Heart of St Laurence O’Toole to be returned six years after it was stolen

Relic was recovered undamaged by gardaí following lengthy investigation

The heart of St Laurence O’Toole, Dublin’s patron saint, will be returned to Christ Church Cathedral on Thursday evening after it was stolen over six years ago.

The 800-year-old relic has been recovered undamaged.

Gardaí said no arrests have been made and investigations are ongoing. A spokesman declined to say where the relic was recovered.

It was stolen from the cathedral in March 2012 and will be presented by Assistant Commissioner Pat Leahy to the Archbishop of Dublin, the Most Revd Dr Michael Jackson, at a service at 6pm.


The relic was kept in a wooden heart-shaped container sealed within a small iron-barred cage in St Laud’s chapel in the cathedral. The bars of the cage had been cut.

It is believed the thief or thieves hid in the building overnight. A spokeswoman for the cathedral said after the theft there was no alarm or sign of any break-in. She said the culprit or culprits ignored valuable gold chalices and gold candlesticks in the chapel in favour of the relic. “It’s completely bizarre,” she said. “They didn’t touch anything else. They specifically targeted this, they wanted the heart of St Laurence O’Toole.”

She said the thieves would have needed a metal cutter to prise back the bars that protected the enclosed heart.

Archbishop Jackson said the return of the heart brings “great joy” to the people of Dublin.

“For those of us associated with the life of the dioceses, it brings again to the fore the close relationship between Glendalough and Dublin, a relationship of more than 800 years.

“Laurence left the monastic city of Glendalough of which he was Abbot to become Archbishop of Dublin, hence cementing a vibrant relationship that continues unabated to this day,” he said.

The cathedral’s Dean, the Very Revd Dermot Dunne, said he was delighted the relic had been recovered.

“I said at the time it was stolen that the relic has no economic value but it is a priceless treasure that links the cathedral’s present foundation with its founding father, St Laurence O’Toole.

“It gives joy to my heart that the heart has been returned to the city.”

Assistant Commissioner Leahy said it was a privilege to be able to return the relic.

“It is not very often that we get an opportunity to engage in such a positive activity that affects the citywide community and in that regard I am acutely aware of the privilege that has been bestowed upon An Garda Síochána on this occasion,” he said.

“It is appropriate to acknowledge the great work of individual gardaí who kept their radars on and their minds open in this ongoing investigation and I commend them for their commitment and diligence on this matter.”

The preserved heart was previously kept in a wooden heart-shaped box sealed within a small iron barred cage which was on the wall of St Laud’s Chapel in the cathedral.

Following the theft of the heart, Dean Dunne appealed to the person who stole it to return it and he would ask no questions. Security at the cathedral was reviewed and regular security reviews continue.

Dean Dunne said he is “happy now” to let gardaí continue their investigations.

Laurence O’Toole is the patron saint of Dublin and is closely associated with the early years of Christ Church Cathedral. His feast day falls on November 14th.

Born at Castledermot, County Kildare in 1132, he was the youngest of four sons of Maurice O’Toole, a Leinster chieftain, who was engaged in rivalry with the Mac Murchada family.

When he was 10 years old, Laurence was handed over to Diarmait Mac Murchada as a hostage for his father’s loyalty.

When his father was suspected of treachery, Laurence was imprisoned and became very ill. He was eventually rescued and cared for by the Bishop of Glendalough and decided to join the church. He was ordained a priest and became abbot of the monastery at Glendalough at the age of 25.

He was an ascetic who wore a hairshirt, never ate meat and fasted every Friday, Each Lent he returned to Glendalough, Co Wicklow where he had previously been abbot. While there, he lived in St Kevin’s Cell, a cave over the Upper Lake, for 40 days.

In 1161 he became Archbishop of Dublin and was consecrated the following year at Christ Church Cathedral.

The Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland, led by Strongbow, in 1169 resulted in two sieges and a famine in Dublin. Laurence played an important part in defending the city, encouraging his congregation to resist the enemy and helping the wounded.

Laurence has traditionally been given credit for the rebuilding of Christ Church in the 1180s, although it is now considered more likely that his successor, Archbishop John Cumin, was responsible.

In 1180, Laurence left Ireland for the last time to travel to Normandy after Henry II, for whom he was a trusted mediator. However, he became ill on arrival and was brought to the Abbey of St Victor at Eu where he died on November 14th. He was canonised in 1225 by Pope Honorius III and his heart was preserved in Christ Church Cathedral since the 13th century.

His skull was brought back to Britain in 1442. His bones were interred at the parish church of Chorley, now called the Church of St Laurence. They disappeared in the Reformation under the rule of Henry VIII.

Sarah Burns

Sarah Burns

Sarah Burns is a reporter for The Irish Times