Thirteen human skulls stolen from an Irish island more than 130 years ago have been returned and are now reinterred at the site from which they were taken.
The 400-year-old skulls were collected on this day in 1890 from the island of Inishbofin, County Galway, off the west coast of Ireland, by two academics and kept at Trinity College Dublin (TCD) for more than a century.
After a campaign by the islanders, TCD earlier this year apologized for the theft and agreed to return the remains.
A funeral service was held on the island today, before the skulls were brought back to the ruined monastery of St Colman, from where they were stolen 133 years ago to the day.
Inishbofin resident Marie Coyne, who led the campaign for the return of the skulls, said: “It’s the full stop at the end of a sentence. This journey has lasted so long, that’s why we all waited and hoped and all emotions.
“And now it’s just stopped. We can relax. It happened.”
How the skulls were torn out
The story of the stolen skulls had faded into history, before a new campaign by the islanders forced their return.
In 1890 the skulls were removed from the graveyard attached to the medieval city of St Colman by Trinity University Professor Alfred C Haddon – a British anthropologist – and fellow researcher Andrew F Dixon.
It was an era of craniometry, involving the measurement of islanders’ skulls, and Haddon later admitted to the theft in his diary.
“When the coast was clear,” he wrote, “we put our loot in the sack.” The couple smuggled the 13 skulls off Inishbofin telling sailors their bag contained poitin, an Irish distilled spirit.
The skulls were taken to Ireland’s oldest and most prestigious university, Trinity College Dublin. There they languished, mostly behind closed doors in the former Anatomy Museum, for more than a century.
In February this year, TCD announced that a task force had recommended returning the skulls to the board.
Trinity Provost Dr Linda Doyle said: “I am sorry for the upheaval caused by the preservation of these remains and thank the Inishbofin community for their advocacy and engagement with us on this issue.”
Alfred Haddon’s great-granddaughter, Clare Rishbeth, was present at today’s ceremony.
Ms Rishbeth, who traveled to Inishbofin from her home in Sheffield, told the congregation at St Colman’s Church: “On behalf of the Haddon and Rishbeth families, I would like to apologize to the islanders for this act.
“I’m really glad we can right this wrong.”
How the Skulls Came Home
Last Wednesday, the islanders traveled to Dublin to begin the skulls’ return journey. The remains were placed in a custom-made coffin with separate compartments.
Trinity College Chapel held a service before the skulls were placed in a hearse and driven across the country to Co Galway.
The skulls were transported to Inishbofin yesterday ahead of today’s ceremony and re-internment.
Trinity College, established in 1592 by royal charter from Queen Elizabeth, and a major tourist attraction in Dublin, is by no means the only university or museum struggling with legacy issues.
University College Cork announced in September 2022 that it would repatriate ancient mummified human remains to Egypt. Museums in Scotland and Northern Ireland have returned human remains and other sacred objects to Hawaii.
The University of Cambridge is considering returning more than 100 Beninese bronzes stolen from Nigeria, while the British Museum is under constant pressure from Greece to return the famous Elgin Marbles.
“Where does it stop? Are we emptying the museums?” asks researcher and curator Dr Ciaran Walsh.
“I guess the simple answer is that everything that’s been stolen, everything that’s human, has to go back. The British Museum stones, the Elgin marbles… they have to go back.
“If things are stolen, if things are important in terms of the ancestry of the communities wherever they are, whether it’s Inishbofin or Papua New Guinea, things have to go back.
“This story is not a local story on a small island on the west coast of Ireland, it is an international, global process that needs to be accelerated.”