Headhunter exhibits get the measure of Irish anthropology in the late 1800s


PHOTOGRAPHS TAKEN in remote parts of the west of Ireland between 1891 and 1900, are to be displayed in public for the first time in The Irish Headhunter exhibition which opens on May 3rd in the Blasket Centre in Dunquin.

The pictures were taken by Dublin GP and anthropologist Charles R Browne, who was instrumental in developing anthropology in TCD’s anatomy department.

Dr Browne surveyed communities on the western seaboard in a series of studies, starting with the Aran Islands, using the so-called anthropometric methods of the time to measure and classify humans and “racial types”.

Sliding rules, steel tapes and “craniometers” were used to gauge the circumference of the heads of his often unwilling subjects: methods that seem repellent to modern sensibilities, as Jane Maxwell says in the catalogue.

“Alive or dead, the head of the Irish peasant was a source of intense interest to Browne and his associates,” writes curator Ciarán Walsh in his introduction.

“The taking of skulls recorded in the photographs and ethnographies makes the evidence of headhunting in the west of Ireland the most striking aspect of the albums.”

These images and eyewitness accounts, however, give a valuable snapshot of the lives of rural people: their houses, their dress and modes of transport. Most importantly, their names are recorded – very significant in small, tight-knit communities, although a portrait of Inishbofin schoolmaster Myles Joyce and his daughter neglects to give her name, a telling omission.

The first photographs of the people of the Great Blasket are included along with the rugged people self-described as the “kings” of North Iniskea, Inishark and Clare Islands.

Dáithí de Mórdha of the Dunquin Centre identified Tomás Ó Criomhthain, author of The Islandman, in one photograph.

Dr Browne, born in 1857 in Co Tipperary, the son of a school inspector, graduated from TCD in 1893. He began his studies in the west with professor of zoology AC Haddon of TCD and later had a surgery in Harcourt Street.

He died in Cornwall in 1931 and his daughter Gwendoline gave the photographic albums to Trinity in 1997, shortly before her death.

The exhibition will later travel to Inis Oírr, Eanach Mheáin, Castlebar, Cambridge University and Dublin.