Stolen treasure: The Coggalbeg Hoard

Gold Lunula, Discs
The Coggalbeg hoard (© National Museum of Ireland)

The remarkable tale of the Coggalbeg hoard. This story begins in March 1945 when a Roscommon farmer, Mr Hubert Lannon, was cutting turf on his bog in the west of Ireland.  As he sliced through the dark peaty soil a flash of gold suddenly caught his eye. Bending down for a closer inspection he slowly uncovered a hoard of golden treasure. It consisted of a beautiful gold lunula and two gold discs, which had lain hidden in the depths of the bog for over 4,000 years. Hubert carefully gathered the precious items together and then brought them home for safe keeping.

The largest item in the newly discovered hoard was a beautiful gold lunula. This exquisitely made gold collar was shaped like a crescent moon. Flat and thin, it had been fashioned out of hammered sheet gold and was decorated in inscribed motifs. An item of great prestige it was probably originally worn around the neck. Lunulae, such as this one, appear to be a distinctively insular form of jewellery, with the vast majority of the 100 or so known examples coming from Ireland. They are a striking testament to the metal working skills of our Early Bronze Age ancestors.

Gold Lunula, Discs
The lunula (© National Museum of Ireland)

The Roscommon lunula was also accompanied by two gold discs that were similarly made from sheet gold. These objects were decorated with a cross motif surrounded by a double circle. This was the first time lunula and discs had been found together. Indeed, the distinctive shapes of these objects led some experts to suggest that they may represent stylised moon and sun symbols. Why they were buried together in a bog remains uncertain, but it is possible that they represented an offering to some prehistoric deity. This deposition of precious objects in watery places is characteristic of much of Irish prehistory.

The gold discs (© National Museum of Ireland)

In 1947, for reasons still uncertain, Hubert Lannon handed these golden objects over to Mr Patrick Sheenan, a pharmacist in the town of Strokestown, Co. Roscommon. It appears that neither man fully appreciated the value of the artefacts and the National Museum of Ireland was not notified of their existence. Instead, Mr. Sheenan placed the artefacts in his family safe where they were to remain hidden for the next 50 years, only occasionally being brought out and shown to curious visitors.

Once more hidden from the public eye, the hoard was to remain concealed in the safe until one fateful night in 2009. Under the cover of darkness, on March 27th, two Dublin men broke into the pharmacy. Looking for drugs and money they soon uncovered the safe and dragged it out to an awaiting getaway car. Discovering the break-in the next morning the Sheehan’s immediately contacted the Gardaí and informed them that the stolen safe contained three unusual pieces of jewellery. From the description provided by the family the Gardaí suspected that the stolen gold may be of some antiquity and the National Museum’s Irish Antiquities Division was contacted.

Good detective work by the Gardaí saw them to quickly track down the perpetrators of the robbery to a Dublin city hideout. Admitting their part in the crime, the two thieves indicated that the files from the safe had been dumped in a nearby rubbish skip. Amazingly they had discarded the papers not realising that these seemingly worthless documents actually contained hidden treasure. Due to the thin nature of the gold objects and their extremely light weight (c. 78 g) they had lain undiscovered within a large brown envelope. The Gardaí swiftly secured the skip and then waited while its smelly contents were ‘excavated’.  Fortunately they soon identified the papers from the safe and the envelope containing the gold objects was retrieved. These precious items were then handed over to curators from the National Museum of Ireland, who cleaned and cataloged them. Shortly afterwards the lunula and discs were put on display in the Museum of Country Life, Turlough Park, Castlebar, Co. Mayo. Their 4,000 year sojourn in darkness had finally come to an end.

The hoard being unveiled at the Museum of Country Life



Further reading

Safe Secrets: the story of the Coogalbeg Hoard

Waddell, J., 1998 The Prehistoric Archaeology of Ireland, Galway University Press