Tuesday 20 March 2018

A lesson for us Dubs in theft of relic we didn't know we had

MOST Dubliners didn't know we had it until we lost it. That's the sad reality of the shrine containing the heart of St Laurence O'Toole.

Once it was stolen we learned it had been one of the most popular tourist attractions in our capital city. And we began to learn about the city's patron saint and second archbishop, who founded Christ Church Cathedral in the 12th century, along with Strongbow, one of the Norman invaders who helped turn Dublin into a great city.

Ascetic and vegetarian, was how one historian described O'Toole, the man who died and was buried in France, but whose heart was returned to his home city in a gesture awash in symbolism.

It took the theft of that heart, last week, to remind us of just how much Laurence O'Toole mattered.


Up to then, Dubliners had never registered the importance of a shrine with eight centuries of visitation to its credit -- a shrine with links to a Christian tradition of relics and reliquaries going back to the earliest days of the Church. (One European king, in the Middle Ages, had a room in his palace filled with bones of saints.)

Our initial reaction to the news of the missing heart was dismissive. Almost a "did I hear that right?" puzzlement, and then a shrug. It seemed so daft, it couldn't be true. Or if it was true, it wasn't important.

Then we began to try to stick sense on to what seemed a nonsensical act. Maybe, we speculated out loud, maybe what the thieves were after was the block of metal in which the heart was contained. Sure, aren't they nicking metal off every gutter these days because of how prices for scrap metal have soared?

The scrap metal theory, while attractive in explaining the otherwise inexplicable, didn't hold up under scrutiny. The thief or thieves had come equipped with a strong metal cutter all right -- in order to chop through the sturdy cage containing the relic.

But they didn't take the cage with them, and the heart-shaped container within, although it looks like metal, in fact is wood, almost fossilised by time. So, whatever motivated the robber, it wasn't the prospect of getting money for old metal. The alternative theory is that this was a religious fanatic or a mercenary hired by such a religious fanatic. That the thief lit candles before he (or she) departed the cathedral seems to point to a certain twisted religiosity, but then, even if they were a hired hand, the fanatic who paid them might have stipulated the use of the candles in a weird gesture of respect.

Which serves as another reminder of what we in Dublin have almost forgotten: that no matter how casually non-religious we have become, each generation produces a minority of believers who take the Bible literally, and who invest relics with a magical significance, whether those relics are splinters of wood alleged to have originated in the cross on which Christ was crucified or the remarkably preserved body of St Therese, the "little flower" of Lisieux.


It might be easy to mock such belief. And that might be counter-productive. Because, if we want the heart of St Laurence O'Toole's heart returned to the shrine, allowing 800 years worth of visitors to connect with a major historical and religious figure, portraying the thief as a religious headbanger is not the way to open negotiations. For generations of (mostly non-Dublin) visitors, St Laurence O'Toole's heart has carried a significance us native Dubs largely missed. Maybe, despite the weirdness of the theft, it carries a lesson for us. A lesson best summed up in the old Joni Mitchell song: "You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone."

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