Wednesday 13 December 2017

When the head hunters went way out west

Majella O'Sullivan

Majella O'Sullivan

HE is considered one of our most important writers, but in a picture taken nearly 120 years ago, it was the size of his head that captured the photographer's attention.

Tomas O Criomhthain wrote 'An tOileanach' ('The Islandman'), his autobiography about growing up in the Blasket Islands.

But he was also one of the subjects captured by Dr Charles R Browne for his study on the ethnicity of the people of the west coast of Ireland in the late 19th century.

At a time when race issues were in vogue, Dr Browne, who was attached to the Anatomy Department of Trinity College Dublin, was part of a study that was trying to search for an Africanoid Celtic race.

They set about measuring the heads and examining the physical features of the people of the west to establish where they were in the 'Index of Nigrescence'.

This was designed to quantify how close people were to "being negro".

Between 1891 and 1900 Dr Browne, who was from Co Tipperary but of Anglo Irish descent, travelled the west coast and the islands to study "isolated tribes".

His study is illustrated by 62 photographs that are on display as part of 'The Irish Headhunter' exhibition in the Blasket Island Centre in Dun Chaoin, Co Kerry.


At the end of June the exhibition will move to the Aran Islands and Connemara, before it finishes up at the National Museum in Castlebar, Co Mayo.

"Browne wrote detailed ethnological reports of all these places, comparing the people of the islands to those living on the mainland," said Daithi de Mordha, one of the curators of the exhibition.

"Unfortunately, we don't have the report he did on the Blasket Islands and west Kerry but what we do have is a record of the west coast taken 120 years ago that is unparalleled."

Dr Browne measured the heads of his subjects using an instrument called Flower's Craniometer, often without their consent.

The photographs of Tomas O Criomhthain and two others show their front and side profile, almost like a modern-day police mug shot.

The photographs were taken on the Blasket Islands in 1897 when O Criomhthain was in his 40s.

Dr Browne also made detailed observations of the people.

Of the people of the Aran Islands he wrote: "The range and distinctiveness of the vision is astonishing . . . and we are told by Dr Kean that on a clear day, any of the men whose eyesight is average can, with a naked eye, make out a small sailing boat at Black Head, 20 miles away."

Of the population of Mullet in Co Mayo he observes: "The people on the whole are good-looking, especially when young; many of the girls and young women are very handsome, but they appear to age rapidly and early become wrinkled."

Other observations are less flattering like this one made on 'dietetic diseases' on Inishbofin: "There can be no doubt that the use, or abuse, of tea must bear a certain amount of the blame. The most common forms of complaint are flatulence and constipation."

While in the 20th century we were obsessed with the north/south divide, these pictures show the east/west divide, Mr de Mordha added.

However, he also notes that while Dr Browne's study may have begun as a cold, clinical scientific one, this changed over time.

"I think his opinion softened as he went along and he talks about them in more human terms," the curator said.

Irish Independent

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