It is believed the same “highly professional outfit” — the Limerick and Clare-based crime gang nicknamed the Rathkeale Rovers — also stole four rhino horns from the National Museum of Ireland last year and were involved in a spate of similar thefts across Europe which sparked a Europol alert.
Huge money can be made from selling the horns in China, where they are prized as a powerful aphrodisiac and form ingredients for traditional medicine.
Garda sources think the gang may have “cased” Mr Flatley’s Georgian mansion at Castlehyde, near Fermoy, Co Cork, a couple of times before they struck just before 6.20pm last Monday.
They broke in through a window and entered the dance star’s African Safari Room where they cut the horn off a stuffed rhino head.
Mr Flatley was in another part of the house at the time with his wife, Niamh, and son Michael Jnr, 6. It is understood the alarm system was not activated, but that Mr Flatley heard a noise and when he turned on the lights, the gang members fled with their prize.
They didn’t take anything else, despite the mansion being littered with priceless objects, such as exquisite porcelain, paintings, and 3,000 books, some of which are first editions signed by James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, and Oscar Wilde.
Locals said they were shocked at the ease which the gang entered the house which Mr Flatley — worth an estimated €500m — spent €30m restoring after purchasing it in 1999.
“Fermoy is a relatively crime-free area and Michael is well-got locally. But that doesn’t mean to say in this day and age there wouldn’t be gangs out there who’d try and kidnap members of his family for ransom,” said one local who did not wish to be named.
“It seems there was a lack of security. He should at least have a couple of guard dogs running around the grounds and a few static guards. He has to beef this up quickly and surely he can afford the best,” another said.
Garda sources said last night they believe a dark- coloured vehicle was used by the gang and it sped off at high speed after the robbery.
They are studying CCTV footage at the house and in nearby towns and villages as part of what one source said was “likely to be the type of painstaking investigation needed” to capture the culprits.
Forensic experts yesterday combed the mansion for clues, while house-to-house inquiries were also conducted in the area.
A receptionist answered an intercom outside the mansion’s electronic main gates in the afternoon and said Mr Flatley was not around. She took a contact number in case the dance star wanted to make a comment. He did not reply.
She was asked in particular if he wanted to rebuff criticism he had received from environmentalists, including Animal Rights Action Network which said it was inappropriate to display such trophy heads as rhinos when they are on the verge of extinction.