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17th Jul 2023

Skulls stolen from Inishbofin in 1890 returned home for burial

Fiona Frawley

Inishbofin skulls returned for burial

Header image via Facebook/Inishbofin Heritage Museum

The skulls were smuggled off of Inishbofin by British anthropologist and ethnologist Alfred Cort Haddon.

Inishbofin locals attended a mass and burial over the weekend for 13 skulls, which were stolen from the island  133 years ago and brought to Trinity College in Dublin.

The remains were taken from a graveyard by St Colman’s Church on Inishbofin in 1890 by Trinity’s Old Anatomy Museum academic Prof Alfred C Haddon and medical student Andrew F Dixon. Haddon is said to have openly admitted to smuggling the remains and bringing them to Trinity in a diary.

In an entry shared by the Irish Times, Haddon writes that two sailors on the steamer back to Galway port wanted to take the bag from Dixon as they boarded but he wouldn’t let them, and when asked what was in it, he told them it was “poteen”.

“So without any further trouble we got our skulls aboard and packed them in Dixon’s portmanteau and locked it; no one on the steamer other than ourselves knew…” Haddon wrote.

In February of this year, Trinity issued an apology for taking the skulls without consent and agreed to return them “in a respectful manner and in accordance with the community’s wishes”.

A traditional pine coffin made by local man Christopher Day transported the skulls back to Inishbofin via ferry, where they were then carried to St Colman’s Cemetery by a procession of islanders.

Speaking to the Irish Times, island archaeologist and historian Tommy Burke said:

“It is rarely, if ever, that people get an opportunity to right an historical wrong. Today, the people from that time so long ago have been given a voice again through their descendants.”


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