The Irish Headhunter

Searching for the Irish Race

anthropologist Charles Browne takes the skull measurement of an islander on Inishbofin

This new exhibition focuses on 63 early photographs of Charles R. Browne, taken along the west coast of Ireland in the 1890s. It represents one of the most important photographic archives to come into the public domain in a long time.

Browne was a medical doctor and anthropologist who undertook physical surveys of people for Trinity College, Dublin. These surveys were mainly carried out in County Mayo -- Erris, Clare Island and Inishturk, in County Galway -- the Aran Islands and South Connemara – and in County Kerry, Dún Chaoin and the Great Blasket Island.

The photographs are full of human interest and also convey a lot of detail about the clothes worn at the time. Details of people’s customs, housing and modes of transport are also featured, providing us with a snapshot of each community at the time it was surveyed. Some of the older people shown would have lived through the Great Famine. Many of the young boys are wearing skirts. Many of the photos are among the first known to exist for the places where they were taken.

In the surveys, Dr Browne measured and classified humans and “racial types”. Sliding rules, steel tapes and “craniometers” were used measure the bodies and to gauge the circumference of the heads of his sometimes unwilling subjects, many of whom may still be recognisable by their own communities today.

Alive or dead, the head of the Irish peasant was a source of intense interest to Browne and his associates.

The exhibition will be supplemented by a display generated by the National Museum. This includes material on eugenics – a movement aimed at improving human stock which culminated in the Nazi extermination camps. There is also material on anthropologists’ photos in the colonies, the origin of ‘mug shots’ to identify criminals and the image of the wild ‘ape-like’ Irish in cartoons from the 19th century and the 1970s.


The anthropologist Charles Browne takes the skull measurement of an islander on Inishbofin, County Galway (then County Mayo) in 1893. He is assisted by policemen of the Royal Irish Constabulary. Local people look on from the left, while a group of sailors from England, including a coloured, possibly African, man, look on from the right. There was some opposition to this sureying work on this island which may explain the presence of the policemen.

A sample of plaster casts of real faces from around the world has now gone on display as part of the exhibition. This historic collection was bought by the National Museum (then known as the ‘Dublin Museum of Science and Art’) in 1891 from a source in Berlin. They were last seen by the public in the 1970s in the Natural History Museum, Dublin. The casts were made by Castans Panopticum of Berlin. This was a wax museum of many wonders which closed in 1922. It made similar plaster faces for the Berlin Museum of Ethnology.

Among the plaster faces on display are:

• a Darfur man,

• a Zulu boy,

• a Bushman (or San) woman, N’Arbecy,

• a New Guinea man, Billy,

• an Australian woman, Jessy,

• a Tatar man, Mohamed Amin Mognul,

• a Lapp, Mikel

• a Sioux Chief, Yellow Cloud

• a Sioux woman, Neen dou wee (wife of Yellow Cloud).

About 50 casts were bought by the National Museum - mainly of non-European racial types.

The exhibition runs until June 2013.

This exhibition has been curated by www.curator.ieLinks to external website Ciarán Walsh, Dáithí de Mórdha, Ionad an Bhlascaoid Mhóir and Séamas Mac Philib of the National Museum of Ireland - Country Life, in association with Trinity College, Dublin and the Royal Irish Academy.

This ‘Headhunter’ project has been made possible with the financial support of the OPW and The Heritage Council (Education and Outreach Grants 2012).

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