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by Gordon Kingston, Heritage Action

The Derrynaflan Chalice - Image by Kglavin (Wikimedia Commons)

The Derrynaflan Chalice – Image by Kglavin (Wikimedia Commons)

One swallow does not a summer make, nor one fine day, nor does one shining, glorious hoard make up for all the information lost, or heritage sold.

It’s been interesting to observe the goings-on in Staffordshire, from an Irish viewpoint. Unlicensed metal detecting has been illegal here since 1987 and oddly, it was the finding of an item worthy of the hoard, the chalice at Derrynaflan, and the subsequent demand of millions for it, that prompted the legislation in the first place. What’s the name for that? Grabbing something that already belongs to someone else and demanding money to give it back? Kidnapping? A recent Irish Times article quotes Professor Muiris Ó Súilleabháin, senior lecturer in the school of archaeology at UCD:

“Although many individuals were highly responsible, it was not unknown for archaeologists to discover holes dug into monuments in search of potential treasure pinpointed by metal detectors… It had been a close shave (referring to The Supreme Court decision against the awarding of €5.5 million for the chalice) and it was in this atmosphere that the 1987 National Monuments (Amendment) Act was passed as a stop-gap initiative to prevent a free-for-all.”

In the wake of the publicity given to this Staffordshire discovery, however, it was only a matter of time before someone here in Ireland would start to mutter, about similar opportunities being prevented by our  “prohibitive” legislation:

“I think that 90 per cent of people who go metal detecting do it because of a love of history and not for monetary gain… I think there would be a lot more involved in Ireland were it not for the laws.” says an amateur treasure hunter in the same feature.

You know, I think that a lot of people would do a lot of things if they weren’t against the law, but then, that’s the point of laws. The good of the whole of society and so on. And this noble detector angle, with human nature being what it is? I’m sorry. We love a short cut, or an easy euro and as soon as the whistle blew there’d be spades flying into every cased ancient monument in the country. Where’d you get it history lover? Oh, in a field?

No. We might miss the occasional swallow, but the preservation of all of our resource is more important than that. Things, I think, are best left the way that they are.

“The bottom line here is that if you dig out a find from a site, you destroy part of the heritage of Ireland.”
– Eamonn Kelly, keeper of Irish antiquities at the National Museum of Ireland


October 2009

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