THE shocking theft of an ancient relic from an abbey has boosted the number of people visiting the historic site.
A gold and bronze crucifix containing what is believed to be a piece of the real cross on which Jesus died was stolen from Holycross Abbey in Thurles, Co Tipperary, in October.
But Father Tom Breen said the loss of the relic had not put people off travelling to the abbey, which was its home for more than 900 years.
"Visitor numbers have actually increased. Human curiosity is a wonderful thing," said Fr Breen.
"We're getting a lot of devotion here. We hold a novena here in September which attracts large numbers, but we have had busloads of visitors arriving since October."
Fr Breen said he did not keep an exact record of the number of people visiting the site, which attracts an average 200,000 people a year, but added: "I'd say this year we have had close to a quarter of a million."
Despite this, he said the local community was still reeling from the theft two months ago, which saw two masked men raid the abbey and use an angle grinder to cut open a steel-framed glass display which housed the the 12in (30.5cm) high artefact.
They also stole a 14th-century silver cross which hung from a chain and contained two crosses and two dark stones.
"The community is still grieving over the theft - the loss of all that history," said Fr Breen.
At the time of the theft, Gardai confirmed the stolen items had no commercial value.
"The thieves probably over-estimated the value of the crosses. They are invaluable," Fr Breen went on.
"What they would have considered gold was actually mainly brass, so they would not have got much for it after all."
He said he was therefore still confident the relics may one day be returned.
"I think they may still come back to the abbey," he said. "I have been hoping and praying, as has the community. And we have been saying a few extra prayers over Christmas."
The relic of the real cross was originally taken to the abbey in around 1180 after it was first consecrated by Cistercian monks.
It is understood it had been gift from King of Munster Donal Mor O'Brien, who founded the abbey.
Fr Breen said Gardai still have no leads on the investigation into the theft.
But it is believed it was a planned job as a set of keys to the abbey had been stolen two weeks earlier.
The locks had been changed and the burglars raided the abbey in broad daylight, before making off in a red Volkswagen 4x4.