Monday 11 March 2013

A Little Irish Mystery. by Laurie Graham

As it's St Patrick's Day next week I thought I should post an Irish story: the disappearance of the Irish Crown Jewels.

First I should make clear no actual crowns were involved. The so-called Crown Jewels were the regalia of the Order of St Patrick, a kind of Irish equivalent of the Order of the Garter, and the insignia were a badge and a star and a collar. Not to be sniffed at though. They were studded with diamonds, emeralds and rubies and by today's prices they'd be worth more than a million.

Until 1905 the regalia were kept in a bank vault and brought to Dublin Castle as required. Then it was decided that a designated strong room should be created at the castle to house a steel safe. When the building work was finished it was discovered  - and perhaps this could only happen in Ireland  - that the safe was too wide to fit through the door. It was taken to the library in the Bedford Tower and there it remained. Widening the strong room door seems never to have been considered.

At this point in the story I must introduce Sir Arthur Vicars, Ulster King of Arms, and sole key-holder to the safe and the library. Also Frank Shackleton, Dublin Herald, Francis Goldney, Athlone Pursuivant, and a large cast of friends and assistants. Then there was the cleaning lady, Mrs Farrell, who twice reported finding the library door unlocked and was told to get on with her mopping. On July 6th 1907, in preparation for a visit by Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, the insignia were sent for. The safe was found to be unlocked and the bling was gone. All that was left were the empty boxes and ribbons.

A vice-regal commission of enquiry was set up and, as so often is the case, the searchlight on a theft probed into darker corners. There were rumours of 'unnatural vices', wild orgies, debt and blackmail. Frank Shackleton was certainly in debt to money lenders and Vicars, with whom he lived, had stood as his guarantor. Shackleton was investigated in the matter of the disappearance of the jewels but never charged, though he later served time for embezzlement. Goldney too turned out to have been light-fingered with other people's objets d'art and at least one item he 'borrowed' later turned up in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Vicars clung on to his position, protesting his innocence to the end. The worst that could be said of him was that he was careless with his keys and fond of showing off the contents of the safe. A heraldic version of 'would you like to see my etchings?' Eventually he was sacked and made a memorable exit by refusing to hand over his keys. He retired to the country and in his 50s he married. Perhaps he found love. Perhaps he just needed to scotch those wild orgy stories once and for all.

The jewels were never recovered. The stories about their fate grew. They were buried in the Dublin mountains (the Gardai searched for them there as recently as 1983). No, they were buried under Vicars' house in Kerry. Vicars was assassinated by the IRA during the Troubles and his house razed to the ground. No trace of the jewels was found there. For me the likeliest answer is that they were broken up and the gems sold. One interesting whisper is that John Pierpoint Morgan, a friend of Goldney's, helped spirit them away to Amsterdam under the hood of his car. I point no fingers, but it is fair to say Pierpoint Morgan did have a taste for loot.


Joan Lennon said...

How wonderfully shambolic! Thanks for posting.

Susan Price said...

I love the cleaning lady - the only honest and awake person in the bunch from the sound of it - being told to get on with her mopping.

adele said...

Lovely story! Thank you!