When these two men entered a ruined island monastery under cover of darkness to steal human skulls, they knew what they were doing was wrong even by the moral standards of the 1890s.

The assailants “lay down” at the sound of approaching passengers.

“When the coast was clear,” Alfred Hayden later wrote, “we sacked our booty.”

But these were no ordinary thieves, they considered themselves men of science.

Haydn was a British anthropologist and Fellow of the Royal College of Science. His partner in scalping was Irish medical student Andrew Dixon.

The pair smuggled 13 skulls off the island of Inishboffin – an Atlantic-flooded island off the west coast of Ireland – by telling sailors that their sack contained poutine, an Irish distilled spirit.

These men were associated with Ireland’s oldest and most prestigious university, Trinity College Dublin (TCD), and the remains passed into the university’s collections.

‘We want them to rest in peace’

One hundred and thirty-two years later, the skulls are still encased in Trinity’s Old Anatomy Museum. Now, the islanders of Inishbofin are determined to get them back.

“We just want them home,” says Mary Quinn, an Inishboffin historian and a voice in the campaign to return the remains to the island.

“This is where they were stolen from,” she tells Sky News, standing at the St Colman’s site.

“This is a crime. We want the remains of our people brought back to ‘Boffin’ and we want them buried here. And we want them to rest in peace.”

St. Colman's Monastery on Inishboffin Island, skull visible in lower right corner.  Photo: Trinity College Dublin
St. Colman’s Monastery at Inishbofin. A skull is visible in the lower right corner. Photo: Trinity College Dublin
Today St. Colman's Monastery on Ansboffin Island
St. Colman’s Monastery today

The TCD, which has a collection of 484 sets of human remains from around the world during the colonial period, does not dispute that the skulls were taken illegally from Anishbofan, and has sought to address the “problem of inheritance”. A working group has been formed for

These legacies also include the shadows of slavery.

TCD’s main library is named after the famous Irish philosopher George Berkeley, who was a fellow of the university in the 1700s. He later moved to America, and both the city of Berkeley, California, and its famous university are named in his honor.

An islander's skull being measured with a craniometer on Inishboffin Island in 1893.  Photo: Trinity College Dublin
An island skull being measured with a craniometer on Inishboffin in 1893. Photo: Trinity College Dublin

However, records show that he also purchased at least four slaves to work on his Rhode Island plantations during the 1730s, and current Trinity students are calling for the Berkeley Library to be renamed. are

“I think Trinity as an institution should be ashamed,” says Gabby Flam, president of the TCD Students’ Union. “As a student, and someone who goes to this library, I don’t just find it embarrassing, I find it disgraceful.”

‘We’re going to deal with it’

Professor Eoin O’Sullivan is Senior Dean of TCD and leads the Working Group on Tackling Historical Issues.

“I think it reflects an old university,” he told Sky News, “and that there were practices at the university that we wouldn’t stand for today, but at the time were very clear and understandable. were

“I think the important thing is that Trinity is saying ‘we’re going to deal with this’.”

Berkeley Library at Trinity College Dublin, named after slave owner George Berkeley
Berkeley Library at Trinity College Dublin, named after slave owner George Berkeley

In a statement, TCD said its board had decided to “work with the people of Innishbofin and the statutory authorities to find a solution that respects the wishes of the islanders.”

It is still taking submissions from the public on a separate Berkeley Library issue through January.

Other legacy issues

TCD, which was created by royal charter from Queen Elizabeth in 1592 and is a major tourist attraction in Dublin, is by no means the only university or museum with legacy problems.

University College Cork announced in September that it would return ancient mummified human remains to Egypt. In Northern Ireland, the Ulster Museum recently returned human remains and other sacred objects to Hawaii.

In the UK, Cambridge University is planning to return more than 100 Benin bronzes stolen from Nigeria, while the British Museum is under continued pressure from Greece to return the famous Parthenon Marbles.

Back at Inishbofin, the wider international picture seems irrelevant. For islanders, injustice is black and white, and so is its solution.

“The skulls were stolen from here, and they need to come back here. They need to come home,” says Mrs. Quinn.

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