Stolen skulls finally come home to Inishbofin after 133 years for poignant burial ceremony

Simple coffin carried the 13 skulls to the ruins of St Colman’s Abbey, where they had been spirited away by anthropologist Alfred Cort Haddon in 1890

The sun shone across the ruins of St Colman’s abbey as the outline of the Twelve Pins etched the mainland sky when Inishbofin islander Marie Coyne took a spade to help cover the grave of her forebears on Sunday afternoon.

The simple coffin carrying 13 skulls which had been taken from a recess in the ruined seventh-century abbey 133 years ago was carried on the shoulders of island men and women for the meandering mile-long and hilly journey from Middlequarter and the modern church, also called St Colman’s.

During that service on Sunday, Marie Coyne, who runs the island’s heritage museum, kept her remarks brief and simple.

First, though, she read an excerpt from British anthropologist and ethnologist Alfred Cort Haddon’s manuscripts, dated July 16th, 1890, which are now in the archives of Cambridge University.


Haddon had travelled to the island and stolen the skulls, without the knowledge of the community and with the help of a young medical student, Andrew Francis Dixon. It was to further his research in a popular contemporary study called craniometry (measurement of the cranium) and anthropometry (scientific measurement of individuals).

Haddon’s diary outlines how local landlord Edward Allies had told them about the skulls and they had gone in the dead of the night to take them from the remote abbey. He writes how on the following morning two of the sailors on the steamer back to Galway port wanted to take the bag from Dixon as they boarded but he wouldn’t let them, and when asked what was in it, he replied “poteen”.

Haddon writes: “So without any further trouble we got our skulls aboard and packed them in Dixon’s portmanteau and locked it; no one on the steamer other than ourselves knew...”

Speaking on Sunday afternoon at the end of the church service, Ms Coyne said: “But we do know now and after 133 years we have them home.”

Haddon took a photograph at the site as evidence of the skulls’ provenance. He later told the Royal Irish Academy that the Inishbofin remains were part of “a collection of Irish crania” he had gifted to the Anthropological Museum of Trinity College Dublin in 1890. Ironically, Ms Coyne became aware of the existence of this photograph, which would then lead to a decade-long quest for their return.

Campaigner and academic Pegi Vail, an anthropologist at New York University, whose grandmother was born on Bofin, travelled on stormy seas aboard the Island Discovery ferry on Saturday as the remains were brought home. She told The Irish Times that there was no need to secrete them on this occasion.

“I think as both a descendant and anthropologist, seeing the story turn right around and become the narrative of the community has brought everyone together. I’m thankful to provost Linda Doyle and the Trinity legacies group for the efforts they made with the community to enable their journey home,” Ms Vail said.

She added that this repatriation has global implications for the overdue reckoning with the exploitations of colonial history.

Celebrating Mass to mark the momentous event, Fr James Ronayne said: “Today’s coming home, returning to their resting place of these 13 human remains is most poignant, emotional and significant. Significant because on this very date, 16th July, 133 years ago, these remains were removed and their return is a source of comfort to this community and a rightful and proper honouring of our dead. You are one big family of many families who have been united in your advocacy and pursuit of this cause and for this I pay tribute to you.”

The service was attended by aide-de-camp to the President, Col Stephen Howard, as well as Fianna Fáil deputy Éamon Ó Cuív, and a number of Galway county councillors. Trinity College was represented by senior dean Eoin O’Sullivan, who was actively involved in the project.

For islander Christopher Day (32), making the coffin for the 13 skulls was a part of his family’s cross-generational story. As a young boy, he had watched his great-granduncle James Cunnane make coffins at the Store, the site of the island’s heritage museum today. It is beside the old quay, where there is an exhibition of photographs depicting islanders from the 1890s as part of the celebration.

“It was really important for me to be part of this since for all I know I could be directly related to these people. My brief was to make the coffin from natural pine in the island tradition, just like my granduncle did back in the mid-1900s,” said Mr Day.

Involved from the outset, island archaeologist and historian Tommy Burke said: “It is rarely, if ever, that people get an opportunity to right an historical wrong. Today, the people from that time so long ago have been given a voice again through their descendants.”

The fact that a great-granddaughter of Edward Haddon had travelled from Sheffield to address the congregation added to the poignancy.

Clare Rishbeth said: “On behalf of the Haddon and Rishbeth families I would like to say sorry to the islanders. I’m really glad that we can right this wrong. I think it is important to give dignity in death and to show solidarity with the living. And personally it is a great pleasure to visit your beautiful island.”

When the sean-nós singing and music of Caitríona Ní Cheannabháin and Eoin Mac Casarlaigh wafted across an ancient graveyard on the edge of the ocean, the past and present merged for a small Co Galway community.