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It was a strange choice by the staff of a state agency committed to conservation, and one that had disastrous consequences. An Irish court heard that it turned Molloy, described by his solicitor as an “honest and diligent employee, with a deep interest in nature, culture and history”, into a plunderer of the heritage he had previously been employed to protect.

As he stood in the dock, together with his 44-year-old son, Kevin, a co-accused, the judge told him: “From what we now know, I think a TV or video set, or a wallet of notes, would have made a much better retirement present for you.”

Judge Michael Reilly, presiding at Birr District Court in the Irish midlands, had heard how Molloy and his son had spent the first six months after his retirement raiding monastic sites near his home in north Tipperary. By the time the Art and Antiques Unit of the National Bureau of Criminal Investigations caught up with them, they had dug up and removed almost 800 valuable artefacts.

The hoard, hidden away while awaiting contact from dealers, has now been handed over to Ireland’s National Museum, whose antiquities curator, Dr Eamonn Kelly, described it as “an important collection”. It includes two Bronze Age daggers, an Iron Age pin, bronze sword handle, hundreds of perfectly preserved coins, with the month and year of minting still visible, plus musket balls, spurs, harnesses, buckles, tools and many household items.

The most spectacular item is a ninth century gilt bronze medallion, or ‘Christian mount’, featuring a crucifix in a circular frame, and similar to others taken from Viking graves in Norway. According to Dr Kelly, the full significance of the hoard will not be known until after a full investigation. The household utensils, work tools and personal effects could be evidence of buried medieval villages, he said.

In court, Molloy and his son pleaded guilty to charges of being in the illegal possession of archaeological objects found in the state. Under new legislation introduced in the 1990s, to counter widespread illegal treasure hunting, all finds must be notified to the authorities within 96 hours. Failure to do so leaves offenders liable to penalties ranging from a fine of €1,270 and/or a year in prison to a maximum fine of €63,500 and/or a five-year jail term.

Pleading for leniency, defence solicitor James Lucey said Molloy, a father of four grown-up children, had been “honest and diligent” in his work for the heritage service. That work had not involved caring for national monuments, he claimed, so it was not a case of him having exploited his position for personal gain.

But Judge Reilly disagreed. “Wildlife rangers are by definition people of vast knowledge of the countryside and they know where archaeological sites are located,” he said. The Molloys’ operation had been “sophisticated” and he believed they knew where each item in the hoard was uncovered.

The judge said he had decided to delay sentence until October, “so that they can pinpoint for National Museum staff the original location of each item”. He added: “If you decide not to co-operate, then I would warn both of you to have your bags packed for prison when you return to this court.”