Altitude Problem – An Irishman’s Diary about the Silvermines Giant

Cornelius Magrath:  height brought him celebrity

Cornelius Magrath: height brought him celebrity

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The West Tipperary village of Silvermines is most famous for its mineral wealth, including lead, zinc, copper, baryte, and of course the precious metal embedded in its name.  

But as the latest issue of the local history society’s journal, Mining The Past, reminds us, the area has also produced a famous sample of a rare form of humanity that, if only semi-precious, was also once much in demand overseas.

His name was Cornelius Magrath. And during a short lifetime, which lasted from 1737 to 1760, he was one of the prime exhibits of a phenomenon marketed in Britain and elsewhere as the “Irish Giant”.

In less romantic terms, he was suffering from acromegaly, resulting from a disorder of the pituitary gland that produces too much growth hormone.  

To the extent that this is a characteristically Irish condition, as folklore suggests, a 2011 study found that modern-day sufferers on the island are descended from a common ancestor who also had the problem, maybe 1,500 or more years ago.

But as for Magrath, along with a lot of pain, his seven-foot-three (2.21m) height brought him celebrity: first in Cork, where as a teenager he travelled for medical treatment, and later in London, Paris, and beyond.  

At Regensburg, Germany, he was portrayed by the engraver Johann Nepomuk Maag, dwarfing a local who was included for comparison. The latter may have been unusually short in his own right. But it wasn’t just Magrath’s height that impressed, clearly.  

He is said to have weighed 32 stone (203kg), and as one of his promoters boasted, had “the truest and best proportioned figure [of the type] ever seen.”

Alas, like most of his fellow titans then, he could not expect a long life. Back in Ireland in 1760, he was treated by specialists at Trinity College, near which he died on May 16th of that year. Thereafter, in circumstances that remain murky, his body was dissected and boiled down to the skeleton, which took up residence in Trinity’s anatomy department, where it remains today.

It is with this last point, rather than Magrath’s sad life story, that Aidan Boland’s essay in Mining the Past is mainly preoccupied. For as his title – “Raiders of the Lost Artefacts” – implies, the question of who if anyone owns such remains, and the ethics of continuing to display them for educational or other purposes, are controversial at the least.

Boland accepts that had Magrath received a conventional interment at the time, it would most likely have been a pauper’s one in Bully’s Acre, Dublin’s communal burial ground at Kilmainham, from which he might have been soon resurrected by anatomists anyway. Thus, there may have been a cause for taking the body into the university’s preemptive custody.  

But as the essay also points out, a TCD charter of 1692 allowed for the dissection of executed criminals only on condition that the remains were decently buried. Why, asks Boland, should the blameless Magrath not have been given “the same dignity”?

By a poignant coincidence, the Silvermines Giant died only a matter of months before one Charles Byrne was born with the same condition in Co Tyrone. Byrne grew to be a few inches taller than Magrath, but had a similarly brief lifespan, dying aged 22.  

In between, he too enjoyed overseas celebrity, starting in Scotland, where he used to amuse the night watchmen of Edinburgh by lighting his pipe from the street gas-lamps, without having to stretch. 

Fearful of posthumous dissection by scientists, Byrne asked that when his time came, he be buried at sea.  

Unfortunately, his frame was of too much interest for that to be allowed happen. When he died in London, according to one withering report, “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”.

So, like Magrath’s, Byrne’s skeleton became an exhibit, at London Hunterian Museum, where it still remains despite several attempts, most recently a public petition, to have it released. In fairness to science, DNA from Byrne was an important part of the 2011 study. But as was pointed out then, they didn’t need a whole skeleton for that.

Last year’s issue of Mining the Past won the Local Heritage award at the 2017 Listowel Writers Week. The latest volume is also full of fascinating material, including “The Gleesons Who Missed the Boat” and “Married at Gunpoint” (a story from the Civil War). Good value for €10, it’s available in all Tipperary-friendly bookshops or from silvermineshistoricalsociety@gmail.com

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