Belfast Telegraph

Monday 21 April 2014

Can our politicians give tall story a happy ending?

A team of scientists from Queen's University and Queen Mary University of London are currently carrying out research in Northern Ireland into a possible "giant gene".

They are appealing for people in the East Tyrone/South Londonderry area to come forward for testing to see if they have a gene mutation which can (but doesn't always) lead to the production of too much growth hormone.

Such a mutation is believed to have caused Charles Byrne 'The Irish Giant' to grow to well over 7ft tall. I've written about tragic Mr Byrne before.

Born in the same area as me (close to Moneymore) back in 1761, Charles moved to London in his late teens where he found fame and fortune appearing as The Irish Giant. Interestingly around the same time the Knipe Twins, giant brothers reportedly from the same area of Ireland were also on the London circuit. And contemporary newspaper reports also mention a giant woman from Portrush (Mrs McCool?). So a local link with gigantism obviously isn't a tall story.

Sadly Charles's story ended badly. His life spiralled out of control due to his drinking. Robbed of the money he had earned he died at only 22, impoverished and in fear, in particular, of a doctor, John Hunter, who had made no secret of his wish to acquire Byrne's body after his death to dissect it.

Appalled at the thought, Byrne had begged his friends to take his body to sea and bury it in a lead-lined coffin. His wishes were betrayed and his corpse given to the doctor.

This gruesome tale does have a positive side. Study of Byrne's bones has led to considerable understanding of gigantism. But shamefully, shockingly his skeleton is exhibited to this day in the London museum which bears Hunter's name.

A campaign to have this poor man's remains given the decent burial he wanted has so far not been successful. Surely this is a case for some of our public representatives? Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness?

Poor tortured Charles Byrne wanted to be buried at sea because he saw that as the only place his body would be safe. After all these years isn't it time we all mounted a full-on determined campaign to have this gigantic betrayal of this gentle man who was one of our own finally put right?

Charles Byrne – bring him home.

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