That’s exactly what happened to poor Lawrence O’Toole, as he’s known in his anglicised form, or Lorcán Ua Tuathail as he’d have been addressed back in the days when he walked the earth in his hairshirt. That would be Lorcán Ua Tuathail Naofa to you and me. Saint Lawrence O’Toole, who was so holy that his demise was attended by an outbreak of miracles, back in 1180 when, as we know, people were extremely fussy about getting to the root of such things.
What on earth am I talking about? Well, it seems that some exceptionally holy thieves have made off with the saint’s heart from Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin, and it wasn’t just some random theft of a pious body part. They targeted the dessicated relic and took nothing else. Not bell, book, candle nor misericord. Not organ nor pulpit. Not so much as a single Book of Common Prayer.
No indeed. Just the heart of Lorcán Ua Tuathail.
Now, you might well be thinking that this was the work of cultured and pious burglars, and certainly there would be some merit to your point of view, but I think there might be something more to it than that.
Let’s look at the history of this fellow. He was a pre-Reformation bishop whose reign straddled the pre- and post-Viking eras. He was a brother-in-law of King Diarmuid Mac Murchadha, who was summarily ejected from his seat as king of Leinster by two other warring brigands, Tighearnán Ua Ruairc and Ruadhrí Ua Conchubhair. Diarmuid scampered to Wales and then to France in search of support. He’s still widely blamed to this day for bringing the Brits to Ireland but in reality he was a Monty Python character who arrived back here with a couple of hundred starving Normans and Welsh and managed, to his astonishment, to get his lands back, after considerable slaughter.
Let’s not forget that in those days, the entire population of Ireland and England might have been smaller than that of present-day Cork, and yet it was dominated by dozens of self-proclaimed kings. Today we’d call them gang-leaders.
This is one of the problems with trying to project present-day political perspectives onto ancient feuds, and it illustrates how absurd it is to cling to ancient battles, as we do in Ireland, England and indeed in the likes of Serbia where invoking such an ancient war precipitated the most recent Yugoslavian bloodbath, twenty years ago. These were not civilised people, but wealthy, powerful thugs. There was no nation-state such as we know these days, just territories dominated by one thug or another, and the common man counted for nothing. They were the Mafia, and they ruled the island of Ireland as families.
Lorcán was an exceptionally holy young man who showed an early interest in masochism. At the age of 10, his father sent him to Diarmuid Mac Murchadha as a hostage — not an unusual thing for the Mob families of those years — and for some reason, Diarmuid decided to starve the young lad until the Abbott of Gleannn dá Loch interceded, but Lorcán was happy enough with the abuse and decided he wanted more of the same. He ended up becoming abbott of Gleann dá Loch himself, and subsequently Bishop of Dublin, the first non-Viking to hold the post.
Henry Plantaganet, king of England, wasn’t too happy to see Diarmuid and his bunch of Norman ne’er-do-wells taking control of Leinster, not least because they might set up an alternative, rival Norman seat of power and try to dethrone him. When you’re an absolute ruler, you can’t be too careful. Enemies are everywhere and he had good reason to be worried, so he promptly came to Dublin to clamp down on Diarmuid and his Norman cronies.
Run away! they said, and King Henry II had the day, without a single Holy Hand-grenade being thrown.
Now, in those days, the Church of Ireland meant something quite different to its present-day interpretation. There was no Reformation. Indeed, there was no definable church of Rome, and the Popes were still working frantically to create alliances with kings in an effort to establish their earthly power. The Irish church needed to be placed under the control of Canterbury, and Pope Alexander duly agreed in 1172 that Ireland belonged to Henry II.
This presents an interesting re-take on history. For generations, Irish children were taught that Diarmuid Mac Murchadha had invited the Norman English into Ireland, when in fact the Norman English only arrived with their coconut shells to make sure that he wouldn’t screw things up for them, as Mob leaders did everywhere in those days and as they still do now. What would you expect from a crow’s egg only a crow?
But of course, we Irish, just like the Serbs, need our villains to help us avoid taking responsibility for anything. If there was no injustice, there would be no Serbs and no Irish. We have much in common and should immediately set about establishing common trade links based on victimhood.
The Treaty of Windsor was an agreement that Henry II ruled Leinster, not Ireland, which shows how irrelevant all this nonsense is to the grá mo chroí ballads we were subjected to over the decades, but Lorcán comes into it by persuading Henry to acknowledge his brother-in-law as High King, whatever that means. In modern terms, I suppose Henry was Capo di tutti Capi and Diarmuid was some sort of lieutenant.
Unlike his successors in the 20th century, Lorcán was a diligent head of the church in Ireland. Indeed, he sacked 150 priests for abuses and sent them to Rome for punishment. His last journey to France in 1180 did for him, although history doesn’t record precisely what was wrong. He fell ill at le Treport in Normandy and died at St Victor’s abbey. For 250 years or so, he rested easy but then his indignities began in earnest, first when Sir Rowland Standish brought his skull to England in 1442 and then with the wholesale transfer of his bones which were subsequently scattered to the wild winds as the Reformation took hold. It seems the English were no less superstitious than the Irish when it came to saintly remains.
The latest indignity is hardly unique. Bits of this saint and many others, have been stolen over the centuries and hawked around the world in a most undignified manner. Look at the ludicrous parading of the holy knuckle of St Therese around the world. Look at the nonsense surrounding Padre Pio.
I feel a little sympathy for Christ Church, but not much. As a Church of Ireland cathedral, really should it not have abandoned this sort of Monty Python nonsense years ago? I thought Protestantism was about rejecting the nonsense espoused by Rome, even if it does hold on to other nonsense, such as men rising from the dead.
As I said, there might be more to it. Could this crime have been carried out by a crack squad of medieval commandos? Maybe they lay in stasis for 800 years, waiting to revive and fight once more on behalf of the ancient Irish. Maybe the heart of Lorcán Ua Tuathail was what they needed to fire up the powerful nuclear reactor built by Diarmuid Mac Murchadha. Who knows? Maybe this was the work of the Gaelinator.
Beidh mé ar ais!
How did they do this? Why did they do this?
Who would want the dried heart of an ancient saint? Who would go to the great trouble of stealing it?
Tonight, somewhere, the dessicated heart of Lorcán Ua Tuathail Naofa rests on a kitchen table among the Cheerios and the tea bags while its new owner wonders what the hell to do with it.
Very strange. Very, very strange.