Hilary Mantel calls for skeleton of Irish ‘giant’ to be repatriated

Bones of 18th-century Charles Byrne stored at the Royal College of Surgeons in London


Author Hilary Mantel has called for the Royal College of Surgeons to repatriate the skeleton of an Irish “giant” whose bones remain on display in London two centuries after he asked to be buried at sea.

Byrne had a genetic form of gigantism that caused him to grow to more than 2.31 metres (7ft 7in) tall. His height made him a celebrity in 18th-century London, and prior to his death in 1783 he went to great lengths to ensure his body would not be dissected - a fate then usually reserved for executed criminals. But despite his wishes and plans for a burial at sea his remains were acquired by the pioneering Scottish surgeon and anatomist John Hunter.

Byrne’s skeleton appeared in Hunter’s private collection four years later and stayed on public display for much of the subsequent two centuries at the Hunterian Museum, run by the Royal College of Surgeons.

In 2018, the Hunterian Museum said it would consider Byrne’s fate during renovations.

Mantel, the booker-winning author of Wolf Hall, and writer of a fictionalised portrait of Byrne entitled The Giant, O’Brien, said this week it was “time Charles went home” and that his bones be buried in Ireland.

“I know that in real life he was a suffering soul, nothing like the fabulous storybook giant I created, and that his gratifications were fewer and his end very grim,” said Mantel.

“I think that science has learned all it can from the bones, and the honourable thing now is lay him to rest. It would suit the spirit of the times, and I don’t see a reason for delay. He’s waited long enough.”

BBC documentary: Charles Byrne - The Irish Giant

Genetically-based diseases

However, Brendan Holland, a distant relative of Byrne who is 6ft 9in and carries the same gigantism gene as his ancestor, says there may still be more to learn from the bones.

“The reason it’s in the museum isn’t as a public curiosity, it’s there to teach students about genetically-based diseases,” Mr Holland told The Irish Times. He said Mantel was mistaken in writing in her novel that Byrne feared his body being kept in a museum for hundreds of years.

“That’s not true, he was afraid of being dissected which was the mark of criminality. I’m quite certain, knowing what he would have suffered, that he would have been of generous enough spirit to see yes, if my body helps people avoid being in the situation I’ve gone through it should be used.”

Mr Holland noted that research carried out in recent years using DNA from Byrne’s skeleton had help save lives and prevented others from having to undergo the same suffering Byrne endured. Further research could save more lives in the future, he added.

“It’s one of the things that has given meaning to my condition. I had this problem before of trying to understand as one of eight siblings, why I had the condition and the other seven did not. Now I understand why.”

Ronan McCloskey, who directed the 2011 documentary Charles Byrne, the Irish Giant, says the skeleton represents “hundreds of people who have had that condition going back thousands of years and went through terrible suffering”. Displaying his bones brought more attention to the condition and enabled more people with the gene to access treatment, he said. He added that he did not expect the Hunterian Museum would be happy parting with the skeleton. “It’s the very heart of the display, everything leads to this giant skeleton. Without the skeleton the collection will mean much less, I’d say they’ll hold onto it.

Hunterian museum

A spokeswoman for the Hunterian Museum said it would not be reopening for “at least” another two years.

“An update on plans for all the displays in the new museum will be issued in due course.”

Dr Cliona McGovern, head of forensic and legal medicine at University College Dublin, says Byrne would have objected to having his DNA used in medical research.

“We know Byrne did not consent to his body being on display and most unusually for a case from 1783, we know what his explicit wishes were: burial at sea. Hunter interfered with a burial, which was (and is) a legal right, and he also made no reference to any of Byrne’s family, who also had a legal right over Byrne’s estate.” At the time, the use of bodily remains for display or anatomy was reserved for traitors and murderers.”

Byrne was determined that such humiliation was not for him,” McGovern added.

“Newspaper accounts of the time reported that he wanted to be weighted down and buried at sea. He was not a criminal and he did not want his body to be disinterred by body snatchers.” – Guardian