Trinity College Dublin grapples with a slave owner’s legacy and 13 human skulls stolen in the dead of night

An internal group within an Irish university is investigating their legacy issues – including what to do with 13 ancient skulls stolen from an island over 100 years ago.

The Legacies Review Working Group, which met for the first time last week, is part of Trinity College Dublin’s formal process of reviewing legacy issues since its inception in 1592.

Following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020, a wave of protests began across the United States and around the world as part of a reckoning of racial injustice.

The Black Lives Matter movement has placed a focus on statues of figures with controversial pasts, putting pressure on governments, universities and institutions to think about how they are remembered.

The first two questions the working group will address are whether Trinity’s Berkeley Library should be renamed and what should happen to the human remains of Inishbofin now held by Trinity.

Trinity’s main library was named in 1978 after the famous philosopher George Berkeley, who was a slave owner.

“Well I think for Berkeley you get very polarized opinions on that,” Senior Dean at Trinity Eoin O’Sullivan, head of the working group, told the PA news agency.

“Some of the entries say, ‘The library is named after him, not because he was a slave owner, but because he was a brilliant philosopher.’ So how do you separate the two, and is it possible?

“How do you separate the unsavory parts of some of these characters’ stories from their contributions to science, to philosophy, whatever?”

“It’s complicated,” he said.

Regarding the stolen skulls taken from a monastery on the island of Inishbofin in 1890 by two Trinity-affiliated academics, Mr O’Sullivan said it was chosen as the first case because it is clear what happened.

After sketching the skulls in the corner of the monastery of St. Colman, considered sacred by the islanders, Alfred C. Haddon and Andrew F. Dixon took away 13 human skulls in the middle of the night.

The journal entry also states that when Dixon was asked by seafarers to hand over the bag, “would not give it up” and told the men it contained “poitin” – a distilled Irish alcohol.

Prof O’Sullivan said: “We chose this one first because the provenance is very clear: we have his diary, we know he took these skulls without the consent of the islanders and bundled them in a bag and put them on the boat back to Trinity with them.

“When we were down in Inishbofin two weeks ago one of the islanders (asked us) took them because they wanted to sell them and no they actually thought that was good science at the time.
“It’s a simple science [at the time]attempted to identify characteristics of different peoples, and one way of doing this was by identifying and measuring different types of skulls.

As the skulls are estimated to be around 400 to 500 years old, under Irish law they could fall under the purview of the National Museum of Ireland, which is represented on the working group alongside students and scholars.

“This is not just an Irish or Trinity problem, it’s a global problem in how we deal with some of these legacies,” said Prof O’Sullivan.

The Working Group has no authority to say what to do in either case, but will outline options for the Trinity Provost and Board to consider.

Marie Coyne, a genealogist who founded the Inishbofin Heritage Museum, said islanders are demanding the skulls be returned and that the process is taking too long.

“We, as islanders, want them back and we want to bury them,” she told the PA.

“We don’t think what happened was right.

“If a priceless painting were stolen, every guard in the country would look for it, and it is more sacred than any priceless painting.”

Two petitions demanding the return of the skulls were signed: a physical copy containing up to 170 names of people on the island; and a second online petition with over 800 names collected.

Ms Coyne said: “There seem to have been a lot of hurdles in recent years.

“It’s coming to a head and we’d be curious to see what they do or decide.

“How much longer can you put it off? I think they could have been a little more accommodating.”

Mr O’Sullivan said: “[The working group] was something we dreamed up with the Provost over the summer, and Linda (Doyle) was very clear that I want to have a couple of key principles in there: I want to be evidence-based, I want it to be transparent, but I want it also it will be open to the public.

“This isn’t just an internal ‘Trinners’ thing, we’re funded by the state, we always have been, and so it shouldn’t just be our current students or alumni who should be involved, but the general public – Trinity is a public institution in the center of Dublin.”

A call for contributions from the public, staff and students will be launched in the new year asking for other issues related to Trinity history that should be similarly explored.

The Trinity Legacies Review Working Group invites the public to evidence-based contributions to both the Berkeley Library and the Inishbofin skulls.

Submissions for Inishbofin will be accepted by Wednesday, December 7, 2022 and submissions for the Berkeley Library will be accepted by Tuesday, January 31. Trinity College Dublin grapples with a slave owner’s legacy and 13 human skulls stolen in the dead of night

Fry Electronics Team

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