The small picturesque coastal town of Ballyheigue in Co.Kerry is close to Banna Strand which briefly played host to Sir Roger Casement in Easter Week of 1916, before he was rounded up by the RIC and escorted to London to be hanged on 4 August. Another ill-fated tourist in the area, in 1731, was a Danish ship named the Golden Lion, en route from Copenhagen to India, which made an impromptu visit to an inconvenient sandbank and never left. It’s by far the most interesting of some twenty-six shipwrecked vessels around the village.
What made the story of the Golden Lion so compelling was the fact that, in addition to its captain Johan Heitman and the eighty-six other Danish crew-members it also carried twelve sizeable chests loaded with silver bullion.
Although the ship was not entirely wrecked and might well have been floated off the rocks, the locals were having none of it. Their hospitality knew no bounds when they discovered what the cargo was composed of. The 87 Danes were rapidly rescued and far more generously treated than their marauding 9th and 10th century predecessors would have been had they been spotted off the Kerry coast.
Not that the local grandee, Thomas Crosbie, was fooled by the willingness of the local population to share their meagre fare with their Viking guests. He smelled a rat and decided that the locals were up to no good. He raced, post haste, to the beach where the Golden Lion lay stranded and chased away anyone he felt might have designs upon the cargo. He then spirited away the bullion himself, for safe keeping of course. But then that was all right wasn’t it, because he was an avaricious landlord and not a starving peasant. Contemporary records refer to the Good Samaritan Crosbie as having ‘[gone] to the strand, [driven] back possible villains, comforted the sailors and had the silver transported to his own home’
The silver was held in a tower on Crosbie’s premises until arrangements could be made to get it somewhere safer. Undoubtedly the entirely altruistic aristocrat – if that isn’t a contradiction in terms – had no intention of claiming any reward for his act of mercy. Hopefully that was the case anyway as he never got an opportunity to stake any such claim owing to the fact that the silver was nicked. Tragically, given the scale of his generosity and public-spiritedness, Crosbie died before he got a chance to restore the bullion to its rightful owners. Whatever Crosbie’s intentions might have been his widow was not at all philanthropic. She demanded salvage payments from the Danish owners. Choosing to ignore the role of Thomas Crosbie in saving their dosh from the depredations of the north Kerry peasantry the Danes counter-claimed that the ship and its contents were not salvage as it had not been in danger of sinking – which was rather beside the point really.
While the matter was being adjudicated around a hundred enterprising locals decided to intervene. Now Ballyheigue also happens to have been the birthplace of the great Irish economist Richard Cantillon – who invented the word ‘entrepreneur’. He might well have described this group in such terms. Most of the North Kerry entrepreneurial class, albeit with blackened faces, surrounded the Crosbie household, broke into the tower, killed two of the Danish guards and made off with the loot on carts. Cantillon wrote in the early 18th century about the movement of gold and silver through the economy. However this was probably not the sort of movement he had in mind.
The theft was believed to have been carried out by certain members of the Kerry upper crust. Sir Maurice Crosbie of Ardfert, a relative of the late lamented Thomas, conducted an investigation. The Danish Asiatic Company offered a generous reward of 10 per cent of the value of the cargo for its recovery. One of the alleged robbers turned states evidence and ten men were charged with the theft. All were acquitted at a subsequent trial in Dublin that was a bizarre saga itself, involving, perjury, suicide and the suspected poisoning of a witness.
To date just over £7000 worth of the bullion has been recovered. It may well have all been melted down by now or transported out of the area. However, far be it from me to spark a stampede of silver prospectors to the pristine Kerry coastline, but there has to be an outside chance that it might be buried somewhere near Ballyheigue. Think about that one for a moment.
The Revenue Commissioners announced that the Golden Lion had been robbed of its cargo 285 years ago, on this day