L-R: Prof David Prendergast and Ciarán Walsh, Dept of Anthropology, and Dr Mark Maguire, Dean of Social Sciences, with a copy of the thesis Walsh submitted as the first stage in the completion of a 4 year research project that was funded by the Irish Research Council and Shanahan Research Group (photo: Jamie Saris)..

Ciarán Walsh|www.curator.ie has submitted a thesis in partial fulfilment of a PhD at Maynooth University, the next stage being a defence of his research and findings. The thesis represents the culmination of a ten year investigation of the photographic archive of the Irish Ethnographic Survey, which was active in the West of Ireland between 1891 and 1890.

The project took place in two phases. The first phase, the Irish “Headhunter” Project was a collaboration with Dáithí de Mórdha and involved an exhibition of photographs drawn from a set of albums that were compiled by Charles R. Browne in 1897 and donated to TCD 100 years later. The photographs had never been shown in public and attracted a lot of attention from the anthropological community in Ireland.

Mark Maguire, Ciarán Walsh , Nicola Reynolds and Steve Coleman at the launch of the Irish “Headhunter” Project in Maynooth University in 2013.

The discovery of important new material in Cambridge and Dublin in 2013 and 2014 opened the way for a second phase, an intensive four-year investigation of the skull measuring business in Ireland in the 1890s. The research was funded by the Irish Research Council and Shanahan Research Group and managed by Maynooth University in partnership with TCD School of Medicine. The focus shifted from physical anthropology–the skull measuring business–to the role of photography in a politically radical and formally innovative social documentary project launched by Alfred Cort Haddon in the Aran Islands in 1890.

A village community, the Aran Islands. Haddon & Dixon, 1890, Inishmaan (Inis Meáin), silver gelatine, glass-plate negative, 8 x 11 cm (©TCD).

The thesis is titled “The Skull Measuring Business,” a phrase that resonates with a particular view of Victorian anthropology as practised in Ireland in the 1890s. It captures perfectly the idea of English scientists travelling to the periphery of the United Kingdom to trace the racial origins of the “native” Irish at the height of the home rule crisis.

Indeed, Patrick Geddes, the bio-social innovator, coined the phrase to describe a restricted form of Anglo-French anthropology that has become inextricably linked to eugenics, the theoretical precursor of scientific racism. Geddes was warning Haddon that a radical approach to social organisation represented the future of anthropology. This study attempts to find out how Haddon responded, in view of the fact that he was photographed measuring skulls in the Aran Islands in 1892. It builds upon the discovery in 2013 and 2014 of “lost” documentary and photographic material in Dublin and Cambridge.

This triggered a review–an “Irish” reading–of Haddon’s papers, concentrating on mostly uncatalogued material relating to his experimental ethnographical surveys of ethnical islands in the west of Ireland. It became clear that the facts uncovered contradict conventional accounts of the skull measuring business; narratives that are usually structured around evolution, race, and imperialism. Instead, Haddon emerges as an English radical and supporter of home rule. He built a network of folklore collectors that constituted an anti-imperial, Anglo-Irish folklore movement, which was aligned with the cultural programme of Douglas Hyde. That has been forgotten, overlooked, or misinterpreted.

Furthermore, Haddon preferred photography to text and his use of the magic lantern as an instrument of anti-colonial activism represents a singular modernist achievement in anthropology. Ironically, this has remained invisible to many historians of disciplinary anthropology. This thesis attempts to correct this by killing some anthropological tropes and creating space for alternative narratives.