Will the Irish Giant get to rest in peace at last?

Not quite, but the remains of the 7ft 7in Derry man are no longer on public display

Giant what? Giant sales? Giant price increases?

Neither. Charles Byrne, also known as the Irish Giant, got a little closer to achieving his dying wish when his skeleton was removed from public display in London this week. Byrne, who some claimed was 8ft 4in tall, was actually closer to 7ft 7in.

That still sounds pretty tall

It is. Charles Byrne was born in 1761, and even though people tend to get taller with passing generations, the average height in Ireland for a man these days is 5ft 10in. Dutch men are the current world height leaders, at just over 6ft on average.

It still doesn’t make it okay to put him on display

You’re quite right. Byrne, renowned for being gentle, likeable and a good storyteller, left his native Derry for London where he entertained paying audiences, almost certainly because of a lack of other choices. Described in the London Morning Herald as “the most extraordinary curiosity”, he became a celebrity in his day, his activities being written up in the papers.

Sounds like people haven’t changed too much

I fear you’re right. The “paying audiences” thing can make one feel a little queasy. Perhaps these days we just call it reality TV. Anyway, poor Byrne, who it turns out had a tumour on his pituitary gland that caused him to continue to grow, died at the age of just 22. That’s where our villain, John Hunter comes in.


A villain called Hunter? Sounds positively Dickensian

Indeed, and what would you think if I told you Byrne was born in Littlebridge? Charles Dickens actually mentions him in David Copperfield, but let’s not get sidetracked. Hunter was a famous surgeon and anatomist, whose scientific curiosity led him to acquire a reputation for “collecting” unusual specimens for his private museum.

So naturally he liked the look of Byrne?

You’ve got it. Clearly not possessed of great tact, Hunter offered Byrne money for his corpse. Averse to this idea, and knowing his own health was failing, Byrne arranged for his body to be buried at sea. But Hunter had the coffin stolen en route to the ship. Four years later it went on display at his own Hunterian Museum, and from there to the Hunterian at London’s Royal College of Surgeons, where it has been on view for nearly 200 years.

Wait, what? Don’t I get a say in what happens after I die?

When you’re dead and gone, you really are dead and gone – in that your body no longer has legal rights. A will can stipulate your wishes, and if it comes to a dispute among your surviving loved ones, a court will take those wishes into account, but that’s as far as it goes.

Hunter’s not the only one who displayed bodies though, right?

No, just think of the Bog Bodies at the National Museum, and the Egyptian Mummies in museums, from The Met in New York to the British Museum in London. They were people too. The main difference is we know Byrne definitively did not want this for himself.

It’s some story ...

It’s also terribly sad, and inspired the late novelist Hilary Mantel to write a fictionalised version: The Giant, O’Brien. She was one of the people who campaigned to get his skeleton removed from display.

And now it has been?

Yes. While the museum was closed for renovations, campaigners kept the pressure on. The museum now says it’s no longer “appropriate” to display the skeleton, but they haven’t yet gone as far as honouring Byrne’s wishes. The skeleton will be available for study by doctors.

You’ve got me thinking. What if I want my body to go to medical science?

We’ve come a long way. You can donate your body, stipulate how it’s used, and whether or not you want it returned to relatives afterwards. There are five medical schools in Ireland to make an arrangement with. You can find details at hospicefoundation.ie.

Gemma Tipton

Gemma Tipton

Gemma Tipton contributes to The Irish Times on art, architecture and other aspects of culture