Letter of Mr. Michael Brennan to Ricorso - 25 March 2009

[ See also a letter from the Royal College of Surgeons dated 24 October 2009 denying the request to repatriate the skeleton of Charles Byrne in RICORSO Library - attached ].

Castletown Road
The Neale     
Co Mayo  
tel. 353 87 973 6785
25th March 2009

Dear Doctor Stewart,

I hope you do not mind me writing to you, but after I read (with interest) your item on Charles Byrne on Ricorso. I felt you might be interested in hearing about what I am trying to achieve. I write to you regarding my efforts to get the skeleton of Charles Byrne, known as the ‘Irish Giant’, (which is displayed in the Hunterian Collection in the Royal College of Surgeons in London) repatriated to Ireland for burial at sea, as was Mr Byrne’s wish.

I was an economic migrant from Ireland in the mid eighties, and lived in London, England for 14 years. I was fortunate and returned to Ireland in late 2000, with my family. In the late eighties I saw an Open University programme which struck a deep cord with me and has never been far from my mind. The programme was about one of the “specimens” displayed in the Hunterian Collection, in the Royal College of Surgeons in London. That specimen was the skeleton of Charles Byrne, the ‘Irish Giant’.

Mr. Byrne was born in Littlebridge, Co Tyrone in 1761. He left Ireland in 1780 to seek his fortune in England. He died in June 1783 at the age of twenty-two. I believe my deep empathy for Mr. Byrne stems from our shared situations, both of us had left Ireland, both of a similar age (at that time) and I am over 6 foot 6 inches in height. I also believe that it is any longer necessary to display actual human remains in a museum as a curiosity, for amusement. I would think that only minute samples are needed for scientific study, such as future DNA analysis, and a cast of the skeleton would provide an accurate representation for future study.

As you may know, along with many people of that time, Mr Byrne feared that on his death surgeons, or doctors, would try to acquire his body and dissect it for scientific purposes. Mr Byrne’s dying wish was to be buried at sea. It is my understanding that Mr Byrne had made financial arrangements for a burial at sea, but his wishes were thwarted and his corpse was “purchased/purloined” by John Hunter who then published a scientific description of the anatomy and the skeleton. In 1799 the British Government purchased Hunter’s collection of papers and specimens, which it presented to the College of Surgeons.

In December 2008, soon after I discovered that Aboriginal remains had been repatriated by the College, I put a request in writing to Mr. Bernard Ribeiro, President of The Royal College of Surgeons of England, asking for the return of Mr Byrne’s remains to Ireland, with the intention of carrying out Mr Byrne’s last wishes for a burial at sea. I had requested that the College extend the same courtesy to the remains of this Irish person as it has previously extended to the remains of the indigenous inhabitants of North America, Australia and New Zealand. Accurate and undisputed, geographical provenance exists as Mr Byrne is Irish, and the wishes of Mr Byrne are not contravened as he wished to be buried at sea.

I had asked the College to treat my request sympathetically. During the meeting of the Board of Trustees of the Hunterian Collection on the 6th February 2008, it was decided to unanimously refuse my request. Needless to say I was very disappointed, in particular with items on the draft minutes. Items numbers 6.3 and 6.5 which stated that the Board did not feel that the views of one individual could be considered in isolation, number 6.4 which stated that the skeleton still possessed scientific and medical significance as a rare and irreplaceable example of pituitary gigantism, and number 6.5 which stated that the board had in 2004 decided not to replace Mr Byrne’s skeleton with a cast.

Minister Ahern’s subsequent letter, to me, did seem to suggest that if a member of the extended Byrne family made a similar petition, progress may be made. But to my knowledge, from searching the internet, Mr. Byrne has no direct descendants, with genealogical records from that era being sparse, to say the least.

Following on from the first refusal, it occurred to me that the refusal to return Mr Byrne’s remains to Ireland was an equality issue. So I emailed the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission on 28th September 2008 and outlined the situation. The following is the reply which I received on the 2 Oct 2008:

Ref: 1-2876554

Dear Mr Brennan -

Thank you for your email to the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

The Commission is working to eliminate discrimination, reduce inequality, protect human rights and to build good relations, ensuring that everyone has a fair chance to participate in society.

