Irish Headhunters

I came across an interesting story last year about a British anthropologist (Professor Alfred C Haddon) and a researcher colleague (Andrew F Dixon). Both men were academics in anthropology and ethnology at Trinity College Dublin.

‘Craniometry’, the unscientific study of human skull size and shape to determine a person’s intelligence (a disproven belief) was very popular among colonial academics at the time and went on to create much of the basis of unscientific ‘race-based science’ in the 20th century, later used with such zeal by the Nazis and other groups. Surprisingly, for English academics, Irish islands had become very attractive at the time as they were believed to home some of the few ‘undiluted’ indigenous populations remaining within the British Isles.

Conveniently, the populations were also very poor and easily compelled.  

It’s worth remembering, that in the late 1800s, Irish universities were predominantly utilised by English people or the offspring of English colonisers. Very few native Irish people could afford – or were allowed – to go to these institutions, which goes someway to explaining why the academics believed they could behave the way they did.

Following a visit to Inishboffin in 1890, Professor Haddon and a colleague (Andrew Dixon) stole thirteen skulls from the Island graveyard at St Colman’s Monastery and quickly smuggled them off the island. It took the islanders a day or two to realise the graves had been interfered with, but when they did, they were not happy.

Because they were, essentially, powerless however, there was little the islanders could actually do to reclaim the skulls of their family members. As a result, Haddon and his colleagues played ‘pretend science’ with his booty for a few years, wrote a few papers and then the skulls were disposed of in the anatomy museum of Trinity College where they languished for over a hundred years, .   

It was only in February 2023 that Trinity College finally decided to return the skulls. In July 2023, the remains were placed in a specially designed coffin, returned to Inishboffin and reburied in the shadow of the church ruin from where they were originally stolen.

Living in New Zealand, I see many instances of different Māori tribes trying to recuperate the remains of their people (stolen by colonial scientists and ‘collectors’) from international museums. Such looting was pretty common practice on native Americans, indigenous Australians and other indigenous peoples under colonial regimes. Ireland was no different of course, but its still a bit of a shock to see its impact in practice.