“We stumbled along and entered the church, tumbling over the stones which are placed over the graves. In the corner we saw in the dim light the skulls in a recess in the wall. There must have been 40 or more, all broken, most useless, but … we found a dozen which were worth carrying away.”
This was how Alfred Cort Haddon, a British anthropologist and ethnologist, described his theft of 13 skulls from the ruins of St Colman’s Monastery on Inishbofin in 1890. His accomplice Andrew Dixon, a young Irish medical student, took a photograph at the site as evidence of the skulls’ provenance. Haddon later told the Royal Irish Academy that the Inishbofin remains were part of “a collection of Irish crania that I gave to the Anthropological Museum of Trinity College Dublin in 1890″.
There they unobtrusively remained for well over a century until research into the unseemly practice of “headhunting” in that era by Ciaran Walsh, as part of a PhD in anthropology, highlighted the existence of the “Haddon & Dixon collection” of 20 skulls in Trinity. He believes the others were taken from the Aran Islands and St Finian’s Bay in Kerry.
“We have been arguing that Inishbofin was the start of an organised scheme of grave robbing,” Walsh says. “It was clear in 1890 that they were being taken from what has been described as an ethnic island — that is, ethnically distinct groups of people living in the west of Ireland. The crania were being collected by colonial scientists, in the colonial era, and brought back to an anthropological museum. Anthropology was essentially the skull-measuring business.”
Trinity did indeed establish an anthropometric lab in its anatomy department in 1891, and its researchers began measuring heads on the Aran Islands the following year. The idea was to investigate the racial origins of isolated communities, but the lab also measured Trinity students. While the research has long since been discredited, the skulls that were used remained in storage at Trinity. Now a repatriation campaign, led by people from Inishbofin, is demanding that the 13 from their island be returned for reburial.
Why do you have to go to all these lengths when you realise what was done was wrong— Director of Inishbofin Heritage Museum Maria Coyne
Marie Coyne, the director of Inishbofin Heritage Museum who launched the campaign a decade ago, is organising a petition and already has 140 names, with 30 more expected — perhaps the island’s entire population. “It’s nonsense that we have to get a petition,” she says. “Why do you have to go to all these lengths when you realise what was done was wrong.”
Her message to Trinity? “Own up to the fact that they’re not yours, they’re our human remains, and just do the right thing and give them back.”
The saga of the Inishbofin skulls has been examined by Trinity College Legacies (TCL), a project set up to investigate the university’s links to colonialism from its foundation in 1592 through to the late 20th century. While its research has concluded that the skulls were taken illegally, even by the standards of the day, it is not in TCL’s remit to authorise their return.
In 2009 Trinity did return three Maori mummified heads and a skeleton from its collection to the National Museum of New Zealand, in line with a Maori wish to return them to descendants. But Inishbofin is not considered an analogous case, since these were Irish skulls taken by an Irish research team, so the decision is about reburial, not repatriation.
At a meeting in Inishbofin community centre on November 4th, a delegation from Trinity told islanders that just as the college had no right to take the skulls in the first place, it does not have the right now to randomly rebury them. Trinity’s delegation of four academics said they believed there was no clear precedent they could draw from, and relevant state bodies would have to be consulted.
The Old Anatomy Steering Committee concluded it was ‘not in a position to support a request for deaccession of the crania and transfer to the possession of private individuals or historical interest groups’
Still, locals felt the message was more positive than a letter sent to the repatriation project last August by members of Trinity’s wonderfully named Old Anatomy Steering Committee. It revealed that carbon dating on one Inishbofin skull had dated it to between 1509 and 1660, with a median probability of 1563. Because of their age, and under the terms of the 1832 Anatomy Act which still applies, the crania come under the authority of the National Museum of Ireland (NMI), the letter explained.
Furthermore the findings of the research “do not indicate any genealogical link to living individuals or related peoples — indeed we cannot even assume they are of Irish origin”. The letter said it had been decided, under the guidance of the NMI, not to undertake further DNA testing, partly due to the fragility of the crania. Based on the information it had gathered, the Old Anatomy Steering Committee concluded it was “not in a position to support a request for deaccession of the crania and transfer to the possession of private individuals or historical interest groups”.
A copy of the letter was sent to the provost, Linda Doyle, prior to her meeting with the repatriation project in early September.
Prof Eoin O’Sullivan, the Senior Dean of Trinity, explains the college has engaged in a three-stage process. “The first is the evidential review — what do we know about a particular issue? In the case of Inishbofin that phase has been largely completed by people like Ciaran Walsh, an independent scholar, and Ciaran O’Neill, Patrick Walsh and Mobeen Hussain from the Department of History in Trinity. So we know how the skulls ended up in Trinity.
One of the things that came up at the meeting was that one option might be that Trinity would offer an apology
“We will publish the evidence document next week, and then seek submissions from the public, and in particular the Inishbofin islanders. We will then provide options for the board of the university about how to resolve the situation.
“When I was on the island two weeks ago, we agreed that they wanted a period of public consultation, so they could make submissions to us. One of the things that came up at the meeting was that one option might be that Trinity would offer an apology.”
If the public consultation is finished in time, the Inishbofin skulls should be an agenda item at the board meeting in mid-December. It could decide to formally approach the National Monuments Service or the NMI to explore the option of reburial.
Coyne said she and others left the meeting on November 4th feeling positive, and “with hope”. Asked if any plans are in place if Trinity ever does return the skulls, she expects there would be a low-key service. “We don’t want anything fancy — we just want to bury our dead in the traditional way,” she said. “No matter what part of the world they came from, those skulls were all found in that little niche in the church, which to locals was a sacred place.”