Treasure shared, pleasure doubled

Treasure shared, pleasure doubled The Prosperous Crozier on display at the National Museum of Ireland
A medieval crozier newly on show in the National Museum is one of the most important in Europe, writes Greg Daly


It seemed appropriate that the National Museum of Ireland on Dublin’s Kildare Street unveiled its latest acquisition, the so-called Prosperous Crozier, on the feast of Dublin’s patron saint, St Laurence O’Toole.

Found in a bog in Prosperous, Co. Kildare, in 1839, and in the care of the Jesuits at Clongowes College since then, the medieval crozier appears to have been made in Dublin, and was certainly – according to a faint inscription on the piece – long based there, at the city’s St Mary’s Abbey.

“A pleasure shared is a pleasure doubled,” observed Fr Michael Sheils SJ, old Clongonian and rector of Clongowes College, expressing delight that so valuable a piece, long under Jesuit stewardship and now on loan to the National Museum, could henceforth be “seen by so many, rather than a privileged few”.

“My hope is that those who do look on it will look on with wonder at the details and the workmanship, and that they would be moved to some kind of prayer and thanksgiving for the gift that the faith of the Irish people,” he said, noting how Pope Francis had commented on this faith as he returned to Rome from his Irish visit.

He expressed the hope that in being moved to wonder and prayer by the crozier, those viewing it would be able to appreciate something of the Faith that had moved and inspired those who have gone before them.


For UCC’s Dr Griffin Murray, who has previously worked on the Cross of Cong and other treasures of early Irish Church metalwork, the importance of the crozier – the tallest early Irish crozier, the oldest intact crozier from these islands and one of the oldest croziers in Europe – can hardly be overstated.

“There’s very few of them surviving in Europe before the year 1,000, so after the year 1,000 you get quite a lot of them and the further on in time, so by the 12th Century there are quite a lot of them surviving. But back before the year 1,000 there are very few – a handful of them that survive intact,” he says.

“Ireland has this amazing collection of these early croziers, that really is completely imbalanced to what survives elsewhere in Europe. There’s a real repository of material here. It’s not just croziers. Things like the Ardagh Chalice – it’s a very early chalice. They’re very important objects in European terms when we look at the Christian heritage of Europe,” he continues.

There’s no longer any real doubt about the crozier’s age, following the carbon-dating of a tiny sample of wood taken from the staff’s wooden core.

“The crozier itself is broken in two, so the wooden core is exposed,” he explains. “Modern carbon dating is very advanced as to what it used to be and we only had to take a tiny sample, so really there was minimal damage, and that gave us a date.”

The wooden core of the crozier was a functional element of the staff, with the metalwork and decoration built around it. Far from the crozier having been a relinquary for a founding saint’s older staff, as previously believed, the wooden core is utterly integral to the crozier as a whole and as such must have been contemporary with the metal fittings.

The dating in any case makes sense on artistic grounds, Dr Murray continues, pointing to how there had until now been some debate about whether it was from the 9th or 10th Century.

“The radio-carbon dating really tied it down on the 10th Century. That’s quite important actually, because it’s a period that we don’t have that many dated objects from,” he says, adding that the distinctly Irish rather than Viking character of the art ties in with other excavated material from Dublin.

“There’s a lot of material in an insular style that was found in Dublin and actually we even suspect that a lot of the craftsmen who were working in Dublin were actually from the Irish tradition or at least were trained in the Irish tradition,” he says, explaining that while Irish annals would refer to Dubliners of the era as “the foreigners of Dublin”, it seems that as a centre of trade and crafts, Dublin can hardly have been a homogenously Viking city.

Various details of the piece, ranging from the carvings of birds on the top of the staff to abstract decorations and the use of enamelling all point to the staff being distinctly Irish, he says, though while he is “pretty confident that the crozier was actually made in Dublin”, he is not sure where it was originally used.

St Mary’s Abbey, he explains, was a 12th-Century foundation, so was built long after the crozier was made.

“The likelihood is that it was made for some early medieval church in the Dublin region,” he says, pointing out that there are lots of possibilities for where that church might have been.

“There were loads of important monasteries in the region. I think it was basically commissioned by a local monastery and made then by craftsmen in Dublin. Of course, Dublin wasn’t Christian in this period, it was in this transitional phase, but that doesn’t mean that they weren’t making Christian objects here,” he says.

As for the name carved on the staff, that may well date to the period when the staff was broken and put in the bog.

“Somebody didn’t write it on it when it was in St Mary’s Abbey. It must have been removed from St Mary’s Abbey and was marked with this to indicate that it did belong to St Mary’s, so it must be in that turbulent period I would say post-dissolution of the monasteries and the Reformation phase.”