On the eve of Connemara’s Omey island races, relatives of islanders have initiated a petition seeking the urgent return of bones removed during an archaeological excavation writes Lorna Siggins
Minister for Culture Josepha Madigan has also been urged to intervene to ensure that the bones, excavated in the 1990s, can be brought back for a Christian burial.
Ms Maggie Coohill, whose father was born in Omey, says she has spent the last five years seeking action and has now initiated the petition.
“Islanders were promised 30 years ago that these bones of their relatives would be returned,” she said.
Omey, a tidal island off Claddaghduff, lost its last full-time resident when stuntman Pascal Whelan died in 2017. Poet Richard Murphy built a hexagonal granite studio on the island.
Its annual Omey island races across the strand at low tide take place this Sunday from 1 pm
The island has evidence of occupation from the Bronze Age, up to 2000 BC, up to the Great Famine, when there were 400 residents. Its monastic site dating from about the 6th century is named after its founder, St Feichín.
The medieval site, which included one of the few reported burials of a woman within monastic ground, was excavated in the 1990s by Prof Tadhg O’Keeffe of University College, Dublin (UCD) after concerns that rabbits and erosion were causing damage.
The site was one of a number of west coast archaeological features damaged during severe winter storms of January 2014.
Ms Coohill said she was on holidays on Omey with her father when the excavation began on the north side of the island.
“My uncle, my dad and other locals were not in favour of the bones being taken off the island, but were assured that after they had been examined they would be returned to Omey and given a Christian burial,” she said.
“On January 16th, 2014, I contacted Prof O’Keeffe, and he informed me that it was always his intention that the bones would be returned to Omey,”
Ms Coohill said she now believed that “more than enough time” had been spent to conclude the research. She contacted Ms Madigan several months ago and asked her to intervene, and was told the decision was one for the National Museum of Ireland.
The Department of Cultural, Heritage and the Gaeltacht said the excavations in the 1990s were “commissioned by this department due to the damage and irreparable loss that was occurring to the human remains buried at the location”.
“The archaeological excavations confirmed large scale disturbance of the remains on account of erosion and burrowing activity,” it said.
The excavator in UCD is overseeing the completion of the various specialist analyses of the remains,” it said, and “this post-excavation analysis has benefited from advances in analytical and scientific techniques”.
“The department expects to receive final excavation reports later this year, subject to final completion of the specialist analysis, which will ensure that the story of the inhabitants of Omey is told”, it said.
“Any decision on reburial would then ultimately be a matter for the National Museum of Ireland to adjudicate on,” the department said.
The museum’s decision would be predicated on consideration of “all relevant factors.. as per the conditions of the excavation licence issued by this department”, the department said.
Prof O’Keeffe said the full report was almost complete and ready for publication, and as many individuals as possible had been identified by two professional osteologists (bone experts).
He said it was his personal hope to have repatriation in consultation with the National Museum of Ireland.
Publication of the findings would take place in the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society's journal, he said.