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Northern Ireland man who's a giant among men - prying stares, unkind comments and the quest to find out why he's so tall

In a BBC NI documentary tonight, businessman Brendan Holland (66), from Dungannon, reveals what it's like to suffer from gigantism - and why he is grateful research has been carried out on the skeletons of others with the condition. Ivan Little reports

Tall story: Brendan Holland with remains of the ‘giant’ Cornelius Magrath during his search for information about his own gigantism
Tall story: Brendan Holland with remains of the ‘giant’ Cornelius Magrath during his search for information about his own gigantism
Jim Cully, the 7 ft 2in boxer of north Irish descent
Close encounter: Brendan looks at exhibits in his quest for the origins of his gigantism
Seeking answers: Brendan visited London for clues about gigantism

A near 7ft tall Dungannon man who suffers from what's known as gigantism has weighed into the controversy over the retention of the centuries-old skeletons of Irish giants in universities and museums in Dublin and London.

Campaigners last week renewed their calls for the release for burial of the huge skeletons of 18th century giants, Charles Byrne from the Royal College of Surgeons in London and Cornelius Magrath from Trinity College, Dublin.

But Tyrone's Brendan Holland has said that while he understands the ethics of the arguments, he believes research carried out down the years on the skeletons, particularly at Trinity, has probably prolonged his life.

Businessman Brendan told a TV documentary: "If you have suffered from gigantism as I have, and you have been a beneficiary of the research, perhaps you could understand the benefits that have been made to people like myself."

At 66, Brendan is one of the longest surviving gigantism sufferers and he attributes that to the research work that had gone on in Trinity and in other places.

Tonight's new BBC Northern Ireland programme, The Giant Gene, features Brendan's extraordinary stature which is due to gigantism, a troublesome genetic condition. The documentary follows Brendan and his search for answers about his condition.

He travelled to England, Finland and to the Republic in his quest for an insight into the genetic disorder which is still making life difficult for him, even though he received treatment for it in the 1970s.

Brendan met scientists who found the AIP gene responsible for gigantism. And the boffins insisted their 'needle in a haystack' discovery was helping them to identify people at risk of passing on the so-called 'giant gene' which can result in the production and release of too much growth hormone by the tiny pituitary gland at the base of the brain.

Brendan was also present as archaeologists from Queen's University Belfast exhumed the remains of a man reputed to be a giant and whose body was found washed up on a beach in Co Donegal 64 years ago.

Brendan's voyage of discovery about his condition revealed that mid-Ulster is a genetic hot spot for gigantism in a province where myths have long abounded of Finn McCool and his creation of the Giant's Causeway and Lough Neagh.

In the real world, scientific studies have shown that one in 150 people in mid-Ulster carries the gene compared to one in 1,000 in Belfast and one in 2,000 in the rest of the UK.

Five years ago an extensive screening programme of over 1,000 participants was undertaken in Magherafelt, Cookstown and Dungannon to find people with the genetic mutation.

Other research has traced older giants back to mid-Ulster including 7ft 2in boxer Jim Cully who in the 1840s was nicknamed the Tipperary Tower but whose ancestors were from the north.

Gigantism not only turns heads on the street but more seriously the disorder can cause long-term health problems, including issues with the heart for a quarter of its carriers. It can also be life-threatening.

Brendan is regarded as one of the few giants to have lived a comparatively 'normal' life after his surgery.

He said that in his teens he suffered from headaches, a lack of co-ordination, reduced energy levels and blurred vision, and by the age of 20 he was over 6ft 10ins and still growing.

He was diagnosed with gigantism in the early Seventies after moving to live for a time in London where he attended St Bartholomew's Hospital and an adenoma - a non-cancerous tumour which was accelerating his abnormal growth - was removed from his pituitary gland.

Radiation therapy was also administered and is credited with saving Brendan's life but, four decades on, he is still a patient at Barts.

