What does the removal of the skeleton of Charles Byrne from public display in London mean for Trinity College Dublin with regard to its retention of 24 skulls stolen from community burial grounds in Inishbofin, the Aran Islands and St. Finian’s Bay, Kerry? The repatriation of these remains has become a test case for the colonial legacies project initiated by Prof Ciarán O’Neill in 2020 and the question now is whether the issue of human remains in collections in London and Dublin tells us anything about the impending judgement on Berkeley’s involvement in slavery.
The trustees of the Hunterian Museum in London have given in into public pressure and decided not to display the remains of Charles O’Brien – an Irish giant known as Charles Byrne – in the museum when it reopens in March 2023, after a five-year revamp. The bad news is that the museum will retain his skeleton and make it available for ‘bona fide’ medical research, despite O’Brien’s wish that his body should be sealed in a lead coffin and buried at sea rather than fall into the hands of body snatchers working for anatomists like Hunter.
The opening sequence of Charles Byrne, the Irish Giant documentary made by Ronin Films for the BBC.
Cornelius Magrath was O’Brien’s anatomical twin and his remains have been on display in the Anatomy Museum in TCD since his death in 1760, at the age of 23. Magrath died in the care of the School of Physic (Medicine) TCD and, unlike O’Brien, there is no record of what he wanted to happen to his body. Legend has it that his body was snatched from a wake, dissected in secret, his skeleton macerated and placed on display.
In 2017, Joe Duffy campaigned on RTÉ to have Magrath’s remains buried, but the failure to prove that the body had been snatched was decisive and the skeleton remained in its display case in the Anatomy Museum. Shortly afterwards Chris Nikkel and Brendan Holland filmed part of their documentary The Giant Gene in the museum and a key question for Holland, as a contemporary Irish giant, was whether he would like his bones to go on public display like Magrath in Dublin and O’Brien in London.
Brendan Holland in the Anatomy Museum TCD during the filming of The Giant Gene for BBC. Photo Chris Nikkel.
The decision to take O’Brien’s bones off display sets a new ethical threshold for anatomy museums and, in the absence of Irish legislation governing this area, has implications for TCD in relation to its retention of 24 stolen skulls in the Haddon Dixon Collection. They are the subject of an decade-long repatriation campaign and every person living on Inishbofin has signed a petition seeking the immediate return for burial of the remains of their ancestors, along with over 900 people who signed an online version of the petition.
The board of TCD rejected their petition last December and decided instead to consult with the community about what happens to the remains, disregarding the skulls stolen in the Aran Islands and St Finian’s Bay despite hard evidence that they were part of the same grave robbing haul. The colonial legacies team in TCD accepted that evidence at a meeting held two months previously with community representatives and their research team but changed their position after the opening council meeting in October, citing the lack of sufficiently robust evidence in relation to the Aran Islands and St Finian’s Bay. Inishbofin did not appear on the agenda of the Council in October or November and did not feature in the Provost’s reports or under any other business. The only information available about the Board meeting in December is an agenda item stating that the board was to receive a verbal update from the Provost on the Trinity Legacies Review Group and that the Senior Dean, Professor Eoin O’Sullivan was to join the meeting for this item.
The Haddon Dixon Repatriation delegation gathers in TCD ahead of a meeting with Provost Linda Doyle and her colonial legacies team. L-R: Pat O’Leary, St Finian’s Bay community representative, Cathy Galvin, journalist and poet, Pegi Vail anthropologist and film maker at New York University, and Ciarán Walsh, curator.ie
TCD did not publicise the fact that no decision had been made to return the skulls from Inishbofin, and it is far from clear whether the repatriation of the remains is an outcome TCD considers open to negotiation. Members of a committee working on the development of the Anatomy Museum set out the terms of the consultation process in a letter sent to the repatriation project in August 2022, and the bottom line is that they regard the stolen skulls as archaeological rather than anthropological in origin, and, as such, may be retained by TCD. Furthermore, the committee made it clear that is does not intend to hand over the remains and, it appears, their stance was confirmed as college policy by the Board in December, although the minutes of that meeting will not be released until approved at the January 2023 meeting. That leaves very little scope for any discussion of repatriation in the proposed consultation.
Inishbofin community burial ground with St Colman’s Monastery in the background. The remains of the islanders’ ancestors rest in the area to the left of the monastery, and the remains held in TCD will be buried here when they are repatriated.
The Anthropological Collection in the ‘Skull Passage‘ in 2017, a service corridor at the back of the old anatomy theatre in TCD where the Haddon Dixon is displayed. The ‘skull passage‘ is likely to remain the repository for ‘special’ research collections like the Haddon Dixon and other ethnological collections.
Removing the remains of O’Brien from public display may focus public attention on the issue of repatriation in relation to museum collections in general and the ongoing saga of the stolen skulls of Inishbofin in particular, but it provides TCD with a precedent for retention. The Anatomy Museum committee will probably propose that they will not display the remains, and, like the Hunterian and other anatomy museums, will make the them available to ‘bona fide’ researchers.
Retention, however, has major implications for the colonial legacies project formally established in 2021, especially as the board of TCD will shortly consider whether or not to rename the Berkeley Library because of Berkeley’s involvement in slavery. The colonial legacies team was confident that the repatriation of the Haddon Dixon Collection would pave the way for this and other more difficult decisions but they were outmanoeuvred by the Anatomy Museum committee last October. The board fudged the issue in December by not making a decision in principle on the return of the stolen skulls and announcing instead its plan to consult – not negotiate – with the community about what happens the collection.
The board does not have the same wriggle room in relation to the Berkeley Library and internal opposition to the move have been well flagged. Should the board side with the opposition, one has to wonder whether the people who govern TCD do not have a problem with its colonial legacies as an aspect of its traditions and institutional identity. If so, one has to wonder whether the colonial legacies project will become an academic exercise, and, if not, maybe repatriation will become possible …