Ireland

Reburial ceremony held as 400-year-old human skulls returned to Irish island

Thirteen skulls have been returned to the island Inishbofin off Ireland’s west coast (Inishbofin Heritage Museum/PA)
Thirteen skulls have been returned to the island Inishbofin off Ireland’s west coast (Inishbofin Heritage Museum/PA) Thirteen skulls have been returned to the island Inishbofin off Ireland’s west coast (Inishbofin Heritage Museum/PA)

A reburial ceremony has been held on an Irish island as 13 human skulls that were stolen by academics more than 100 years ago were returned.

The skulls, thought to be around 400 years old, were taken from a monastery on the island of Inishbofin off Ireland’s west coast by two Trinity University-affiliated academics in 1890.

After sketching the skulls in the nook of St Colman’s monastery, considered sacred by the islanders, Alfred C Haddon and Andrew F Dixon took the skulls in the middle of the night.

Haddon’s diary entry stated that when asked by sailors bringing them back to the mainland to hand over the satchel, “Dixon would not give it up” and told the men it contained “poitin”, a distilled Irish alcohol.

“So without any further trouble, 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,” the entry read.

As part of a process to formally review legacy issues since its foundation, Trinity set up a group to examine whether the skulls should be returned, as well as whether the university’s library, named after Irish philosopher and slave-owner George Berkeley, should be renamed.

Headed up by Senior Dean at Trinity Eoin O’Sullivan, the Trinity Legacies Review Working Group researched the issue before offering a number of options to the board of Trinity University on what action it could take.

Mr O’Sullivan said the two anthropologists took the skulls because “they actually thought that this was good science at the time”.

The skulls were placed in a traditional coffin designed by architect Christopher Day (Inishbofin Heritage Museum/PA)

In February, the university’s board agreed to return the skulls; Trinity Provost Dr Linda Doyle apologised to the islanders for retaining the remains and thanked them for their engagement.

The decision to return the remains follows years of campaigning by Inishbofin historian, Marie Coyne.

An online petition page that had called for the skulls to be returned had been updated with a message this week.

“Many have been waiting for this day for a long time.

“It’s a step toward healing and honouring these people who were laid to rest on Inishbofin,” it said.

On Saturday, the skulls arrived on the island, wrapped in plastic and placed in a traditional coffin designed by architect Christopher Day.

A funeral mass was held on Sunday before the 13 skulls were buried in the coffin.