The ‘Irish Head-hunter’ Project 2010 – 23




The Irish ‘Head-hunter’ project commenced life in 2010 as a photographic exhibition focussed on an ethnographic archive Charles R. Browne assembled in 1897. The project has its origins in Ciarán Walsh’s critically acclaimed 2009 exhibition John Millington Synge Photographer, which included photographs taken in the Aran Islands in 1898. Felicity O’Mahony managed the Synge collection for the Manuscripts Library at TCD and drew Walsh’s attention to an earlier collection of photographs that record the work the Irish Ethnographic Survey, which operated in the west of Ireland between 1892 and 1897. That was the beginning of a community engagement process that developed in collaboration Dáithí De Mórdha, Ionad an Bhlascaoid and Jane Maxwell, the Manuscripts Library TCD.

The project went public in 2012 with the ‘Irish Head-hunter’ exhibition and developed into a long-term colonial legacies project that reached a conclusion of sorts in 2023 with the return and burial of the remains of thirteen individuals that A. C. Haddon stole in 1890. Along the way, the project the became a critical review of the history of Anglo-Irish anthropology in the colonial era and that strand culminates in two events in 2023. The first is an exhibition titled ’Haddon and the Aran Islands: the beginning of visual anthropology’ which opens in the Royal Anthropological Institute in London on 15 October 2023, which features the photography of John Millington Synge. The exhibition frames the publication of Walsh’s book Alfred Cort Haddon; A Very English Savage, which will be launched in the RAI on 31 October 2023. This post revisits and updates the original material published online as the project developed. Some of it is very naive in terms of understanding the complexity of the relationship between Browne and Haddon but, as such, record he evolution of the The Irish ‘Head-hunter’ project.

Charles R. Browne

In 1891 Charles R. Browne and his colleagues went headhunting in the Aran Islands. They robbed the graves of dead islanders and took the heads of the living with a camera. The skulls were put in a display case in the Anthropological Museum in Trinity College, University of Dublin (TCD) and the photographs were pasted into a series of albums, six of which survive and are held in the Manuscript Library of Trinity College. These men were academically trained scientists, Browne being the first graduate of a form of academic anthropology developed in TCD in the early 1890s . A. C. Haddon, Browne’s English counterpart, operated out of an anthropometric laboratory in TCD, which the mobilised in 1892 and went searching for evolutionary traces that would reveal the origins of the Irish race. The search commenced in the Aran Islands. Haddon was dropped from fileldwork in 1893 but Browne continued head-hunting until 1900. During that time he ‘surveyed’ districts in Kerry, Connemara and Mayo.

TOP: mobile box cameras Browne used in the field and discovered in the Anatomy Museum in TCD in 2014 (photo:, 2014). The camera on the right is a kit-built version of Murer and Duroni’s falling plate camera.’s BOTTOM: C. R. Browne. c. 1897. The Aran Islands / The People. Silver gelatine photographic prints pasted into an album. (Tim Keefe, Sharon Sutton, 2012). Courtesy of the Board of Trinity College, the University of Dublin. Browne collected photographs from several people who photographed the Aran islands between 1890 and 1892, including A. C. Haddon, A. F. Dixon, J. M. Browne (his brother) and Jane Shackleton, who, having seen Haddon’s work, photographed to the islands in 1891.

‘The Irish Headhunter: The Photograph Albums of Charles R. Browne’ was a touring exhibition that featured sixty photographs selected by Ciarán Walsh and Dáithí de Mórdha. The project was a collaboration between Ionad an Bhlascaoid, the Manuscript Library, TCD, the Heritage Council and the OPW.  The exhibition opened in the Blasket Centre in Dun Chaoin – the location of Browne’s 1897 photographic survey – in May 2012. It travelled to Aran, Connemara and the Museum of Country life in Mayo, visiting most of the places Browne surveyed. In September 2013 it was shown in the Haddon Library in Cambridge followed by National University of Ireland (NUI) Maynooth, now Maynooth University, where it was hosted by the Anthropology Society.

Ten years on, Browne’s photographs of Inishbofin feature in exhibition on the old pier on Inishbofin, at the site where Browne measured islanders in 1893. Ciarán Walsh and Marie Coyne, Inishbofin Heritage Museum, curated the exhibition as part of the return and burial of the remains of thirteen individuals A. C. Haddon stole from the community burial in 1890.

Michael Gibbons, archaeologist, guides a group of Notre Dame University scholars through Charles R. Browne’s photographs of Inishbofin in August 2023 (photo: Ciarán Walsh).

Browne’s survey of the communities living on the islands and remote headlands of the west of Ireland in the 1890s, the edge of the western world, is unmatched because of his attention to detail, his interest in social conditions, his naming of subjects and, ultimately, his fascination with the western ‘peasant’ at a time when the integrity of the United Kingdom was under threat because the appalling social and economic conditions he documented triggered land wars and fuelled the Home Rule movement movement.

Philip Lavelle 200


 Page 2: Headhunting in Ireland: Introducing Haddon and Browne>


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November 4, 2013