STEVE BRADLEY says artefacts dating from the early Iron Age and discovered in Ballykelly in 1896 belong neither in Belfast nor Dublin - but in Derry.
One hundred and twenty two years ago this month, two men employed to plough a field outside Ballykelly uncovered a set of artefacts that were to change our understanding of Ireland’s ancient history.
Christened the ‘Broighter Hoard,’ after the townland in which they were found, the items were unearthed by Thomas Nicholl and James Morrow in February 1896.
Nicholl described how he had been “double ploughing a stubble field to a depth of 11 inches when the plough was jerked by striking some object”.
Upon investigation, he discovered a small metal dish caught on the plough. In the ground nearby were other metal objects “arranged inside one another” which felt like they had been covered in “some greasy material.”
The men cleaned the items and handed them over to the owner of the farm, Joseph Gibson, who sold them to a jeweller in Derry city. From there, they were traded onto a Cork antiquarian called Robert Day who had them restored. It was only at this point that it became clear what the full hoard consisted of - namely two necklaces, two bar torcs, an elaborately decorated buffer torc, a bowl, and an exquisite model boat which had been crumpled up by the plough. It is estimated that the objects date back to approx 100BC which would make the model boat the earliest evidence for the use of sail in Irish waters.
Robert Day sold the items to the British Museum in London for £600 and their existence became public knowledge when an article about them was published a year later. The Royal Irish Academy in Dublin demanded they be declared as ‘treasure trove’ and handed over to them but the Museum refused. A seven year legal battle ensued, culminating in a London High Court hearing in 1903.
The entire case hinged on the question of whether the objects had been abandoned by their original owners as a ‘votive offering’ to the gods, or had been deliberately hidden with the intent of recovering them later.
If hidden, they would belong to the Crown as treasure trove and, if abandoned, they would legally have been Joseph Gibson’s to sell. Numerous experts and witnesses were called - including the hoard’s finder, Thomas Nicholl, who’s strong north Derry accent required an interpretor for the court’s officials to understand him. Eventually, Judge Farwell declared his judgement that the hoard had been deliberately buried and pronounced it treasure trove. He had been unimpressed with the British Museum’s focus on ancient Irish mythology within its legal argument - mocking their case as relying on “a sea god, an unknown sea and the existence of mythical Irish chiefs or kings who would be likely to make a surmised votive offering to this mythical Irish Neptune”.
He believed the most crucial piece of evidence was that the objects were found in a very small area which he believed was incompatible with them being dropped into the sea. He ordered that the items be handed over to the Crown which, a few weeks later, gave them to the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin to display.
Academics have since questioned the judge’s decision as the role of offerings in ancient societies was not well understood at that time. Firstly, no-one considered that the items could have been dropped into the sea in a bag or other container which then decomposed. Which could have explained the greasy material Nicholl noticed covering the items originally.
Secondly, the flat, featureless Broighter landscape has made it long subject to flooding and it would have been a poor location to bury precious objects with the intention of recovering them later. Third, the fact the hoard specifically included both a model boat and a torc with a sea-horse image on it gives further credence to the view that it was an offering to a water god that was possibly deposited in Lough Foyle and washed up during flooding. Legend holds that the Celtic sea-god Manannan Mac Lir (Ireland’s answer to Neptune) lived in Lough Foyle and he has had a long association with the area in folklore.
So, while Judge Farwell rejected any notion of offerings to mythical sea gods in the court case, he may have been unduly dismissive to do so.
These days, the Broighter Hoard is on permanent display within the National Museum in Dublin with a replica set on show in Belfast’s Ulster Museum. Over the years calls have been made for the Hoard to be located closer to where it was found, but never fully pursued.
As 2021 marks the 125 th anniversary of the Hoard’s discovery, it would seem the perfect time for it to finally return home to the banks of the Foyle. By that stage, Derry will also have the perfect location in which to house these precious exhibits - in our new Maritime Museum in Ebrington Square.
Intended to step-change the city’s appeal as a tourist destination, the Maritime Museum currently feels like a project in danger of falling flat. Not only are such museums ‘ten a penny’ in coastal towns around Europe, but our maritime facility will be located away from the water and in a former military barracks that was used primarily for land forces.
The new museum also seems destined to lack any significant attractions - with the three key exhibits specified in its planning application being a torpedo, a log boat and a replica curragh. In short, it risks being an underwhelming facility that will add little to Derry’s appeal in an increasingly competitive tourism market. Without attractions that are genuinely capable of competing with Giants Causeway, the Dark Hedges and Titanic Belfast, we risk falling even further behind. So, our new Maritime Museum appears to be in genuine need of something stellar to set it apart. It needs a star attraction with an authentic link to the maritime history of our area, guaranteed to draw the crowds and on which the entire marketing strategy and even logo of the museum could be based. Step forward the Broighter Hoard, as the perfect candidate.
A high level approach should be made to the National Museum of Ireland to discuss the possibility of the Broighter Hoard coming to Derry on permanent/temporary loan as the centrepiece of our new Maritime Museum. Efforts should also be made to secure a transfer of the replica Hoard from the Ulster Museum. The Broighter Hoard belongs not on the Liffey or the Lagan, but on the banks of the River Foyle.
Steve Bradley is a regeneration consultant from Derry. He can be followed on Twitter @Bradley_Steve