3 Headhunting In Ireland: Grave robbing in Inisbofin


Inisbofin Colman 600Teampall Colmáin or St. Colman’s Church with the  cache of skulls in the alcove on the right. The photograph was probably taken by Haddon during a fishing survey in 1890 when he ‘removed’ 13 crania from the church.


They took more than measurements and photographs however. When they could they collected the skulls of dead islanders and lodged them in the musuem in Trinity, the collection of specimens being an integral part of the way they worked. In 1893, Browne recorded that “In addition to the observations made on the living subject , the measurements of a series of crania, the first ever put in the record from this island (Inisbofin) were obtained at St. Colman’s Church, in Knock townland (above). As they could not be removed at the time of my first visit, I was forced to measure them on the spot, and, as it turned out afterwards, it was well that this precaution had been taken, as, in revisiting the place some time after, I found that they had all disappeared, having in the meantime been removed to some place of concealment.”


Dr. Charles R. Brown, photographs


Haddon and Browne published a written report of their research – an ethnography – in 1893. This was ground breaking stuff and Haddon was getting noticed. In 1893 he moved back to Cambridge and led an expedition to Torres in 1898. He gained a reputation as a pioneering and influential ethnographer. He also became widely known as Haddon ‘the Head Hunter,’ a nickname he had had as a young boy. Browne remained in Dublin. He set up a general practice in 66 Harcourt St. but continued his involvement in Anthropology in association with Cunningham. He is remembered primarily through his involvement with Haddon in Aran, a mere footnote in the development of Anthropology in Britain.

It is not widely known that Browne continued with his surveys – and his headhunting – throughout the 1890s. In 1889 he reported to the Royal Irish Academy he had surveyed Inishbofin and Inishark, The Mullet, Iniskea, Portacloy, Ballycroy, Clare Island and Inishturk. He went on to survey Garumna and Lettermullen in 1898 and Carna and Mweenish, Connemara in1900.


Tomas O C

an tOileanach / the island man Tomás O Coimhthain (centre) photographed in  by Browne in 1897


He carried out a photographic survey of Dun Chaoin in 1897 but no evidence of an ethnography has been found, whether it was written or not. In 1903 funding was sought from the Royal Irish Academy to carry out an ethnographic survey of Donegal but it does not appear to have taken place. After that Browne disappears from the record. He went to England where he was appointed as a Surgeon Lieutenant of the Gloucestershire Regiment in October 1904. His death in 1931 was recorded by the Royal Irish Academy.

In 1997 a very elderly lady, Browne’s daughter, donated six photographic albums to the Library in Trinity. They contained a remarkable collection of photographs documenting the work of the Anthropometry Laboratory and the ethnographic surveys of the west coast of Ireland. These photographs had never been published, apart from a small number that were included in the proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy in the 1890s. They are remarkable for two reasons: as a collective portrait of the people of the west coast of Ireland and, as a record of the development of social documentary photography in the 1890s.

In 1895 Browne was in Mayo. He was having difficulty taking photographs in the wind and rain but he still managed to get “17 portraits, 14 of them individuals measured, 12 groups, taken in all parts of the district, 30 illustrations of the occupations, modes of transport, and habitations of the people, also several of the antiquities of the district, and a set of views showing surface of land and nature of coastline, etc.

 Some of these photographs were taken by myself, others by my brother J. M. Browne. The  addition of the hand camera to our appliances has proved to be a great advantage, enabling portraits of unwilling subject to be taken, and adding to the value of the photographs of occupations by admitting of their being taken when the performers were in motion. It could also be used when the high winds would not allow the setting up of a tripod stand.”


Camera Skull 500


A selection of these photographs went on exhibition in the Blasket Centre in Dun Chaoin, West Kerry where it will be on show until the end of June 2012. After that  travelled to Aran, Connemara and the Museum of Country life in Mayo, all the places Browne surveyed. in September 2013 it was shown in the Haddon Library in Cambridge and NUI Maynooth.

It is one of the most important photographic archives to come into the public domain in a long time; Browne has named many of the people in the photographs, a fact that sets them apart from every other archive. And there is more. The ethnographies are full of detailed descriptions of  the lives of the people of the west of Ireland. The devil is in the detail and Browne’s observations are incredibly evocative. He tells us, for instance, that the amount of potatoes and fish in the diet of islanders combined with ‘the abuse of tea’ seemed to result in a lot of flatulence and constipation.

Elsewhere he remarks that ‘The people on the whole are good-looking, especially when young; many of the girls and young women are very handsome, but they appear to age rapidly and early become wrinkled.’ Hardly surprising given that ‘Whatever may be said of the people of other western districts, the people of these islands are not idle or lazy. They could not live if they were, as life is one long struggle to them.” It seems the Irish Headhunter had a heart after all.


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Posted on

November 5, 2013