The Commission was established under the Equality Act 2006 which incorporated the work of the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Commission for Racial Equality, and the Disability Rights Commission, and has the power to enforce equality legislation on age, disability, gender, race, religion or belief, sexual orientation or transgender status, and encourages compliance with the Human Rights Act.

With regards to racial discrimination the Race Relations Act 19976 (as amended) is the legislation which governs this area. Under the Race Relations Act, it is unlawful for a person to discriminate on racial grounds against another person. The Act defines racial grounds as including race, colour, nationality or ethnic or national origins.

The 1976 Race Relations Act is concerned with people’s actions and the effects of their actions, not their opinions or beliefs. Racial discrimination is not the same as racial prejudice. It is not necessary to prove that the other person intended to discriminate against you: you only have to show that you received less favourable treatment as a result of what they did.

To bring a case under the Race Relations Act, you have to show you have been discriminated against in one or more ways that are unlawful under the Act. For further information, please see the following link to our website – online [viz., on www.equalityhumanrights.com at date].

In addition public bodies have a statutory duty imposed on them to amongst other things to carry out its functions with due regard to the need to:

- eliminate unlawful discrimination, and;
- promote equality of opportunity and good relations between persons of different racial groups

Public authorities are expected to consider the implications for racial equality for everything they do.

The Royal College of Surgeons are classified as a public authority, but only in relation to their public functions. Which are functions that affect, or are likely to affect, the public or a section of the public.

The scope of the act is restricted to the areas of employment, education and the provision of goods services and facilities. It would be for a court to decide if the matter in question would fall within the scope of the act, and if it can be deemed a public function. Therefore it is not overtly clear if the case of Charles Byrne and the return of his skeleton to Island for burial would fall within the remit of the Race Relations Act. The issue may revolve around whether the retaining of Charles Byrne’s remains can fall within the provision of goods, services and facilities as defined in the legislation.

It may be of some merit to ask the Royal College of Surgeons how they justify their stance in relation to:

- The Race Relations Act - The less favourable treatment to those who are Irish in comparison to the manner in which they have treated those of North American, Australian and New Zealand origin.

- The Statutory duty to promote race equality which is imposed on the Royal College of Surgeons.

Ultimately It would be a County Court to decide on the above issues if the matter cannot be resolved by the conflicting parties.

Yours sincerely,
Gurmit Sangha

Following this reply from the Commission, I again wrote to the President of the College on the 2nd October 2008 asking the College to justify their stance. The new president, Mr John Black, wrote back on the 31st October stating that he firmly believed that in reaching their decision the board gave my request the same serious and sympathetic consideration and applied the same criteria for all previous requests of this nature. However, he has passed my letter to the chairman of the board to be tabled at their next meeting on 4th February 2009. This meeting has now been deferred until the 1st April 2009.

I also copied my new letter to Mr Mark Caldon of the Cultural Property Unit DCMS, UK., to the Minister Martin of Foreign Affairs and to President McAleese. Also to Michael Ring T.D., who has been very encouraging and helpful, and has written letters to the Royal College of Surgeons supporting both of my requests.

I would draw your attention to The Royal College of Surgeons Museum “Acquisition and Disposal Policy”, specifically sections 5.3, 5.4 and 5.5. On their website, the museum proudly boasts that Mr Byrne’s skeleton is included within the Hunterian Collection. Also of interest is an article from The Royal College of Surgeons website, about the repatriation of all Australian Aboriginal human remains in 2002-2003. Another relevant document is the “Guidance for the care of Human remains in Museums” published by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, UK, in 2005 [To access these documents, go to the links page - infra.]

I have been keeping up to date with developments in this area and would draw your attention to the Think Tank museum Collections Acquisition and Disposal Policy, Birmingham Science Museum, Thinktank Trust, September 2008. Their section 10, The Repatriation and Restitution of objects, and human remains older than 100 years, is a bit less stringent than the Royal College of Surgeons Acquisition and Disposal Policy. The Thinktank policies seem to be the norm, from what I have seen of other Acquisition and Disposal Policy of Museums in the UK. [To access the Thinktank policy statement, proceed to links - infra.]

