• May 1, 2018

The Belfast Telegraph has an intriguing story today:

“It has all the elements of a Spielberg movie: a Nazi museum director, possible spies and world-leading experts from Harvard University in a quest for skulls and artefacts. Yet, this is no Hollywood creation, but the true story of a remarkable and overlooked episode in the 1930s known as the Harvard Archaeological Mission to Ireland.

Its work included excavating sites in Antrim, Derry and Down between 1934 and 1936 in an effort to find evidence of the earliest Irishman. The director of the archaeology strand of the Harvard mission, Hugh O’Neill Hencken, had personal associations with Northern Ireland -his grandfather had emigrated from Co Down to New York in the mid-19th century.

However, the overall Harvard project was a eugenic one, and the archaeology adviser was the director of the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, a Celtic scholar – and a Nazi.

The mission arrived in the Irish Free State, initially, in 1932 to carry out its anthropological research.

The scientists hoped to find out who the Celts were and where they had come from, as well as identifying their descendants.

Their excavation programme was extended to Northern Ireland in 1934. One of the reasons for this was that Hugh O’Neill Hencken regarded Ireland as a cultural unit, and the northern boundary as artificial. He wrote that, “the territory was an integral part of Ireland” prior to the 17th century.

In Northern Ireland, sites in counties Antrim, Derry and Down were excavated by Hallam L Movius, the assistant director of the Harvard Archaeological Mission. He was an expert in the early Stone Age, and came to Ireland to carry out research on Mesolithic sites for a PhD as a student of Hencken.

He had already dug a cave site at Kilgreany, Co Waterford, in an effort to find archaeological evidence for the earliest Irishman.

His excavations at Cushendun, Co Antrim, in 1934 yielded evidence that was regarded as “the key to the Irish Stone Age”.

Some of the flints discovered were dated to 6000 BC, and it was determined at that time that these artefacts were evidence of the earliest human handiwork on the island.”

The link to the full story is here;


There is also an interesting Manx connection in that the Nazi spy mentioned, the fanatical Adolf Mahr, seems to have had links to the great and the good in Mann. Indeed just days before he left Ireland to return to Germany prior to the outbreak of war he visited the Isle of Man.

The attached photograph shows Mahr in a party welcoming the Norwegian ambassador to the island in july 1939. The party are (left to right) William Cubbon Head of the Manx Museum, Professor Adolf Mahr Director of the National Museum in Dublin, Lt Gov Leveson-Gower. Erik Colban Norwegian Ambassador, Speaker Qualtrough, High Bailiff Ramsey Johnson (Johnson had been a former MHK and also Clerk of Tynwald).

The pic can be found in David Kermode’s book offshore island politics. Why Mahr was part of the welcoming committee for Colban here to give a talk on the Vikings is a mystery. One for the Culture Vannin archive you could say!

Bernard Moffatt
pp Celtic League



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