An historic pilgrim altar has gone missing from an island church of Gougane Barra in Co Cork. Gardaí suspect the sacred stone has been stolen.
The 1.2m stone is known to be at least 350 years old, and is one of the key attractions for pilgrims visiting the island.
Gougane Barra is considered a sacred site for Christians. It is believed that Saint Finbarr first built a monastery there as far back as the 6th century.
The site is now a popular destination for pilgrims on spiritual retreats, and also as a wedding venue for couples.
The altar stone was located at the rear of the chapel. Visitors would traditionally score a cross into it with a smaller stone.
It was first noticed missing a few days ago, and Gardaí are investigating its disappearance.
Local historian Seán Ó Súilleabháin spoke to RTÉ and explained the significance of the stone: “The altar stone was one of a number of stops on the ’rounds’ here in Gougane Barra.
“Pilgrims stop at the stone and use a small stone to score the sign of the cross on the surface of the stone.
“The missing altar was covered with a beautiful pattern of small cross engravings made by pilgrims over hundreds of years.”
He added: “We don’t know who stole it or what the motivation behind this is.
“It was a very foolish act as people around here strongly believe that bad luck will follow the person that took the stone from such a sacred site.”
Local hotel owner Neil Ó Luasa added: “The altar is a big heavy flagstone and it would take at least three men to lift it. We have two theories: that the stone was lifted and thrown in to the lake, or that it was carried in the opposite direction and thrown into the boot of a car.”
Father Martin O’Driscoll requested the help of the Cork-based Atlantic Divers Club to see if the stone had been thrown into the surrounding lake.
Lead-diver John Chambers said: “The water was very murky, but we spent almost two hours searching around the island. I think it’s safe to say at this stage that the altar is not in the lake.”
Gardaí are continuing their investigations and request that anyone with information regarding the whereabouts of the stone come forward.