I have stumbled upon a fascinating tale which begins before dawn on March 27, 2009, in the tiny village of Stokestown, County Roscommon, in Ireland’s western midlands. At about 4 A.M., while the honest world slept, thirty-five year old Anthony Dowling, a father of three, used his shoulder to crack open the back door of Sheehan’s Pharmacy. He then stood lookout while twenty-nine year old Robert Dempsey ransacked the establishment. They took some drugs and cosmetics, and a small safe, which they loaded into their van before driving the two hours back to Dublin.
During the drive, the duo discovered their efforts with the safe had earned them some family papers, a few photographs and an envelope, marked “1947”, which they never bothered to open. Disgusted, they dumped the safe into a canal and its contents were tossed into a trash bin in front of apartments on Reuben Street in Dublin. The thieves then split up, returning to their beds before the sun shed light on their sins. But what the two miscreants did not know, was that their crime had now tied them to six thousand years of similar human cupidity.
Humans walked into Ireland across the land bridge from Wales about 4,000 B.C.. Like Greenland, the ancient name of “Eire” was a sales pitch. In Gaelic it means “land of plenty”. Six thousand years ago, as the glaciers retreated back to Scotland from whence they had come, the melting ice left Ireland dotted with lakes, much as upper Wisconsin is today. These lakes became choked with decaying leaves, which turned the waters acidic and consumed the oxygen. Without oxygen new vegetation falling into the lakes could not decompose, and began to pile up until the lakes became bogs which became fields. The compressed vegetation became peat.
One of those early Irishmen is known to history only as Clonycavan Man. He about five feet two inches tall, and favored a spiked “Mohawk “hair style, accentuated with a thick gel imported from France. And one soft summer day this twenty-something was waylaid in a peat bog by an enemy armed with an axe. The first blow split the victim’s skull wide open. The second, probably delivered as he fell, sliced open his face, from his nose to just under his right eye. The passions behind this assault have long since cooled, but they remain common today, in Ireland and everywhere humans breed,. as shall be proven shortly.
The bogs of Europe are pockmarked with similar corpses, some sacrifices to forgotten gods, and a few, like Clonycaven man, crime victims. And all that remains of their humanity is a tannin stained body, as proof of passion spent and left undigested, until, usually, a farmer harvesting the peat for fuel, uncovers the crime scene.
In March of 1945, a farmer named Hurbert Lannon, of the village of Fourmilehouse, in County Rosscommon, struck metal while harvesting peat from his bog at Coggalbeg. He did not think much of the three pieces of metal he had uncovered. But, being a practical man Mr. Lannon held onto them, and on March 22, 1947, probably to pay a bill, he handed them over to the new pharmacist, Patrick Sheehan, who had just moved to the village of Stokestown, a mile and a half away.
Patrick Sheehan had a romantic youth. He had won a few road rallies and drove a red Triumph. His eldest daughter described him as “very into education”. He dragged his wife and seven daughters down to the local dump on the night of October 4th, 1957 to watch the tiny light that was Sputnik race across the night sky. In 1965, Patrick showed his eldest daughter Sunniva, the pieces of jewelry from the safe. He described them to her as a “collar and two buttons”. “It came out of the bog” he told her. Sunniva didn’t find the story very interesting. “It didn't mean a whole lot to me -- it was a flat piece of gold and I didn't think anything of it. It wasn't something you could wear or make use of,” The jewelry went back into the safe and Sunniva forgot all about it.
Patrick (Paddy) Sheehan died of cancer in the late nineteen sixties. “The business was nearly non-existent because he had been in bad health,” related Sunniva. Luckily she had graduated with a 3 year bachelor’s degree, which was all that was needed at the time in England to dispense medication. So she took over her father’s shop. “I had a mother to support and six sisters younger than me. So it was hard keeping things together, never mind thinking about a gold necklace in the safe.” Then, forty years later, came the robbery.
