened them, according to Sharon Greene, archaeologist and editor of Archaeology Magazine.