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23rd Jan 2023

Calls for ‘stolen’ Irish artefacts to be returned from British museums

Fiona Frawley

side by side images, one of a b&w photo of the o keefe chalice pasted into an old book and another image of the chalice itself on display

A labour TD has said that Irish artefacts held in museums and libraries in the UK should be returned to Ireland.

In response to an Examiner piece about one of Ireland’s oldest artefacts, the Mount Keefe Chalice, being on display in a British museum, Labour’s Seán Sherlock has called for Irish Government to engage in a discussion with UK Government about such items being returned.

The Mount Keefe Chalice is believed to have been used by the priests when they celebrated Mass during the 1690s, a time where the Penal Laws outlawed Catholic Masses.

The Mount Keeffe Chalice, image via Victoria and Albert Museum

The chalice is believed to be at the centre of a murder of two Cork priests around this time – it is said to have vanished shortly after the priests were killed on a farm near Newmarket in North County Cork.

According to The Examiner, local folklore indicates that the priests had hurriedly buried the chalice in a hole before they were murdered and that the Chalice Tree – a 30ft sycamore standing near the spot where they died – grew up out of that hole. However, this is unlikely as the tree has since been dated and is between 150 and 200 years old.

An Australian podcast has revealed that the chalice re-appeared about 200 years after it vanished, and is now in display in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The chalice was sold to the museum by the heiress of a large estate in Cork in 1929 for £400, the equivalent of around €25,000 today.

Questions have also been raised about how the family of the heiress came to be in possession of the chalice in the first place – some believe the chalice may have been stolen by English soldiers.

The chalice is one of thousands of Irish artefacts on display in British museums. Mr Sherlock has said these items are ‘not the United Kingdom’s to keep’, and should be returned.

The response by the National Museum on the question of whether it is interested in the return of the Mount Keefe Chalice suggests to me a ‘let sleeping dogs lie’ attitude to repatriation of artefacts and antiquities that should be part of our national inventory.

When asked about the chalice, a V&A spokesperson said:

Our archives don’t include any information that suggests concerns that the Mount Keefe Chalice might once have been stolen, or that links it with a potential British military raid in Co Cork.

We would welcome the opportunity to explore any new information that comes to light about V&A collections.

The chalice is available for loan to museums in Ireland, which could support further study.

Header image via Victoria & Albert Museum 

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