There is a larger document that you might also like to have a look at, which can be downloaded from here, (click on text in the middle in yellow) its about 1Mb. [To access the document proceed to links - infra.]

The main topics were:

1. Repatriating human remains: why, for whom, under which conditions?
2. Is there any place today for human remains inside museums?
3. The status of human remains from a legal, ethical and philosophical point of view.
4. How to reach a mutual understanding? Institutional mediations and negotiations.

I am still reading this massive missive, but one worthy quote I extracted was “the existence of the remains of indigenous people in the world’s metropolitan museums is a shameful vestige of colonialism and a continuing affront to human dignity.” It is also worth looking at Neil McGregor’s speech, the Director of the British Museum UK, which begins on page 43 and outlines some of the difficulties within the UK system of trustees.

Also of note are Frank McNally’s articulate articles in the Irish Times about Mr Byrne on the 6th September 2008 and again on the 10th September 2008. Fintan O’Toole’s article in the Irish Times of 7th March 2009. [To acces these articles on line, proceed to links infra.

An article from Theoretical Medicine, 22: 437–449, 2001, entitled “THE PRIVACY OF TUTANKHAMEN – UTILISING THE GENETIC INFORMATION IN STORED TISSUE SAMPLES” by SØREN HOLM, is very poignant and the following is an extract relating to Mr Byrne:

In a few cases we do know what the person would have wanted, and in such cases we should let that play a very large role in our deliberations. A case in point is ‘the Irish Giant’, Charles Byrne who wanted his body buried at sea, and left a large sum to ensure that his wishes were carried out when he died in 1783. Byrne was aware of the interest that anatomists of that time had in ‘rare specimens’ and did not wish to be added to this collection. However, the anatomist John Hunter bribed the undertaker and acquired Byrne’s body for dissection, and his skeleton is still on display at the Royal College of Surgeons in London. In this case we have clear evidence of the desires of the deceased with regard to a dignified treatment after death, and there seems to be no present countervailing scientific or other gain to achieve by not following the wishes of Charles Byrne.

An article from PUBLIC ARCHAEOLOGY, vol. 6, No. 1, 2007, 5–27, entitled “Playthings for the Foe: The Repatriation of Human Remains in New Zealand” by BRIAN HOLE, makes the comment “Unless museums begin to reflect the increasingly global world in which cultures are mixing and learning to work together on a scale never seen before, they run the risk of losing their relevance in the present, becoming little more than showcases of outdated world-views in themselves.”

My reason for writing to you is to ask if you would be willing to take an interest in the repatriation of Mr. Byrnes remains. Perhaps you would be prepared to write to the Board of Trustees of the Hunterian Collection via the President of the Royal College of Surgeons, Mr John Black, 35-43 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London, WC2A 3PE, UK, or president’rcseng.ac.uk before the next meeting of the trustees on the 1st April 2009, supporting my request. If you know of anyone that may have an interest in this issue, please feel free to pass on this letter and backing documents to them. I am very surprised and saddened at the lack of any real interest taken by both Governments with regard to this issue of the treatment of an Irish man’s remains in the UK. I earnestly believe that the Royal College of Surgeon’s attitude in this case is a very tenuous one, and one which will be changed in due course.

For your information, I have attached a scanned file of 19 documents which includes the various replies which I have received to my letters. [Not given here: BS]

I am a qualified Arborist thus my e-mail address mgbtree’eircom.net

Thank you for your attention and I hope to hear from you.

Yours sincerely,
Michael Brennan
Links for further online documents:

Royal College of Surgeons article on repatriation of Australian Aboriginal remains in 2002-2003 [online]

“Guidance for the care of Human remains in Museums” published by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, UK, in 2005 [online]

Think Tank museum Collections Acquisition and Disposal Policy, Birmingham Science Museum, Thinktank Trust, September 2008 - online; and longer version - online

Frank McNally’s Irish Times articles: 6th September 2008 - online; 10th September 2008 - online.

Fintan O’Toole’s article in the Irish Times of 7th March 2009 [online].

See also a letter from the Royal College of Surgeons dated 24 October 2009 denying the request to repatriate the skeleton of Charles Byrne, held by permission of the recipient in RICORSO Library - attached ].

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