When the pair snuck into the island’s crumbling monastery to steal human skulls under cover of darkness, they knew what they were doing was wrong, even by 1890 ethical standards.

The looters “have gone to bed” to the sound of approaching travellers.

“When the coast was clear”, Alfred Haddon later wrote, “we put our booty in the sack”.

But they weren’t common thieves, they considered themselves men of science.

Haddon was a British anthropologist and Fellow of the Royal College of Science. His accomplice in the skull removal was Irish medical student Andrew Dixon.

The couple smuggled the 13 skulls off the island of Inishbofin – an Atlantic-battered island off the west coast of Ireland – telling sailors their bag contained poitin, an alcohol Irish distilled.

The men were affiliated with Ireland’s oldest and most prestigious university, Trinity College Dublin (TCD), and the remains ended up in the university’s collections.

“We want them to rest in peace”

One hundred and thirty-two years later, the skulls are still locked away in the old Trinity Anatomy Museum. Now the islanders of Inishbofin are determined to get them back.

“We just want them to come home,” says Marie Coyne, an Inishbofin historian and an active member of the island’s campaign to have the remains repatriated.

“That’s where they were stolen,” she told Sky News, standing at the St Colman site.

“It’s a crime. We want the remains of our people brought back to ‘Bofin and we want to bury them here. And we want them to rest in peace.”

Image:
St Colman’s Monastery on Inishbofin. The skulls are visible in the lower right corner. Photo: Trinity College Dublin
St Colman's Monastery on Inishbofin Island today
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St Colman’s Monastery today

TCD, which has 484 sets of human remains collected from around the world during the colonial era, does not dispute that the skulls were illegally removed from Inishbofin and has set up a task force to try to tackle the “legacies problematic”.

These legacies also include the shadow of slavery.

The TCD’s main library is named after the famous Irish philosopher George Berkeley, who was a member of the university in the 1700s. He later moved to America, and the city of Berkeley, California, and its famous university are both named in his honor.

Islander skulls measured with a craniometer on the island of Inishbofin, 1893. Photo: Trinity College Dublin
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The skull of an islander measured with a craniometer on Inishbofin in 1893. Photo: Trinity College Dublin

However, records show he also purchased at least four slaves to work on his Rhode Island plantation in the 1730s, and current Trinity students demand that the Berkeley library be named.

“I think Trinity as an institution should be embarrassed,” says Gabi Fullam, president of the TCD Students’ Union. “As a student and someone who frequents this library, I not only find this embarrassing, I find it demeaning.”

“We’re going to tackle this head on”

Professor Eoin O’Sullivan is senior dean at TCD and leads the working group that tackles historical issues.

‘I think it reflects an old university,’ he told Sky News, ‘and that there were practices at the university which in the current position we would not support, but which were at perfectly explainable and understandable at the time.

“I think the important thing is that Trinity is saying ‘we’re going to tackle this issue head-on’.”

The Berkely Library at Trinity College Dublin, named after slave owner George Berkely
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The Berkeley Library at Trinity College Dublin, named after slave owner George Berkeley

In a statement, TCD said its board had decided to “work with the people of Inishbofin and the statutory authorities to find a solution that respects the wishes of the islanders”.

It’s still accepting submissions from the public on the Berkeley Library’s separate issue through January.

Other legacy issues

TCD, 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 plans in September to repatriate ancient mummified human remains to Egypt. In Northern Ireland, the Ulster Museum recently returned human remains and other sacred objects to Hawaii.

In the UK, the University of Cambridge is considering returning more than 100 Beninese bronzes stolen from Nigeria, while the British Museum is under continued pressure from Greece to return the famous Parthenon marbles.

Back on Inishbofin, the wider international picture seems out of place. For the islanders, the injustice is black and white and so is the solution.

“The skulls were stolen here,” Ms. Coyne said, “and they have to come back here. They have to come home.”

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