“Giant” is a relative term … especially when you’re short. However, the story of an 18th century Irish giant has links to Ireland’s mythological giants – not to mention unscrupulous hucksters who took advantage of him after his death by displaying his skeleton for all to see for a fee. Now, this giant may finally having his dying wish fulfilled by being buried at sea. The rest of his story is interesting, tragic and a warning for other giants, Bigfoot or any unusual beings thinking about going public.
Charles Byrne, the so-called “Irish Giant,” was born in northeast County Tyrone, Ireland. He reached a towering height at an early age and, like all tall people, was rumored to be far loftier than his still-impressive 7 feet, 7 inches. With no basketball in those days, Byrne went to Scotland and eventually London for work, where his primary job was marketing himself as a curiosity. That paid well, but the real reason for his gigantism – acromegaly – eventually caused severe health problems which, along with alcoholism, caused his death at 22.
“A whole tribe of surgeons put in a claim for the poor departed Irishman surrounding his house just as harpooners would an enormous whale.”
That’s from a news report on his death in 1783. Byrne was well known and unscrupulous doctors wanted to examine him after his death – not just for the knowledge but also to put his corpse or skeleton on display. One such doctor was John Hunter at St George’s Hospital, now called the father of modern surgery and a collector of unusual anatomical specimens. Hunter actually made Byrne an offer before his death, but the giant instead got his friends to promise he would be sealed in a lead coffin and buried at sea to prevent becoming part of such a sordid display. Needless to say, money talks. Hunter paid the undertaker to remove the body from its coffin and replace it with stones, then took the corpse, boiled the flesh from the bones and reassembled the skeleton. Knowing what a scumbag move this was, Hunter hid the remains for a few years before putting it on display, first his private collection and later in the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, Holborn, where the remains remain today.
But not for long.
“The Hunterian Museum will be closed until 2021 and Charles Byrne’s skeleton is not currently on display. The Board of Trustees of the Hunterian Collection will be discussing the matter during the period of closure of the museum.”
Those wishing to right this wrong are demanding that Byrne’s remains be buried at sea per his wishes or at least buried in a cemetery in his hometown. Where he finally comes to rest, Byrne should still be remembered for his real contribution to medical research.
“It was folklore up to now, but we have identified the gene that has caused the gigantism that has been going around Ireland for at least 1,500 years. There might be a grain of truth in the folklore.”
In 2011, DNA from Byrne was tested and showed a common ancestry with five other giant Northern Irish families that was traced back to a common ancestor who lived about 1,500 years ago, but possibly up to 3,700 years ago, according to Dr Marta Korbonits, author of the study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. There are a number of giants in Irish and Scottish folklore, including a giant King known as Balor who had one eye in the center of his head and could kill people with one look and Fear Liath Mor, the Scottish Big Grey Man who is still believed to live in the Cairngorms.
Let’s hope the myths are kept alive but the real Irish giant finally gets his dying wish.