Belfast Telegraph

It's high time our Irish Giant, treated as a freak show even two centuries after his death, received the burial he asked for

Tall tale: Charles Byrne made a living in London as the ‘Irish Giant’
Tall tale: Charles Byrne made a living in London as the ‘Irish Giant’

By Lindy McDowell

In this month in 1783, the following death notice appeared in the Londonderry Journal. "Sunday, died, in Cockspur Street, Charing Cross, Byrne, the famous Irish giant, whose death is reported to have been precipitated by excessive drinking, to which he was always addicted, but more particularly since his late loss of £700."

The tragic death referred to was that of Charles Byrne, a young man of 22, originally from near Moneymore in Co Derry, who had found fame and fortune in London exhibiting himself as the Irish Giant.

Suffering from a pituitary disorder which caused his gigantism (although obviously this was not diagnosed at the time) young Byrne had grown to around eight feet tall.

He was a bit of a celeb of the era; a must-see attraction in late 18th century London where he maintained elegant lodgings, dressed like a gentleman, charmed all he met, charged the curious a then, quite steep, two shillings and sixpence to see him and was even presented to the king.

As the above notice also makes clear however, Charles had a bit of a drink problem. This was exacerbated after he was robbed of his life savings which he chose to carry around with him in the form of two banknotes - one for an impressive 700 quid. (Presumably he had no more faith in banks than some of his 21st century compatriots.)

Byrne was, at the time, suffering not just the worsening side-effects of his condition, but also possibly tuberculosis. The drink in which he increasingly sought solace wasn't helping either.

On June 1, 1783, this troubled young man died, far from home and tortured with fear about how his remains might be desecrated. For he was particularly fearful of falling into the hands of a prominent doctor, John Hunter, who, he knew, wanted to acquire his corpse for dissection and display and to add to his collection of medical curiosities.

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Like many people, Byrne believed that dissection which, at that time would have been carried out mostly on the corpses of executed criminals, would debar him from getting into heaven.

The terrified Byrne begged his friends to bury him at sea in a lead coffin so that Hunter would be thwarted. And they did try. But Hunter is believed to have bribed the undertaker to replace Byrne's body in the casket with paving stones .

About four years later, the doctor, having dissected the body and removed the flesh, first publicly exhibited the skeleton of the young man.

And there you would assume this tragic tale might end. But horrifyingly, heartbreakingly, it does not.

Charles Byrne's skeleton has remained on display right into this 21st century of ours.

In an age when we fuss so much about the insensitive and the inappropriate, the human remains of a young man who spent his last days tormented by the fear that this would indeed be his fate, is still hung up for public viewing like some gruesome relic from a freak show.

The glass-cased Irish Giant has long been one of the main "attractions" in the Hunterian Museum in London, dedicated to John Hunter and his collection.

The museum is currently undergoing a revamp.

But until late last year, Charles Byrne's skeleton was still on display - and seems likely to remain among the exhibits post- refurbishment.

This, despite a long and determined campaign to have Byrne's last wish respected and his remains removed and buried either at sea or back in Littlebridge where he was born.

At the forefront of that campaign is the distinguished law professor Thomas Muinzer, whose most recent article on Byrne can be read here:

You do think, reading Thomas Muinzer's eloquent words, that if ever there was a campaign for local people - and local politicians - to unite behind, this is surely it.

Granted, Byrne's DNA has been used to advance medical knowledge.

But whatever argument there may once have been for studying that poor lad's remains is long gone.

Down all these years, since June 1783, the anguished pleas of Charles Byrne to be accorded a decent and humane and respectful burial still remain unanswered.

He is our boy.

Let's bring him home.

Home truths for Sir Jeffrey about choice

Fair play to Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP who, talking about his daughter, a pro-choice abortion campaigner says: "We've got respect for each other, that we hold different opinions. My daughter knows I am very passionately pro-life. We talk regularly about this and other issues and I suppose it gives me an insight into the views and the thinking of people who take a different perspective from the one I do, and that has to be a healthy thing."

I doubt very much whether Jeffrey's is the only home - DUP or otherwise - where such debate is currently ongoing. It's clear our society is changing. And such clarity, as they say, often begins at home.

Diverted flight a dear lesson for these stags

A flight from Belfast to Ibiza was diverted, and fellow travellers greatly inconvenienced, when a member of a stag party had to be removed from the plane.

One of the party on the same flight as young children was also, reportedly, carrying a blow-up sex doll.

Most of us have been on a flight where there's also been a stag or hen party on board and, generally, while they can get a bit loud, that's about the height of it.

But a blow-up sex doll being waved around in front of children?

They should never have even got near the plane with it. Or at the very least, should have been told they'd have to pay an extra fare for it...

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