Ireland’s priceless treasure hidden by monks

Ireland’s priceless treasure hidden by monks

“Go up there and dip your finger in the holy water – it’s always full,” the farmer insisted on the way to the island of Derrynaflan. I was lucky enough to meet him as there was no sign directing me down a rocky path to this sacred place, mostly known only to locals.

Derrynaflan is not a typical island. This tiny 44 hectare privately owned hilltop in Ireland’s largest landlocked country is not surrounded by an ocean or a lake. Unusually, he emerges from the swamps of Lurgoe in Tipperary’s vast brown swampy peatlands like a vibrant green mirage. Even so, by lexicon standards it is an island it categorically is.

I had come to this remote moorland to see where Ireland’s earliest Hermetic monks, dating back to the 6th century, found solitude. While most of Europe reeled in the post-Roman disorder of the Middle Ages, the land of saints and scholars (as Ireland became widely known) bucked the trend by entering a remarkable golden age of scholasticism and artistic achievement, characterized by monastic settlements such as Ireland was coined Derrynaflan.

But what is particularly interesting about Derrynaflan is the priceless buried treasure that was probably left here by the monks. Discovered just a few decades ago, it changed Irish law and emerged as one of the most exciting archaeological finds in the history of Irish art.

Not to disturb the munching oxen, I gently climbed the short 200m to the ethereal ruins that still crown the island today. At the top, I wandered into the remains of a 12th-century abbey that replaced an earlier monastery. A soft apricot-colored evening light streamed through paneless windows onto a long-dead altar. Two blunt stone vessels were all that remained. One – a medieval bullaun (bowl) stone – was actually hollowed out enough to collect the farmer’s promised ‘sacred’ (rain) water. I have blessed myself agnostic as instructed.

An information board at the Abbey revealed that Derrynaflan has much more to offer than meets the eye. Controversially, the little-known mystical landmass rose to international archaeological fame in 1980, when a father and son from the town of Clonmel, some 25km away, used amateur metal detectors to unearth an ornate cup and plate.