Headhunting in Ireland: Haddon and Browne


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The most comprehensive survey of island life in Ireland is largely the work of one man, Charles R. Browne, a G.P. and anthropologist from Dublin who documented the lives of people on the west coast of Ireland between 1891 and 1900. The results of the survey are held in six photographic albums in the Library of Trinity College Dublin and in various reports (ethnographies) published in the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy between 1893 and 1900.


Anthropometry Inisbofin 6007


It covers the Aran Islands, Inishbofin and Inishshark in County Galway as well as Garumna, Lettermullen, Carna and Mweenish in Connemara; The Mullet, Inishkea Islands, Portnacloy, Ballycroy, Clare Island and Inishturk in Mayo and the Blasket Islands in Kerry. It recorded everything, from coastline and surface to antiquities, modes of life, housing and health but the heart of it all was the people themselves. Their physical appearance was recorded in minute detail, down to fractions of an inch when it came to head size and cranial capacity.

Lots of photographs were taken. These were kept by Browne in his albums and some were used to illustrate the ethnographies in the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. This archive is singular in terms of its depiction the people living in the west of Ireland in the 1890s,  people like Myles Joyce, the schoolmaster on Inishbofin with his daughter; Sean ‘The Common Noun’ Ó Dálaigh and all the schoolchildren in Vicarstown, Dún Chaoin; the first photographs of the Great Blasket Island; the kings of North Iniskea and Inishark and Edward O’Malley of Clare Island. Browne’s ethnographic survey has been overlooked for more than a century, probably because of its origins in 19th century anthropology and the scientific work of royal societies and institutions in Victorian Ireland. That is about as far away from island life as you could get.


Dr. Charles R. Brown, photographs


Very little is known about Browne himself. He is remembered mostly as the co-author of The Ethnography of the Aran Islands. The other author was Alfred Cort Haddon, one of the most important people in terms of the development of anthropology and ethnography as scientific disciplines. Haddon cut his ethnographic teeth on the Aran Islands between 1891 and 1893 and then he left. Shortly afterwards he earned the nickname Haddon ‘the Headhunter’ because of his voracious collection of ‘specimens’ in the Pacific. This has eclipsed the role Browne played in the development of ethnography in Ireland. But Browne had continued working, surveying, photographing and collecting his own specimens, skulls taken from the graves of dead islanders and lodged in the Anthropological Museum in Trinity College Dublin.

Alive or dead, the heads of the people of the islands in the west of Ireland were believed to hold the key to the origins of the Irish race. The search for that key was the sole basis for Browne’s survey of life on the islands. Charles R. Browne was the Irish headhunter. His photographic portrait of Philip Lavelle, King of Iniskea North (1894), is a by-the-book taking of a head, nothing else.


The Irish Headhunters

It takes about two weeks to preserve a brain inside a severed human head. First you remove the head and then you pump preservatives through the carotids, repeating the procedure until the brain is sufficiently hardened to allow work to commence. This is the short version. A detailed and altogether more gruesome description is contained in the Cunningham Memoirs in the library of the The Royal Irish Academy.

The work in question is an investigation into the difference between man (europeans and negroes) and  anthropoid apes (orangs and gibbons). This was happening in Dublin in 1886 in the Anatomy Department of Trinity College Dublin. Cunningham was professor of Anatomy and Surgery between 1883 and 1903. He was investigating the origin of the human species in the aftermath of an intensely political and religious struggle that ended, sort of, with the triumph of evolutionary theory.


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Alfred Cort Haddon and Charles R. Browne 


The human head was the focus of a lot of attention. A report from 1906 describes a meeting of the Ethnological Society in York where a table was laden with skulls that the ladies, several of whom were present it was noted, ‘handled with as little trepidation as they would a water melon.’ Size mattered … enormously. Cranial capacity – brain size – was regarded as one of the main things that separated humans from anthropoid apes. Cunningham was digging deep to find out exactly why. While Cunningham stayed in the lab, others went out into the field. Anatomical evolution represented one part of anthropological investigation. The development of human societies represented another and a lot of time was spent gathering information on other – non white Anglo Saxon – people that the empire had gathered up in the commonwealth, the so-called savages.

Ireland was a special case. How did one explain the presence of a primitive (white) race living in the back yard of the United Kingdom? The answer had to lie in the origin of the species, in this case the Irish peasant in remote communities all along the west coast.  The Victorians began to search for evidence that might explain the existence of the ‘black’ or ‘Africanoid’ Irish. Justin Carville specialises in the connection between ethnography, photography and the representation of Irishness. He points to the jutting lower jaw of the Irish as the principal evidence used to suggest a link between Irish primitives and, ultimately, anthropoid apes.


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Philip Lavelle, King of Iniskea North


Being Victorian, the scientific community needed something more ‘scientific’ in terms of proof. So, like good ethnographers, they set about collecting information on the physical characteristics and customs of the native Irish. Cranial capacity was high on the agenda. Enter the head hunters.

Cunningham had a young assistant called Charles R. Browne. He had entered Trinity in 1885 and was studying medicine. They were joined by Alfred Cort Haddon, a zoologist who had developed an interest in ethography following an 1888 expedition to the Torres Strait Islands just north of Australia.

In 1891 they persuaded the Provost and Senior Fellows in Trinity to make part of the Museum of Comparative Anatomy available for an Anthropometry Laboratory. It was equipped with a grant from the Royal Irish Academy. The plan was to transfer the laboratory during the ‘long vacation’ to a carefully selected district in order to carry out an ethnographical survey of the physical characters and habits of the inhabitants as a way of ‘giving assistance to the anthropologist in his endeavours to unravel the tangled skein of the so-called Irish race.’


Na Taliban, Men and Women Inis Meain, 1891, 038_MS10961-4_0007.t


In 1893 Haddon and Browne ‘pitched their tent’ in Aran and set about recording the  eye colour, skin pigmentation and, of course, cranial capacity of anyone they could get their hands on. The idea that the ‘Aranites’ might be traced to an ancient race of ‘Firbolgs’ had, no doubt, influenced the decision to go there. The whole thing was photographed, photography being regarded as an essential part of the anthropometrists kit along with the Travellers Anthropometer, the compas d’épaisseur, the compas glissière and the index of Nigressence, a complex formula for determining the ‘blackness’ of a subject.


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Posted on

November 4, 2013