Relatives seeking reburial of historic skeletons removed 30 years ago from Co Galway’s Omey Island graveyard have been told the State has no plans to meet an earlier commitment to return the bones.
The State’s chief archaeologist Michael MacDonagh has apologised to the Omey, Cleggan and Claddaghduff community in Connemara for the lack of communication over the past three decades on the issue.
He said there was no evidence that modern burials were taken during an excavation that was commissioned in the early 1990s after storm damage on the island.
Addressing a packed meeting hosted by Cleggan Claddaghduff Community Council, he outlined details of the ongoing research into the 60 skeletons taken to University College Dublin ( UCD) at that time.
The excavation, led by Prof Tadgh O’Keeffe of UCD, was commissioned after storm damage, coastal erosion and rabbit burrowing exposed several graves on the Omey shoreline.
Council chairman Laurence Conneely told the Sunday Independent he had worked on that excavation and he recalled a verbal commitment was made at the time that the bones would be returned for Christian reburial.
Mr Conneely said islanders took this verbal commitment in good faith. Omey has no year-round permanent residents, but relatives of islanders including Maggie Coohill, now living in England, have long campaigned for this commitment to be met after her late father appealed to her to ensure this would happen.
She said when she first contacted Prof O’Keeffe in 2014, he told her the bones were still being tested and research was continuing, but they would be returned.
In 2019, she contacted Josepha Madigan, who was then culture minister, and she gathered a petition within the local community. More recently, she appealed to President Michael D Higgins to intervene.
These bones deserve Christian burials, no matter when they date from
Dr MacDonagh said he respected the desire for reburials by Ms Coohill and the interest shown by the community, but he said the return of material was not a commitment he was empowered to give.
He explained research was continuing on the skeletons dating from the seventh century to the 16th century, and advances in osteoarchaeology were revealing very interesting information.
Dr MacDonagh told the Sunday Independent that preliminary stratigraphy of a seven-metre coastal strip around the Omey island graveyard had revealed evidence of several roundhouses dating back to between 1800BC and 1500 BC.
He said shifting sands had covered them, and the first burials of up to 350 people at the same location dated from the seventh century AD.
These burials may have been linked to the monastery run by St Féichin on the tidal island, although no monastic remains were found to date, the archaeologist said.
Sand covered these early burials, along with several stone altars dating back to the 10th century, and the next phase involved 50 burials in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Once again sand claimed these graves. A series of houses built in the same area in the 18th and 19th centuries may have been constructed when there was “no memory” of a graveyard, Dr MacDonagh said.
An 1840s map of the island showed a settlement of houses.
A more recent excavation in 2015 and 2016 by archaeologist Linda Lynch 100 metres west of the early 1990s dig revealed five burials dating from the 10th to 12th centuries.
These burials include a male and “probable” female together — and their skeletons are showing signs of blunt force trauma.
Dr MacDonagh said he has promised to keep the community updated annually, and “sooner” if there is further research to report on.
He said Prof O’Keeffe had been very helpful in sharing his research, and it was planned to remove all the material from UCD to the National Monuments Service later this year for further radiocarbon dating and osteoarchaeological analysis.
Independent Connemara-based archaeologist Michael Gibbons, who attended the meeting, proposed a representative sample of bones should be returned to the graveyard.
Ms Coohill said she would still “like to know why human remains found in other counties in Ireland have been shown respect and given Christian burials, and why that hasn’t happened in Galway”.
“I think the Government department in charge of this should be ashamed after 30 years and still wanting more time,” she said.
“These bones deserve Christian burials, no matter when they date from,” she added, saying these had to be ancestors of islanders in her view.