It takes pride of place in the treasury of the National Museum of Ireland — but in many ways the Derrynaflan Chalice haunted its finders, leaving a trail of controversy, court cases and false hopes in its wake.
hen Michael Somerset Webb died one year ago today, the man who made “one of the most remarkable archaeological finds” in Irish history went to his grave written out of the record — unfairly regarded by some as a buccaneer because he fought for almost a decade for an adequate reward for the treasure he had uncovered.
The saga that would dominate the life of Webb and his son Michael O’Connell Webb began on the crisp Sunday morning of February 17, 1980. Armed with a metal detector the father had bought for his 16-year-old son two months earlier, they left their home in Clonmel to go “treasure hunting”.
“I remember the time well,” says John Fitzgerald, a local councillor, auctioneer, and the current deputy mayor of Clonmel, recalling the excitement that was to follow. “We all had metal detectors back then; it was like having a Raleigh Chopper. I never found anything worthwhile except scrap metal, but we lived in hope.”
But Webb, later described as “an amateur with flair”, didn’t just wander into the fields on his treasure hunt. He carefully selected an ancient monastic site surrounded by bog, situated outside of village of Littleton, Co Tipperary.
Owned by local farmers Denis O’Brien and John O’Leary, the area was “remote, mysterious and hard to find” — even for local people.
Father and son began to rummage around the site of the old abbey.
“We just went out and wandered around,” Webb told Don McManus in an interview with RTÉ shortly afterwards. “It all happened very quickly — after about 20 minutes we got a very strong signal.”
The pair dug into an embankment near the monastic ruins — and about two feet down, they pulled out a number of items. There was the fabulous chalice, an intricately made paten (used for holding communion bread), and a wine strainer — all made of silver with gold filigree ornamentation work and amber studs.
“The goldwork, even though it was covered in mud, stood out. It was very beautiful,” Webb recalled later. The items, which had been hurriedly hidden in the bog, were dated from the 8th or 9th century and had been lying undisturbed in the earth of Tipperary for more than 1,000 years.
Michael Somerset Webb was described as “very British in the best possible way” by people who knew him. He had come to Clonmel to set up a business, Tipperary Distribution, in the late 1970s and to pursue his passion for foxhunting.
He had little or no idea of the controversy he was about to unleash when he walked into the National Museum in Dublin on February 18, 1980, the day after his discovery. He had brought with him his find in a bag, plus a letter from his solicitor, Don Binchy.
The letter indicated that the treasure trove was being handed over to the authorities for safekeeping, pending a legal decision on its rightful ownership.
Experts at the museum were both amazed and horrified in equal measure, the keeper of antiquities saying he was “numbed” when the items were placed in front of him. Dr Breandán Ó Riordáin, director of the National Museum, told Michael Webb that he would be “honourably treated”.
But it was over a year later, June 1981, before the Chief State Solicitor contacted Webb with an offer of £10,000 to renounce all rights to the magnificent treasure he and his son had uncovered.
A judge would later declare that while the National Museum “sought to honour its undertaking” with a payment of £200,000, “other agencies took a more niggardly view”.
There were also fears voiced in official circles that a substantial payment could lead to a “goldrush”, with undisturbed historic sites over-run by fortune hunters armed with metal detectors.
On July 7, 1981, the then minister for education paid the owners of the land where the find was made £25,000 each, in return for “all rights, property or interest” they may have had or could claim to the Derrynaflan Hoard.
After considering his position, Michael Somerset Webb formally rejected the National Museum’s offer that November — and launched High Court proceedings to recover the value of the items, under legislation governing ‘return of goods’ and ‘treasure trove’.
On December 10, 1986, Judge John Blayney found that a “royal prerogative” obtained during British rule giving the crown the right to ‘treasure trove’ had not been transferred to the Irish State under the terms of the 1937 Constitution.
Even though he agreed that the Webbs had “committed trespass” by going on the land at Derrynaflan, he awarded them £5,536,000 (less the £25,800 costs the National Museum had paid the British Museum to restore the items to their former glory).
The judgment caused consternation. The director of the National Museum declared that the situation was now “rather absurd”.
And in Tipperary, as Michael Webb popped a bottle of celebratory champagne at his home on the banks of the Suir in Clonmel, he was well aware that there were other hurdles to cross before he got his hands on the £5.5m pot of gold.
Debating the issue in the Dáil, Fine Gael TD Ted Nealon asked then taoiseach Charles Haughey if he would confirm that “when the Derrynaflan hoard was found in 1980, the finders were illegally present on the land of another man, they were illegally excavating on a national monument site which is forbidden, and were using metal detectors”.
Taoiseach Charles Haughey agreed with this summation of events.
But TD Conor Cruise O’Brien then spoke of the “grudging attitude” of professional archaeologists, and the “ungenerous” behaviour of the National Museum “when amateurs made startling and valuable” finds.
“If this was an accident, then I wish the National Museum would have a great many more,” he said, adding that the find was “the work of an amateur with flair”.
Webb v Ireland then went to the Supreme Court, where the State challenged the decision of Judge Blayney and the £5.5m award to Webb and his son. A year later, Chief Justice Tom Finlay delivered one of the most remarkable legal judgments on record, one that has lawyers scratching their wigs to this day.
“I take the view that the owners of the land were not entitled to assert a claim to ownership,” Judge Finlay declared. “It was their good fortune that the State saw fit to pay them. On the basis of ordinary justice it appears to me that the plaintiffs [the Webbs] should be equally entitled, if not more entitled, legitimately to expect to be rewarded on a no less generous scale.”
After describing the finding of the hoard, and the subsequent excavation by the National Museum which discovered a number of “missing components”, Judge Finlay said the Webbs had “implied permission” to be on the land, but not permission to dig there.
“They were entitled to rely on a legitimate expectation that the State would make to them a substantial reward, and that they are entitled to enforce this in the courts,” he continued.
“Whatever criticism may be made of the plaintiffs in the use of metal detectors or for the fact that they dug below the surface in order to retrieve the hoard, their subsequent conduct and attitude has been entirely praiseworthy.
“I wish that I could say the same of those responsible for the assessing of the offer of £10,000 made to the Webbs, when the owners of the land — ignorant of the existence of the treasure until found by the plaintiff, and who had done nothing whatever save own the land — was each paid the sum of £25,000 from the same source.”
After giving a clear impression throughout the lengthy judgment that the Webbs were entitled to what he called “a substantial award”, the Chief Justice then, in one sentence, “allowed the appeal” by the State — overturning the award of €5.5m to them.
“It was only a paper dream. I am glad the whole thing is over,” Michael Webb said after the crushing verdict.
By archaeological standards, the Webbs should not have dug on a significant monastic site. Yet, if it weren’t for what Cruise O’Brien called their “amateur flair”, the breath-taking Derrynaflan Chalice might never have been found.
Because of the way this beautiful piece of monastic art was discovered and the legal contortions that followed, the Webbs were never given due recognition for their find.
“I think that, but for them, it would still be in the ground,” John Fitzgerald, deputy mayor of Clonmel, says. “What it also did was embarrass the authorities, because it made the Ardagh Chalice [which was found in neighbouring Limerick] look inferior,” he adds, with a twinkle in his eye.
Known locally as “the island”, Derrynaflan with its monastic ruin and 60 acres of land, was sold last year at auction for €110,000. Even today it is a “misty and mysterious place” — where once a year mass is still celebrated to commemorate the monks who hid the treasures uncovered by the Webbs a millennium later.