The Skull Measuring Business

A miscellany of murderous little facts from the hidden spaces of anthropology in Ireland: Some Background

Ciarán Walsh set up in 2010 following the international success of his exhibition “John Millington, Photographer.” His followed this with the ground-breaking “Headhunter” project in 2012 and developed it into a four-year investigation of ethnographic fieldwork conducted by Dublin Anthropometric Laboratory between 1891 and 1900.

His research was funded by the Irish Research Council  and the Shanahan Research Centre (formerly Kimmage Development Studies Centre). The academic programme was managed by Maynooth University in association with the School of Medicine TCD.  The research phase of the project concluded in January 2019 and Walsh was awarded a PhD (Arts) in June 2002.

The Skull Measuring Business

The Dublin Anthropometric Laboratory Laboratory remained something of a mystery to the historians who rewrote the history of of anthropology in the 1890s and still influence accounts of what Haddon was doing in Ireland. Haddon’s story is complicated his involvement in craniology, which his friend and mentor Patrick Geddes derided as the ‘skull measuring business’ in a letter written at the end of 1889.

The Irish Headhunters in action, Charles R. Browne (left) and Alfred Cort Haddon measuring Tom Connelly’s skull in 1892. Courtesy of the Board of Trinity College, University of Dublin.

Three years later Haddon took a selfie of himself and Charles R. Browne measuring Tom Connelly’s skull in the Aran Island and explaining that photograph has generated a ground breaking history of Anglo-Irish anthropology in the context of home rule and a wider anti-imperial movement.

Murderous Little Facts

Francis Galton recalled a conversation with Herbert Spencer about the relation between theory and fact.

He [Spencer] burst into a good-humoured and uproarious laugh, and told me the famous story which I have heard from each of the other two who were present on the occurrence. Huxley was one of them. Spencer, during a pause in conversation at dinner at the Athenaeum, said, “You would little think it, but I once wrote a tragedy.” Huxley answered promptly, “I know the catastrophe.” Spencer declared it was impossible for he had never spoken about it before then. Huxley insisted. Spencer asked what it was. Huxley relied, “A beautiful theory, killed by a nasty, ugly little fact.”

Francis Galton, 1908, Memories of My Life, p. 258).

I came across this quite late in my research, but it neatly summarised what I was finding. Unpacking the Dublin Anthropometric Laboratory – literally and metaphorically – produced a lot of facts that did not fit well established historical narratives of anthropology in Ireland and England in the 1890s. It became clear that some of those narratives needed to be killed off and significant elements of the history of  anthropology re-written. The history of the Dublin Anthropometric Laboratory and its programme of ethnographic fieldwork in the West of Ireland is a case in point.

Anthropology’s Forgotten Spaces in Ireland

The Dublin Anthropometric Laboratory is a largely forgotten space. It usually warrants little more than a footnote in the history of anthropology, usually in the context of the career of Haddon.

The Laboratory opened in TCD in June 1891 and, when it ceased ceased operation in 1903,  its collection of anatomical specimens were put into storage in the Department of  Anatomy. Andrew Francis Dixon, who replaced Cunningham as Professor of Anatomy in 1903, kept some records but these were put into long term storage – in a tea-chest under the anatomy theatre – in 1948, along with the collections of the Anthropological and Comparative Anatomy Museums. In 1986 Forrest (1986: 1384) found no trace of the original records of the Dublin Anthropometric Laboratory. All that was left was a considerable collection of human remains that were hidden away in the “skulls passage” behind the anatomy theatre.


These skulls are the subject of a repatriation claim by communities in Inishbofin, Aran, and The Glen (St Finian’s Bay) in Kerry. Provost Paddy Prendergast supported the claiming 2021, TCD did a u-turn when the “Old” Anatomy Working Group objected to repatriation shortly afterward. Negotiations entered a new phase in July 2020 when Provost Linda Doyle agreed to meet community representatives on September 1, 2022 to discuss the repatriation claim.


 Academic Research in the Anthropology of Europe


Posted on

August 22, 2022