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”.

It was John Hunter [of the Royal College of Surgeons’ Hunterian Museum], the most famous of the collectors, who secured the prize; with the help of some Judases in the giant’s retinue. Here is one description of the episode, from a recent book entitled With Words and Knives — Learning Medical Dispassion in Early Modern England: “In the knowledge that John Hunter and other anatomy teachers wanted his body for a specimen, Charles O’Byrne [sic] begged his friends to bury him at sea in a lead coffin. ... Hunter found out which public house the watchers of the body were drinking in as the coffin was being made [and] bribed the undertaker with £50 if he would agree to the body being ‘kidnapped’ as it travelled from London to Margate. .... The eventual price for the corpse of the poor giant was a staggering £500 - which Hunter had to borrow from a friend.

“[He] had the body transported by hackney coach to his country place in Earls Court while the giant’s so-called friends placed paving stones in the coffin and buried it at sea. Hunter was concerned that the theft of such a famous corpse would be quickly publicised and, instead of a leisurely dissection, he sliced the body up and dropped it into a huge copper boiler to strip the flesh from the bones quickly. As a result, the skeleton was, and is, brown.”

Hunter was so proud of having snatched the body that he had part of the skeleton included in his 1786 portrait by Joshua Reynolds. And his enthusiasm for collecting oddities was further immortalised by the museum named after him, when it inherited all his treasures, including the ill-gotten ones.’ McNally joins Michael Brennan of Mayo in a plea that the bones of Byrne be returned home, the Board of the College of Surgeons having already acceded to Brennan's request to the extent of permitting the bones to be released and a copy made.



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