Historic treasure is back where it all began - and mystery remains

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Derry and Limavady folk will soon have an opportunity to see one of Ireland’s greatest treasures – the magnificent Broighter Gold. When it was discovered in a Limavady field just over a hundred years ago it caused a public outcry and ever since it has been surrounded by controversy. Here’s the remarkable tale that has confounded the experts.

In early spring of 1896 Joseph Gibson, a farmer from Limavady, presented a Derry jeweler in Shipquay Street with some odd bits and pieces recently found in one of his fields. Gibson didn’t know at the time but one of Ireland’s greatest mysteries was about to unfold.

What the jeweler saw was a collection of breathtaking gold objects – an ornate collar or torc (cloak fastener), a 7” long boat with oars, a gold bowl and some amazingly intricate chain necklaces. Later, the designs were described as being Celtic in origin dating from what is known as the La Tene period.

The treasure has come to be called the Broighter Gold or Hoard because it was discovered in a field at Broighter (The Lower Fort) close to Limavady. Farmer Gibson received the ridiculous sum of £2 for the gold and straightaway the jeweler sent word to Robert Day, a collector of antiques in Cork, that he had something highly unusual to show him.

From that fateful moment the gold objects set out on an incredible journey from Derry that saw rows, disputes, court appearances, a trip away from Ireland and eventually a triumphant return to find a coveted place in Dublin’s National Museum. Since then the image of the gold collar has appeared on Republic of Ireland stamps and also on one of the versions of the one-pound coin.

Quite simply the Broighter gold is magnificent. And now in an extraordinary turn of events it will be seen again in Derry with one exception – the 7“boat is too delicate to travel.

The discovery

The tale of how the Hoard was discovered is amazing in itself. On a February afternoon in 1896 two ploughmen Tom Nicholl and James Morrow were double ploughing in the Church Field at Broighter not far from where the River Roe enters Lough Foyle. Double ploughing allowed a deeper furrow and Tom Nicholl taking up the rear suddenly saw something shiny lying in the freshly-turned earth. Closer inspection revealed several objects embedded in the clay and he took all of these to his employer, farmer Joseph Gibson.

Margaret McLaughlin, the farmer’s maid, washed the objects in the sink and for a time they sat in the kitchen drawer, regarded as nothing more than curios to be shown to visitors.

In the beginning it was not even realized that this was gold. In fact some little pieces may have gone down the sink with the mud. However, eventually the farmer, wondering if there might be any worth at all, bundled up the objects and took them to the Derry jeweler who promptly sold them to antiquarian Robert Day.

The incident passed off quietly enough until the appearance in 1897 of an article written by the renowned archeologist Arthur Evans, famous for his discoveries in the island of Crete. Evans brought details of the Broighter Gold to a much wider public but in doing so it was revealed that the gold had been sold by Robert Day to the British Museum in London for a staggering £600.


The news caused outrage in Dublin, especially at the Royal Irish Academy (RIA) whose members were seen as guardians of ancient Irish artifacts. Immediately the State, acting for the RIA, demanded the return of the gold, arguing it had been buried in the ground and was treasure trove. In response the British Museum stubbornly refused, saying it had been thrown into the waters of the Foyle as an offering to the sea god Manannan Mac Lir.

Briefly the law is that if precious objects are cast away, lost or abandoned then it is ‘finders keepers’ but if they are deliberately hidden or placed in the earth it is treasure trove.

Battle lines were drawn for a mammoth legal confrontation and ploughman Tom Nicholl packed his bags for London to give evidence at the trial. Meanwhile in a masterstroke the RIA secured the services of brilliant young naturalist Lloyd Praeger to establish the case for treasure trove – in other words that Broighter had never been under the waters of the Foyle and the gold had been deliberately buried.

This Praeger set out to do along with a colleague George Coffey and eventually they reported that crucial evidence had been found in the sand dunes at Portstewart on the same level as Broighter.

“The the whole area was dry land at the time the gold was deposited,” declared Praeger confidently. “We’ve no doubt the case for treasure trove will hold.”

It was a very optimistic conclusion but it turned the tables at the trial, which saw the best academic brains in the land pitted against one another. Sir Edward Carson appeared for the State and interviewed the optimistic Lloyd Praeger.

Eventually, the judge, impatient with the arguments, declared that since Manannan Mac Lir was a mythical figure he could not find in favour of the British Museum. The case was won and Praeger and his RIA colleagues returned triumphantly to Dublin with the Broighter gold.

Since those far-off times the treasure has been on display in the National Museum Dublin. A replica can be seen in the Ulster Museum Belfast and a holographic (3D) image can be viewed in Derry’s Tower Museum.

Of course the real thing will soon be with us.

Twist in the Tail

Yet like all good stories there is a twist in the tail. Much more is now known about the circumstances surrounding the discovery of the Broighter Gold. Tom Nicholl was only given £10 pounds for his trip to and from London. On a happier note Tom later married Margaret (Maggie) McLaughlin, the maid who washed the clay from the gold objects on the day they were found.

Odd to relate when Robert Day got the objects from the Derry jeweler he noticed that a thwart – one of the horizontal seats on the boat – was missing. Day immediately hot-footed it from Cork all the way to the Church Field in Broighter to search for the missing piece. He was not to know that it had already been found and also sold to a jeweler. And Day was not the only person to comb the Broighter patch. Apparently the place was black with treasure hunters when the news got out.

I’ve been to Broighter to have a look for myself. As I stood there two final pieces of the jigsaw were turning over in my mind.

Firstly, Lloyd Praeger said afterwards: “There’s a sequel to Broighter that can’t be told just yet.”

I believe he must have heard a story that prevailed at the time that Tom Nicholl actually found the gold lying in the ribs of an old umbrella. This left open the possibility that the objects had been buried not long before – perhaps maybe stolen and carried off in the umbrella from a house nearby. It is a tantalizing unresolved side to the tale.

Secondly, we return to Praeger’s conclusion that Broighter was not under the waters of the Foyle so winning the case in London. Recent studies have shown that this was not correct -the Foyle did in fact cover Broighter at the time. So the votive offerings to Manannan Mac Lir that so perplexed the ill-tempered London judge were therefore a distinct possibility. It is established that some ancient peoples did toss offerings into the sea as the British Museum had argued - and there is a sea horse motif on the Broighter gold collar.

No-one has ever found where the gold came from although it has been suggested that there was an ancient monastery at this spot. However, Broighter continues to remain an enigma.

Finally, a cautionary word to potential gold hunters; the terrain at Broighter has changed so much I can tell you it’s well nigh impossible to find the exact spot where the gold was discovered.

Better just have a look at the real thing when it comes to town. You’ll not be disappointed.