Dr Marta Korbonits, a professor of endocrinology at the hospital, has worked closely with Brendan and during her research she uncovered an Irish connection to gigantism after a number of people from the island presented themselves with similar symptoms.

"You started to realise that this cannot be a coincidence," she said, adding that she also established a remarkable link between Brendan and the Irish giant, Charles Byrne, from Cookstown, whose 7ft 7in skeleton is still on display in London's Hunterian Museum at the headquarters of the Royal College of Surgeons.

Byrne became a 'star' of freak shows in London but died from tuberculosis at the age of just 22.

Dr Korbonitz extracted DNA from his skeleton and made the amazing discovery that Byrne and Brendan and many other Ulster giants had inherited the exact same genetic mutation.

Brendan's niece, Laura, was also diagnosed with gigantism through a screening programme.

Her facial bones were growing due to a pituitary tumour like her uncle's and, just as he had done, she underwent surgery and has gone on to have a young family.

Father-of-twins Brendan said: "I wouldn't have had my two sons without medical intervention." He continued that if he hadn't had his surgery he would probably have ended up a total recluse.

Brendan's desire to learn more about gigantism took him to Dublin's Trinity College where the oldest remains of an Irish giant, Cornelius Magrath, are kept.

He was 7ft 3ins and died in 1760 after a fall on-stage during a play in which he was portraying a giant.

Officials from Trinity said his skeleton has been crucial to research.

Brendan also visited another university, in Finland, to meet with scientists who made the breakthrough discovery of the AIP gene and who for more than 10 years have been examining tumours taken from pituitary glands.

Brendan thanked Dr Auli Karhu and her team for their work in pinpointing the AIP gene which she agreed was like scoring the winning goal in the World Cup final.

Brendan told her: "Whilst your work was related to people in this country (Finland) it had a profound effect on people in my country."

The pioneering advances have meant that at-risk patients can be tested before a pituitary tumour develops.

To the relief of Brendan and his wife Patricia, their sons Michael and Stephen have been screened and they haven't inherited the gene and so won't suffer from their father's condition.

The Hollands met at a dance and Patricia said after they started dating, she had to 'get over' the remarks that people made about them.

Brendan said he didn't mind people calling him a giant. "People can call me whatever they like and many's a time they have. I am what I am."

Patricia said that in the last few years her concerns had centred on Brendan's health and mobility. He said fatigue was a worry. "But I won't stop. If you lie down under things they get on top of you. And I won't allow that to happen," added Brendan, who had long been fascinated by the 'giant' who was reportedly found at Cruit Island in Donegal during a road-building programme in 1954. In a report in the Derry Journal from the time, it was said that local tradition claimed the unidentified man was 7ft 7in tall and was buried in an unmarked grave in a cemetery.

With the assistance of a Donegal historian, Jimmy Duffy, a group of archaeologists from Queen's University found the burial site and, after receiving permission from local authorities, exhumed the remains in an early morning operation.

The bones were carefully removed and brought to the local parish hall but the absence of a skull was a mystery. In the end any hope that the bones might contain evidence of gigantism were quickly dashed.

Dr Eileen Murphy, an osteoarchaeologist from Queen's, said that by using a series of formulae and measurements on the two bits of femur (thigh bone) found, the academics were satisfied the man had been only 6ft 2in.

Brendan, who was in Donegal for the dig and for the re-burial with a priest present, admitted he was disappointed.

He added: "I'm amazed because the whole stand-out feature of this story was this chap's height and it turns out now that he was just an ordinary, average, standard guy who was only slightly taller than normal."

Despite the setback, Brendan has vowed to continue supporting research into gigantism.

He said he wanted to help increase awareness of the condition and to make people more understanding of the fact that, regardless of the shape or size of anyone, there was usually a very sensitive human being inside.

He added: "It's the person within and not the person without that counts."

True North: The Giant Gene, BBC One Northern Ireland, tonight, 10.40pm

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