Charles Byrne (1761-83)

CriticismCommentary

Life
b. Littlebridge, Co Tyrone, 1761; reputedly grew to 8 ft.4 inches by the age of eighteen [recte 234cm. / 7 ft. 8 inches]; left Ireland in 1780 and toured Scotland and N. England; reached London, April 1782; made the subject of Harlequin Teague; or the Giant’s Causeway; fell into poverty after a brief period of fame during which he charged 2s. 6d. for admission; d. 1 June 1783 [aetat. 22], at Cockspur St., Charing Cross, purportedly of drink; asked that his body be buried at sea in a lead coffin to avoid dissection; remains secured by Dr. John Hunter through bribery and a coffin full of stones being buried instead for a rumoured £500 [vars. bribed friends, undertaker];
 
Hunter immediately dissected his body and boiled it for 24 hours to recover the bones, only revealing his possession of the remains four years later; the leg-bones of Byrne’s skeleton figures in the background of his portrait by Joshua Reynolds; the reassembled skeleton, is now in the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London, having been purchased by the British Govt. for the College as being part of Hunter’s collection;
 
the probity of its display has been challenged by Michael Brennan of Loughanaganky, Co. Mayo, who is seeking its reinterrment in Ireland; the bones remains were made the subject of DNA testing in 2010, resulting in the identification by Dr. Marta Korbonitas of Barts, London, of the cause of gigantism - viz., familial isolated pituitary adenoma, or Fipa - a hereditary condition shared by a Brendan Holland of Tyrone, the joint-subject with Byrne of a tv programme broadcast, dir. Ronan McCloskey (BBC NI, 16 Jan. 2011).

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Criticism
‘How an Irish giant and an 18th-century surgeon could help people with growth disorders’, in The Guardian (11 Jan. 2011), G2 [‘Health’], p.14; see also “Charles Byrne The Irish Giant” on BBC2 NI, N. Ireland (on 16 Jan. 2011).

See also a letter by Mr. Michael Brennan to RICORSO, recounting his attempt to have the human remains of Charles Byrne repatriated for decent burial in Ireland [attached]. A response from the Royal College of Surgeons denying the request and dated 24 October 2009, is held by permission of the recipient, along with copies of other documents relating to his pursuit of the matter, [attached]. See also links to further online documents - attached.

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Commentary
Frank McNally, “An Irishman’s Diary”, in The Irish Times (10 Sept. 2008): [...] ‘According to all accounts, he died - in 1783, aged 22 - so much in fear of dissection that he requested burial at sea to thwart the inevitable grave-robbers. [...] Even at the time of his death, the interest in his body caused scandal. Four days later, the Morning Herald reported that “the whole tribe of surgeons put in a claim for the poor, departed Irish giant, and surrounded his house just as Greenland harpooners would an enormous whale”. [...; for full version, see under RICORSO Library,“Criticism / News stories”, attached [password access only.]

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Vivienne Parry, ‘How an Irish giant and an 18th-century surgeon could help people with growth disorders’, in The Guardian (11 Jan. 2011): ‘In April 1782, a real, live giant appeared in London. Charles Byrne was said to be a majestic 8ft 4in (2.54 metres) in height and able to light his pipe on street lamps. Now, the macabre events that took place after his death have finally allowed modern genetics to deliver a new twist to the story of the “Irish Giant” and could change the lives of patients today. [...] Today, we would recognise Byrne’s gigantism as being caused by a tumour in the pituitary, the endocrine gland that secretes many essential hormones, including ones for growth. Depending on the patient’s age at the onset of the tumour, either gigantism or acromegaly (typically characterised by excessive growth of the jaw, hands and feet) develops but there are other problems, such as delayed puberty.’ [...; see full text attached.]

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