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Example of a craniometer being used to measure the cranial length of people on Inishbofin in 1893. Trinity College Dublin

Trinity College set to return 13 skulls taken from Inishbofin over 100 years ago

Trinity Provost Dr Linda Doyle said she was “sorry for the upset that was caused by our retaining of these remains”.

THIRTEEN SKULLS TAKEN from a monastery in Inishbofin by two academics affiliated with Trinity College Dublin over 100 years ago are set to be returned. 

The decision was approved by the board of the college today following the formation of an internal working group last year to review legacy issues since the college’s foundation.

The college said that further engagement will now take place with the Inishbofin community “to identify the appropriate way of returning the remains”.

“The evidence-based process Trinity has engaged in has, we believe, proved its worth,” Eoin O’Sullivan, the senior dean and chair of the legacies working group said.

“The Trinity Legacies Review Working Group will continue to engage with Trinity’s legacy issues on a case-by-case basis.” 

The ancient skulls were stolen from St Colman’s monastery, considered sacred by the islanders, by Alfred C Haddon and Andrew F Dixon in 1890.

After sketching the skulls in the nook of the monastery, Haddon and Dixon took the skulls in the middle of the night.

They were taken for research purposes and have been kept in Trinity’s Old Anatomy Museum.

The college said the context for taking the skulls was a contemporary interest in fields including craniometry (measurement of the cranium) and anthropometry (scientific measurement of individuals). 

Screenshot (232) Haddon’s diary sketch of St Colman’s, including the nook from which he removed the skulls. Trinity College Dublin Trinity College Dublin

The skulls are among more than 484 human remains brought to Trinity from around the world to be used for teaching or research specimens.

A campaign group has been calling for the remains to be returned to the island for reburial for years. The group includes Marie Coyne, a genealogist who set up the Inishbofin Heritage Museum, and Ciarán Walsh of Maynooth University. 

‘Deeply personal’

Speaking to The Journal, Walsh said the community in Inishbofin is “thrilled”. 

“This is deeply, deeply personal for them and you only understand that when you’re on the island,” he said.

“It’s absolutely positive. We spent 10 years working on this, Marie and I, and last November, the whole community from Inishbofin got behind the campaign with the petition, and this is a fantastic result and a speedy result.

“I’ve just been speaking to Marie and she had her family gathered around her in the kitchen, and do you know, that’s where you move from the rarefied atmosphere of academia and you go back to the reality of an island community whose ancestors were stolen in 1890, and they are delighted.”

In a statement today, Trinity Provost Dr Linda Doyle said she was “sorry for the upset that was caused by our retaining of these remains and I thank the Inishbofin community for their advocacy and engagement with us on this issue”.

“We will now work with the community to ensure that the remains are returned in a respectful manner and in accordance with the community’s wishes,” Doyle said.

She also thanked “everyone who engaged with the process that we have put in place to address issues of this nature”.

“I am glad that we have made an evidence-based decision and that our process allowed all points of view to be heard.”

However, Walsh said the return only marks half of the collection that the group expected to be returned. He said the college also has 11 skulls taken from St Finian’s Bay in Kerry and the Aran Islands. 

“TCD has decided to retain those and they’ve put in a process of claims that the Treasury Legacies will process, whereas we regard the entire collection as a whole of grave robbing booty from 1890 and it should have all been returned. But that being said, Inishbofin is a major breakthrough,” he said.

“There’s a lot of human remains in Trinity, some of them are from American communities of origin from all over the world, there’s some from the Torres Straits, so there’s a lot of work to be done.”

Walsh said the group would have preferred if Trinity allowed all of the skulls to be returned for burial, such as they did with Maori remains that were returned to the Te Papu museum New Zealand in 2009. 

“We would have liked if we didn’t have to go to another few steps, but the Trinity Legacies Project has its own way of doing things and it’s progress.”

Walsh said the remains will likely be reburied in Inishbofin’s burial site and marked with a stone.

The announcement of the return comes amid a broader ethical debate around the return of remains from museums and research institutes. 

Last month, the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons of England decided it would no longer display the skeleton of Charles Byrne, a 7 foot 7 Irishman when the museum reopened this month due to “sensitivities”.

Byrne was born in Derry in 1761 with an undiagnosed benign tumour of his pituitary gland, an adenoma, which caused acromegaly and gigantism.

He grew to be over seven and a half feet, or 2.31 metres, tall and made a living exhibiting himself as the ‘Irish Giant’ at shows in Britain.

From 1786, three years after Byrne’s death, until 2017, his skeleton was on display at the museum despite growing pressure to bury the body at sea in accordance with Byrne’s wishes.

In a statement, the Royal College of Surgeons of England said that Byrne’s skeleton will not be displayed any more due to ‘sensitivities’, but it will still be available for ‘bona fide medical research’.

The Trinity legacies group is also reviewing whether the college’s Berkeley Library should be renamed.

The library was named in 1978 after the renowned philosopher George Berkeley, who was a slave-owner.

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