Ireland’s priceless treasure hidden by monks

“Go up there and dip your finger in the holy water – it’s always full,” insisted the farmer on the way to Derrynaflan Island. I was lucky to bump into him as there was no sign to direct me along a stony track to this sacred spot, mostly known only to locals.

Derrynaflan is not a typical island. This tiny 44-acre, privately owned mound, in Ireland’s biggest inland county, isn’t surrounded by an ocean or a lake. Unusually, it pops from the Bog of Lurgoe in Tipperary’s vast brown swampy peatlands like a vibrant green mirage. Nevertheless, by dictionary standards, an island it categorically is.

I’d come to this remote bogland to see where Ireland’s earliest hermetic monks found solitude from the 6th Century. While most of Europe was reeling in the post-Roman disarray of the Dark Ages, the land of saints and scholars (as Ireland widely became known) bucked the trend by entering a remarkable golden age of scholasticism and artistic achievement, characterised by monastic settlements like Derrynaflan.

But what’s especially interesting about Derrynaflan is the priceless buried treasure likely left here by the monks. Discovered just a few decades ago, it changed Irish law and turned out to be one of the most exciting archaeological finds in the history of Irish art.

Careful not to disturb the munching bullocks, I gently climbed a short 200m to the ethereal ruins that still crown the island today. At the top, I wandered into what was left of a 12th-Century abbey that replaced an earlier monastery. A soft apricot evening glow poured through pane-less windows on to a long-departed altar. Two stumpy stone vessels were all that remained. One – a medieval bullaun (bowl) stone – was indeed hollowed enough to collect the farmer’s promised “holy” (rain) water. I agnostically blessed myself as instructed.

An information sign at the abbey revealed there’s much more to Derrynaflan than first meets the ecclesiastical eye. Controversially, the little-known mystical landmass shot to international archaeology fame in 1980 when a father and son from the town of Clonmel, about 25km away, unearthed an intricately decorated cup and plate using hobby metal detectors.

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