The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Irish island demands return of skulls looted by colonial-era scientists

A "craniometer" is used to measure the cranial length of an unidentified islander on Inishbofin, Ireland, in 1893. (Trinity College Dublin)

One summer night in 1890, illuminated by a dim light in the nook of a churchyard wall, two scientists visiting Inishbofin, an island off Ireland’s Atlantic coast, spotted something peculiar: about 40 human skulls, mostly broken, but 13 in good enough condition to steal.

“When the coast was clear we put our spoils in the sack and cautiously made our wat back to the road,” Alfred Haddon, a British anthropologist and fellow of the Royal College of Science, recalled in a letter at the time.

One-hundred-and-thirty-two years later, those skulls are in a locked service hallway in Trinity College Dublin, whose academics cited the letter in a working paper last month. On Wednesday, the university’s board made a decision to work with the islanders to find a solution to their years-long campaign to have the skulls returned.

“The board of Trinity College Dublin decided today to work with the people of and the statutory authorities to find a solution to the question of what to do with the crania that respects the wishes of the islanders,” the university said in a statement shared with The Washington Post.

The decision will probably be met with a mixture of optimism and frustration for the current inhabitants of Inishbofin, who consider the act of theft to be a colonial-era violation committed against their ancestors. One-hundred-and-seventy of those islanders — the total population is 175, according to the Irish government — demanded in a petition that Trinity College Dublin immediately repatriate the skulls, without any conditions attached, so they can be laid to rest on the island after more than a century.

“They were stolen, to start with,” Inishbofin historian Marie Coyne, who runs the island’s Heritage Museum and organized the petition, told The Washington Post shortly before the Trinity College Dublin decision was announced. “They’re somebody’s ancestors.”

“When you go there and sit under the church and you just imagine what happened,” she said, “you have to respect people who lived such hard lives. What happened to them was wrong. It’s just out of respect.”

Inishbofin’s inhabitants — and their skulls — had been of specific interest to colonial-era anthropologists as the remote island was believed to be one of the few undisturbed homes of Ireland’s Indigenous population. Three years after the skulls were taken, Irish scientist Charles Browne returned to the island to measure the crania of Inishbofin’s “living subjects.”

The practice, known as craniology or phrenology, was popular among 19th-century European colonizers who believed the size and shape of a person’s skull determined their intelligence, a disproven belief that became popular among proponents of scientific racism in the 20th century.

According to a review commissioned by Trinity College Dublin, the skulls were removed by Haddon and fellow scientist Andrew Dixon in 1890, transported to Dublin, where they ended up in the Irish university’s collection of 463 skulls and 21 skeletons taken from around the world, including from Nigeria, India and South Africa. They were then largely forgotten.

“They thought that we were more westerly and more ‘true Irish’,” Coyne said, referring to the interest of British scientists in measuring the physical profiles of the island’s population. “We were ‘a different type of people,’” Coyne recalled, referring to the way the Inishbofin’s population was treated.

“They were stolen by colonial agents and placed in an anthropological museum,” Ciarán Walsh, a curator whose research was provided by the campaigners as evidence that the skulls had been stolen, told The Post, also before the decision was made.

According to Walsh, Haddon and Dixon were interested in skulls because they wanted to know where the original inhabitants of the west of Ireland came from.

“When they came to Inishbofin, Haddon understood that these were some of the oldest remains in the west of Ireland, in old monasteries that had been abandoned,” he said. “Haddon understood that these were possibly the skulls of Irish aboriginals.”

“Every university department was building up huge collections of human remains to try and study the natural history of man,” Walsh added.

Trinity College Dublin officials also considered Haddon’s own letters when deciding what to do with the skulls, which suggested the scientist was aware that he was handling stolen goods: “We got the skulls aboard and then we packed them in Dixon’s portmanteau and locked it and no except our two selves had an idea that there are a dozen human skulls on board and they shan’t know either,” he wrote, according to the university’s working paper.

The islanders first demanded the repatriation of the skulls in 2015, but it was only after the Black Lives Matter movement placed pressure on universities around the world to reassess their colonial legacies that Trinity College Dublin established its Legacies Review Working Group — creating for the first time a formal mechanism to consider the islanders’ campaign.

The group is also considering a separate campaign to rename the university’s main Berkeley Library. The library is named after the same enslaver Anglo-Irish philosopher George Berkeley, for whom the city of Berkeley, Calif., is also named.

Coyne compared the looting of the Irish burial remains to the treatment of Native Americans and Indigenous Australians under colonialism.

“It’s like what happened to any people that were colonized,” she said.