Sunniva Sheehan called in the Gardia, the “Guardians of Ireland” as the police are titled, to report the robbery and list the stolen items. The Gardia asked the locals, who remembered two strangers in a red van who had been acting suspiciously. The Gadia even went so far as to check the survalence video from a nearby highway toll booth. That video produced a photo of red van and a license plate number. This led them to the master crimminals Mr. Dempsy and Mr. Dowling, back in Dublin. Meanwhile, one of Sunniva's sisters reminded her about the gold from the safe. So she called and added them to the list of stolen items. And it was at this point that serendipity entered the story.
When Sunniva had added the gold to her list of items lost, one of the police officers bothered to call the National Museum in Dublin, and describe the jewelry, on the off chance it might be valuable. The museum immediatly dispatched two curators to Stokestown, to show Sunniva some photos. What she identified was a photo of a lunnula.
It is Latin for “little moon”, and is applied to any number of crescent shapes, from the white arc at the base of your thumb nail, to the gold necklace worn by Bronze Age kings of Ireland. There are only 21 similar gold necklaces known to have survived over the last 4,000 years, and they were all the work of a few bronze age master artists in Ireland. And when the police explained to Robert Dempsey, now in police custody, what he had thrown away, he was motivated to identify the trash bins on Reuben Street.
The police collected all the bins just before they were emptied. In the parking lot of a police station Sergeant John Costello waded through tons of garbage and trash to recover the lunnula and the two gold pins. And that was the final journey of the four thousand year old collection of gold, now called the “Coggalbeg hoard”, from the hands of an ancient artist, to the modern day Dublin National Museum of Ireland.
All of which leaves a few unanswered questions. How did a King’s jewelry come to be lying, abandoned in a bog? It may be it was not abandoned. It may be that Hurbert Lannon also found a body in the bog, but decided not to deal with the attention such a discovery would have brought him. The manner in which he disposed of the gold certainly hints at a man protective of his privacy. And it may be that the lunnula and pins were the booty of a Bronze Age robbery, not unlike the twenty-first century one that brought them to the public attention. As for Mr. Lannon, he died three weeks before the break in at the Sheehan Pharmacy, at the age of 93.
Anthony Dowling pleaded guilty to breaking and entering, and Robert Dempsey pleaded guilty to receiving stolen goods. They both received suspended sentences. Anthony Dowling was even free to visit the Museum and view the booty he had thrown away. But it seems the booty was not yet finished with Anthony Dowling.
The press attention caused by the gold threw a light on Mr. Dowling, when he probably would have preferred to remain in the shadows. The light revealed that this was not his first conviction. It was in fact his 33rd. And it was not even his first suspended sentence.
On January 13, 2008, Anthony was involved in a serious altercation in the Deputy Mayor’s Pub, in Dublin. He and a friend, Charlie Russell, attacked one Peter Rogers, because they thought Roger had insulted Russell’s mother-in-law. In fact he had not.
But, drunk and bent on revenge, Anthony, armed with a claw hammer, and Charlie, who was carrying a samurai sword, assaulted Mr. Rogers without warning, and severed Mr. Rogers’ left hand. Mr. Rogers, who was also drunk and was unaware of his injuries, punched Charlie Russell in the face with his bloody stump. Twelve hours of surgery were able to reattach the hand, but Mr. Rogers, who had been a carpenter, will never regain its full use.
Charlie Russell received eight years (not suspended) for his part in the attack. And as was said, Anthony Dowling’s sentence was suspended. However,...
....the attendant publicity of this latest theft and the publicity about the pub assault, has made Anthony Dowling unlikely to receive another suspended sentence, as he is now the most famous criminal in Irish history, at least since the murderer of Clonycavan Man. The Irish government has now even banned the sale or ownership of samuri swords.
Meanwhile, Mary Hanafin, Irish Cultural Minister, has called the “Coggalbeg Hoard” an “an amazing find…because it is Irish and part of who we are.” Yes, Minister, and a part of who we all are.