Charles Byrne of Derry. 1761-1783 " The Irish Giant "
In London the long brown bones of Charles Byrne, filling up a glass case in the College of Surgeons, are one of the few surviving exhibits from the collection of human oddities gathered together by the famous surgeon, John Hunter. Nearly all the rest of it was bombed during the Second World War. Byrne also had a tragically short life, dying of tuberculosis. He was born in 1761, two years after Corny Magrath died, in Littlebridge near Derry. The district bred giants, for five miles from his birthplace there were two others named Knife. According to local rumour, the Knife brothers and Byrne were all conceived on top of a haystack. From an early age it was clear that Byrne was simple, and the tumour on his pituitary gland that stimulated his unnatural growth affected his intelligence. Symptoms of consumption also showed early and he took to drink. By then he was well over seven feet in height and his hands were eighteen inches long from the wrists to the middle finger. He first went to London in 1782 where he teamed up with Count Joseph Borulwaski, a three-foot Polish midget, who arranged his first appearance before the London public in April that year. The Morning Herald made an announcement about 'the Irish giant, to be seen this and every day this week in his elegant room at the cane-shop next door to Cox's Museum, Spring Gardens: Mr Byrne the surprising Irish giant, who is said to be the tallest man in the world'. The showing of Charles Byrne attracted wide publicity; People flocked to pay their money , half a crown a huge amount then, and see the pathetic shambling figure dressed in a Cutaway coat, cravat, and tricorn hat, 'not well built, his flesh loose, and his appearance far from wholesome... he is an ill- bred beast, though very young'. On one occasion he appeared with two other giants of minor stature at the Haymarket in a panotmime named " Harlequin Teague or the Giant's Causeway" Elsewhere in London Dr. James Graham, who with the aid of fair Emma, later Lady Hamiltom, did business with his celestial bed and offered the use of it free of charge to the young giant, together with a female companion. Byrne declined, on the ground that he was ' a perfect stranger to the rites and mysteries of Venus'. By this time he was dying of tuberculosis and alcoholism compounded by melancholia. The news that a rival Irish giant, Patrick Cotter O'Brien, was appearing in London with the claim that he was eight feet three and a half inches tall and a descendant of Brian Boru was too much for him. The idea that his body would end up in a museum, or that it might be dissected by anatomists horrified him. After the famous surgeon Dr John Hunter offered him a large sum for his body, which he passionately refused, the surgeon hired a man called Hewison, who began to follow him everywhere. Meanwhile he was making elaborate arrangements to cheat the bodysnatchers. He ordered a lead lined coffin and found ten Irish friends who swore that when he was dead they would put him inside and sink him at the mouth of the Thames. A group of Hunter's students heard of this plan and said that they were constructing a diving bell to fish him out of the muddy estuary. The sudden loss of his savings of £770 in a tavern started Byrne on a bout of gin which killed him. He died in May 1783, at the age of twenty-two. Throughout his final illness Hewison had been shadowing him, and on the night he died the surgeon's man approached a member of the undertaker's guard, one of Byrne's friends, who sat drinking in a tavern while off duty. He offered a large sum of money, said to be £500 to £800, for the corpse which was accepted and so Charles Byrne," The Irish Giant " became an exhibit in the Hunterian Museum in the Royal College of Surgeons , London. May he rest in peace. An Leabhar Branach, (c) 20th July 2011