Akron Irish: The Crown Jewel of Truth
By Lisa O’Rourke
I recently came across a news item discussing the still missing Irish Crown Jewels. What Crown Jewels? Irish history is complicated, but I am pretty sure that I didn’t sleep through the story of the King or Queen of Ireland, at least no royalty that the Irish ever acknowledged.
The mere mention of royalty makes the average Irishman want to kneel on the ground and start making mud balls in case anyone of this aristocracy happened to pass by. Nothing like calling yourself big to make the Irish want to bring you down a peg.
The Order of St. Patrick
As suspected, these Crown Jewels were English in origin. They belonged to Order of Saint Patrick; an organization affiliated with the upper echelon of peerage in Ireland. Similar organizations existed in England and Scotland, like the Order of the Garter.
It appears to have been a strange way to farm out some of the snotty upper classes that no one knew what else to do with. These men were given odd titles and little duties that they still managed to muck up. In this instance, they lost some expensive jewels, estimated at millions of dollars in today’s market.
The Crown Jewels consisted of several collars, big gold pieces that are worn more at shoulder level, and several brooches. The theft occurred on July 6, 1907, embarrassingly just prior to a state visit by King Edward VII.
The proverbial pot of Irish dissention was already brewing, moving towards what would become the Easter Rising. While it is tempting to look in that direction for the burglars, this robbery bore no signs of force. A maid, working in Dublin Castle where the jewels were housed, happened on an unlocked door complete with dangling keys, in the safe room.
An Inside Job
It took several hours before the burglary was even discovered. The scene of the crime showed no signs of panic or haste. A ribbon which had been attached to one of the ceremonial pins was carefully removed and placed back in the case. That step alone was believed to have taken the burglar at least ten minutes. So, no fear of discovery, no forced entry and the care in removal all point to an inside job. The two main suspects were the man who was directly responsible for the jewels, Sir Arthur Vicars, who was the head of the Office of Arms in Dublin, and Sir Francis Shackleton, the Dublin Herald and the brother of explorer Ernest.
Several months of investigation led to nothing besides some stories of debauched behavior in the upper crust. Months later, both disgraced men were dismissed from their positions. In his will, Vicars left a painful note wondering how fate had dealt him such a blow, while simultaneously pointing an accusatory finger at Shackleton.
All the divergent stories surrounding the burglary mention Shackleton’s money troubles and Vicars’ drinking. In April of 1921, Vicars’ house was set on fire, and he was shot while trying to escape the blaze. The Irish Republican Army claimed the shooting, labelling Vicars as an informer.
None of the jewels have ever been recovered, despite extensive search efforts at the time of the theft, complete with a dedicated committee and involvement from Scotland Yard. In 1983, there was a three-week search of the Dublin Mountains conducted by the Garda, which turned up nothing.
I had to laugh at one story that was published in the Irish Independent in 1989. A man came forward and said that he knew where the jewels were buried, or at least had been buried. He was the nephew of Sir Arthur Vicars’ valet. Intrigue and his connection to it, led this man, Michael Murphy, on a life mission to solve the mystery of the missing jewels.
Murphy stated that he had received a phone call in August of 1989 from a caller whom he had spoken to numerous times. The man had a “distinctive English accent.” He told Murphy to go to Arthur Vicars’ former home, Kilmorna House in Listowel. There Murphy found a stone with Latin writing on it, which had been recently removed from an outside wall. He believed that this was an indication that someone had already figured out the mystery, found the jewels and absconded with them.
To me, the most incredible thing about this whole story was that the last item was published at all. The Irish Independent was, at least at that time, the most widely read paper in Ireland. The journalistic research here seems to have been thin on the ground, if it existed at all.
This story was published without any apparent bother as to whether there was any more to it than Mr. Murphy’s word. This is a concept that I have developed a strong familiarity within my trips to Ireland.
A few weeks ago, my husband told me a story about a local man who had bought a badly damaged building. It was so damaged, that it was both a bargain and an expensive project. In the process of cleaning out the building, the man found a valuable art object, the value of which would essentially save the day for the clever man. My husband delights in these stories.
Yank that I am, I looked the story up and found documentation that the item was known to be in the building and not a miraculous discovery. Of course, I shared this information with my husband.
A week or so later, he told the same story to some mutual friends and repeated the old, fantastic story, completely omitting the facts that I had shared with him. I am not proud to say that I corrected the story, to his great disappointment.
I have listened with a strained poker face as an Irish neighbor told me during a lubricated fireside chat, about Shergar, the legendary kidnapped racehorse, and how he had been buried down the road. After disabusing myself that he believed me a gullible fool, I learned to surrender to the spell of story. Who does want the dry old truth at the fireside in place of a good spiel?
I noticed that these fireside anecdotes often follow the plot-lines of myth, the lucky trickster being a favorite. And why not? While the Irish do not respect the aristocracy, they do respect what an individual makes of the chances that come their way.
And it is all the better if you had some luck in the process. It is a place where you earn the respect of your neighbors by playing your hand well and fairly. Your story is your own legend.
All I Want is the Truth
I always loved John Lennon singing “Gimme gimme some truth, all I want is the truth.” Truth meant something when he said it.
These last few years have fractured the illusion of truth into so many splinters that it is hard not to be sensitive about it. I have gotten very sensitive to the idea of abusing the truth, not matter how trivial. It feels like a gateway drug to bigger lies.
But story also illuminates truth. It is the purpose that matters. If it is just a harmless tale to pass an evening, ah, just let it go.
*Lisa O’Rourke is an educator from Akron. She has a BA in English and a Master’s in Reading/Elementary Education. Lisa is a student of everything Irish, primarily Gaeilge. She runs a Gaeilge study group at the AOH/Mark Heffernan Division. She is married to Dónal and has two sons, Danny and Liam. Lisa enjoys art, reading, music, and travel. She likes spending time with her dog, cats and fish. Lisa can be contacted at ol*****@ic****.com.
Please send any Akron area events to my email!