Study suggests tall tales of Irish giants had a grain of truth

THE PREVALENCE of giants in Irish mythology may have a genetic basis which exists to this day, researchers claim.

THE PREVALENCE of giants in Irish mythology may have a genetic basis which exists to this day, researchers claim.

DNA extracted from the bones of Charles Byrne, who billed himself as the world’s tallest man in the 18th century, shows a common ancestry with five Northern Irish families who have a similar genetic condition.

The condition could be traced back to a common ancestor who lived about 1,500 years ago, but lead researcher Dr Marta Korbonits said the genetic window could be anything between 400 and 3,700 years ago. She said she was struck by the prevalence of giants in Irish mythology which features the likes of Fionn Mac Cumhail, mythical creator of the Giants Causeway.

“It was folklore up to now, but we have identified the gene that has caused the gigantism that has been going around Ireland for at least 1,500 years. There might be a grain of truth in the folklore,” she said.

One of those who shared the genetic mutation with Byrne is Tyrone man Brendan Holland who is 6ft 9ins tall and visited what may be his ancestor’s skeletal remains in the Hunterian Museum in London yesterday. Byrne was 7ft 7ins tall when he died aged 22 in 1783.

Museum director Dr Sam Alberti said: “This work vividly demonstrates the rich potential of historical human remains to advance our understanding of rare conditions and to benefit contemporary communities.”

Researchers have isolated a common gene mutation which causes a pituitary adenoma, a condition which can lead to gigantism.

The results have been published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Dr Korbonits, a professor of endocrinology and metabolism at Barts Hospital in London and an expert in gigantism, said she operated on a hunch when a Northern Ireland family which had the gene mutation came to her in 2008.

She said the research had potential benefits for those at risk of the condition which caused Byrne to grow so tall.

The life of Byrne will be the subject of an Irish language documentary from BBC Northern Ireland which will be broadcast on Sunday week on BBC2 at 7pm.

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times