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Charles Byrne, The Tragic Irish Giant

June 24th, 2018
Charles Byrne

Giants are a recurring theme in classical Irish mythology.  Perhaps none is better known than Fionn mac Cumhail (“Finn McCool”) the legendary leader of the Fianna.  According to legend, Finn McCool while standing in Ulster engaged in a war of words with another giant standing in Scotland. At one-point Finn was so enraged that he grabbed a (giant sized) sod of earth and flung it at the Scots giant.  Finn missed, and the “sod” landed in the ocean to become the Isle of Mann, the depression left behind filled with water to become Lough Derg, the largest lake in Ireland.  Later in the story, it is claimed an enraged Finn builds the “Giants Causeway”, the great natural wonder in County Antrim, to reach his rival in Scotland.

While we can smile at these “tall tales”, many myths are built on a grain of truth and the stories of Irish Giants are no exception. Unfortunately, the tales of real Irish giants are far from the happy endings of fairy tales; case in point is the on-going tragedy of Charles Byrne.

Charles Byrne was born in 1761 in the small village of Littlebridge  near the border of Derry and Tyrone, and perhaps not coincidentally near Finn McCool’s Lough Derg.  His parents were of normal stature and Charles is reported as being a normal sized baby.  However, this soon changed as in early childhood Charles began to grow rapidly and while still a schoolboy was soon towering over the adults in the village.  People traveled for miles to see the “giant”, and it was not long before a promoter convinced the family that Charles’ height could be a ticket to fame and fortune.  He drew huge crowds and great success as he toured Ireland and soon was convinced to travel to Britain where bigger crowds and a fortune seemed to await.

Charles was now approximately twenty years old and stood 7’ 7” tall at a time when the average man was 5’ 5”.  He was a sensation in Edinburgh where people stood amazed as he casually lit his pipe from the street lamps.  In London he was the talk of the town and paying crowds flocked to his exhibitions.  He was presented to the King and Queen and even starred in a play “Harlequin Teague: or the Giant’s Causeway” which played to sold out audiences.

However, fame deserted Byrne as quickly as it found him.  After a year, the novelty of the “Irish Giant” had worn off and the crowds dwindled.  More importantly Byrne’s health began to decline, he was experiencing terrible headaches and joint pain.  To relieve the pain, Byrne began to drink and during one of his drinking bouts someone stole his entire life’s savings. Only 22 years of age and now impoverished, Byrne contracted tuberculosis and knew his death was imminent.

Byrne knew that the 18th century medical community was fascinated by him and feared that his body would be dissected, a fate reserved legally at the time only for criminals who committed capital crimes.  This was the era of grave robbers who would disinter the dead and sell the bodies clandestinely to anatomists and medical colleges for illegal examination.   Byrne made clear that his dying wish was to be buried at sea to avoid this fate.

However, Byrne had not counted on the excess of zeal and lack of scruples of Dr. John Hunter. Hunter was the King’s surgeon; recognized in his day as the most distinguished physician in London. Hunter made enormous contributions to the fields of anatomy and is considered by many to be the “Father of Modern Surgery”.  Dr. Hunter gained his knowledge by selling his soul like Dr. Faustus to illegally gain new specimens for dissection which he then preserved in his private collection.  Upon hearing of Byrne’s illness, Hunter paid agents to watch the house of the dying Byrne.  When Byrne died, he bribed the undertaker £500 to replace the body with a similar weight in paving stones in a sealed lead coffin which unknowingly Byrne’s friends faithfully buried as sea (but not before exploiting the marketing potential of showing Byrne’s coffin en route).  The body was taken to Hunter who fearing apprehension quickly dismembered the corpse and then boiled the flesh off the bones which he then reassembled to display in his private collection. 

The illegally obtained skeleton of Charles Byrne, still on display at the Royal College of Surgeons

It is hard to see Dr. Hunter’s activities as anything but ghoulish trophy hunting rather than “medical research”.  If Dr. Hunter had taken the time to do a scientific examination of his reprehensibly obtained specimen he may have discovered that Byrne suffered from acromegaly, a tumor of the pituitary gland that causes it to release excess growth hormone, a disease that would be discovered by a proper examination a century later.  It is now known that untreated the disease can cause tremendous pain and was likely the cause of Byrne’s drinking. Modern day research has shown that acromegaly is a genetic disorder and there is a concentration of the gene around Derry and Tyrone where Charles Byrne was born and of the Finn McCook legends.  Even today there is an unusually high concentration of people in this area who suffer from acromegaly and are exceptionally tall.  This could likely be the origin of Ireland’s Giant myths, though modern medical knowledge and treatment may signal the end of the age of the Irish Giants,

Sadly, two and a half centuries on, Charles Byrne is still being exploited by others.  When Dr. Hunter died he donated his collection, including the unethically obtained skeleton of Charles Byrne, to the Royal College of Surgeons who in turn created the Hunterian Museum.  Charles Byrne’s unethically obtained skeleton is still on display in a museum named in honor of a man who robbed and desecrated his body.  Despite repeated calls for the Royal College of Surgeons to give Charles Byrne a dignified final rest, the museum continues to justify the display citing the importance of Byrne’s remains to “future research”; the  fact that Byrne’s skeleton also happens to be the most popular exhibit in this freak show pretentiously masquerading as a science exhibit is merely a coincidence.  DNA has already been extracted and preserved from the skeleton, there is nothing more of scientific value to be wrung out of the corpse of “the Irish Giants” except gawking museum admissions.  It is inconceivable that if the ill-gotten remains of an individual of another ancestry were so shamelessly and callously treated that there would not be greater outcry and protests.  It is time to let the Irish Giant  Charles Byrne, who suffered in life and continues to be exploited in death, to have the rest that legend says is accorded to Finn McCool.

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