Metal detecting has a checkered history in Ireland. Recent government guidelines highlight its all-but illegal status.
Millions of people visit Ireland every year, and some of them may pack a metal detector, thinking of enjoying a little stroll and hoping to find some trinkets from the past. Those people should think again, because as revised guidelines from the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht make clear, metal detecting is all but illegal in Ireland. While it is not illegal to own a metal detector, the guidelines make clear that unless you have a permit from the Department, or are working under the supervision of an archaeologist who has the appropriate permit, it is illegal to use a metal detector to search for historical artifacts (a very broad legal definition that includes most conceivable metal objects that might be under the ground including relatively recent metal trash).
The catch is, you have no idea what the metal object is that makes your detector beep. If you dig it up (even on private land, and with the permission of the landowner) and find it’s a rusty tin can, you might be in the clear (I’m not a lawyer, so consult a professional if for some reason you do plan on a little metal detecting on your Irish vacation). But, if it turned out to be an old coin, you’d probably have just committed a crime (actually, more likely two crimes: using a metal detector to search for antiquities and excavating an historical artifact without permission). Other countries have much more permissive regulations, so metal detecting enthusiasts coming to Ireland from abroad may be accustomed to a very different regulatory environment.
Possession of a metal detector on a protected historical site is completely prohibited, whether or not you’re using it. As there are over 130,000 registered historical sites in Ireland, and the boundaries of some of these sites may be ill-defined — that’s a large area. Many, if not most, protected areas have no signs posted to that effect. Metal detecting on private land without permission would make one guilty of trespass, and even if you received permission, it’s still illegal to knowingly search for antiquities.
The reason for these laws is a history of professional treasure hunters who pillaged Ireland’s historical sites in the 1970s and ‘80s, damaging the sites by disturbing and destroying any adjacent non-metal artifacts and archaeological evidence, and selling many rare ancient treasures on the black market. (And, long before that, amateur archaeologists did untold damage to many sites in the 18th and 19th centuries — excavating with dynamite, among other bad ideas.) It took a great deal of coordinated government and Garda effort in the 1980s and ’90s to catch these gangs, recover the treasures, and amend the laws to prevent future looting of historical sites that are of international interest.
There are of course mechanisms in the laws to cover the accidental discovery of artifacts in the course of normal agricultural or construction work. All ancient artifacts are the property of the state, and must be turned over to the authorities within 96 hours, regardless of the method of discovery.
So, leave the metal detector at home when you travel to Ireland.
The complete guidelines for metal detector use can be accessed via the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht…