Skeleton of ‘Irish Giant’ to be removed from display at London museum

Hunterian Museum says manner in which Charles Byrne’s body was acquired was unethical and against his wishes

The skeleton of an Irish giant who died in the 18th century is to be removed from public display at a museum in London.

Charles Byrne, who was from Littlebridge, Co Derry, was world-famous in his time and regarded as one of the tallest men in the world. His skeleton reveals that he was at least 2.31m (7ft 7in) tall.

His body has been on display for centuries at the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons. The museum has been closed for the last five years for redevelopment. Its reopening last year was cancelled because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

It is rescheduled to open in March this year. RCS director of museums Dawn Kemp said it is no longer “appropriate” to have it on display.


Byrne was known as the “Irish Giant” and treated like a freak show when he was alive. In the event of his death, he requested to be buried at sea so as not to be seized by body snatchers, but his wishes were ignored.

He died at the age of 22 in June 1783, some say from tuberculosis, others from a severe drinking bout brought about by the theft of his life savings.

John Hunter, the founder of the museum that bears his name, paid £500 for his corpse and put it on display four years after Byrne’s death.

The board of the museum decided that the manner in which Byrne’s skeleton was acquired was unethical and against his wishes.

It will instead go on private display for doctors interested in pituitary acromegaly, the condition that Byrne suffered from, and giantism. Sir Joshua Reynolds’s portrait of John Hunter with Charles Byrne’s feet visible will substitute for the skeleton for visitors at the museum.

Among those who championed the campaign to have his remains removed from public display was the late novelist and Booker Prize winner Hilary Mantel, who wrote about him in her book The Giant, O’Brien.

In 2018 she wrote: “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.”

Byrne’s distant relative Brendan Holland, who has been diagnosed with giantism too, said he was pleased with the outcome. Byrne’s DNA has already been extracted from his skeleton.

“It was never appropriate to have him tied up literally. It was unedifying that he was being displayed like that,” he said.

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times