Dan Brown should write a novel about The Most Illustrious Order of St Patrick. The story has all the ingredients of a conspiracy thriller – royalty, ritual, and stolen insignia. In real life, The Most Illustrious Order of St Patrick is a British order of chivalry, founded by George III of England in 1783. It was the Irish version of the older and much more prestigious The Most Noble Order of the Garter and its Scottish equivalent, The Most Ancient and Noble Order of the Thistle. The names alone are too good to be true.
From an Irish perspective, the Order of St Patrick is problematic in more directions than you could shake a stick at. It was intended to reward British gentlemen who held high office in Ireland and to keep the Irish peers onside. “The origins of the Order were politically dubious,” wrote the historian John Maiben Gilmartin, “and although supposed to be a symbol of evolving Irish independence, it was frequently used as a bribe.” The motto of the order – Quis seperabit (who will separate us) – is ostensibly biblical but also obviously carries a clear political message.
A Jewelled Breast Star from the Order of Saint Patrick (Lot 187: est. €8,200 to €10,600) is coming up for auction at Sotheby’s Royal & Noble auction in London on Monday. It comes from the collection of Garech Browne of Luggala and was worn by Geoffrey Henry Browne, 3rd Baron Oranmore and Browne, one of the last three non-royal Knights of the Order. It’s a splendid-looking object: an eight-pointed star, 9cm wide, made in pierced jewel-cut silver, with gold and blue enamel centre set with diamonds, rubies and emeralds. The central shamrock has applied crowns (one of them missing) over the saltire cross of St Patrick with the motto of the Order above and the date of its foundation below.
Being a member of the Most Illustrious Order of St Patrick also involved a lot of dressing up. Knights wore mantles of sky blue satin with elaborate insignia.
Because they had to supply these themselves, they also got to keep them. Others pieces in the sale include a large mantle or display star, 24cm wide, in silvered metal with wired-on bronze-gilt and partly guilloché enamel centre, the green shamrock over red saltire cross of St Patrick on white background, motto and date of the Order around on a plain blue ground (Lot 184: est. €600 to €800) and an electroplate belt buckle with a wreath of shamrocks around a larger central shamrock (Lot 186: est. €400 to €600). Both pieces come from the Luggala estate.
During the 19th century, the ceremonies of the Most Illustrious Order of Saint Patrick were glittering social events held at the Viceregal Court at Dublin Castle. One of these, the investiture of the Earl of Mayo as a Knight of St Patrick in 1905, was captured in a painting by Casimir Markievicz, husband of the famous Irish freedom fighter, Constance Markievicz. She’s in the painting too, alongside the Knights of St Patrick in their sky-blue mantles. In the painting, Markievicz is wearing green. Eleven years later she’d be wearing a uniform in green and carrying a Mauser.
The painting – and this is where the Dan Browne element of the story intensifies – shows the Grand Master, Lord Dudley, wearing a set of diamond-studded regalia and gold chains. These were known as the Irish crown jewels: a jewelled star of the Order of St Patrick and a diamond brooch and five gold collars. They were owned by the Crown, historically significant (they included stones take from the jewellery of Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III), and valued at £50,000 around 1900. The buying power of that sum today, according to the UK inflation calculator, would be £6,186,105 (€7,229,892).
The regalia of the Order of St Patrick (AKA the Irish crown jewels) were stolen in 1907 and have never been recovered. Most fingers pointed at Francis Shackleton, disreputable brother of the famous Antarctic explorer, but the commission of inquiry could find no evidence against him and there was a strange lack of urgency about the hunt.
As Ireland struggled towards independence, there was a general feeling that it might be better if the missing regalia remained lost. The historian Tomás O’Riordan notes that a government memorandum of 1927 records that “the President [WT Cosgrave] would not like them [crown jewels] to be used as a means of reviving the order [of St Patrick] or to pass into any hands other than those of the state.”
The Order of St Patrick has never been abolished but became dormant with the death of its last surviving member in 1974. Its insignia remain highly collectible. Made by different jewellers at different times, their value varies according to quality as well as provenance. At the top of the tree, a Grand Master’s set of insignia consisting of a breast star and a Grand Master’s sash badge sold at Sotheby’s for €29,829 in 2015. It came from the collection of the Duchess of Roxburghe. Other items associated with the Order of St Patrick have frequently been undervalued.
A ceremonial robe sword, for example, sold at Christie’s for £1,188 (around €1,386) in 2008. It was made by Thomas Brady of Dublin in 1783. In the hands of the right auctioneer, in the right condition, such a sword could be worth between €6,000 to €8,000.
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