An Irishman's Diary


I’M not so sure about James Joyce (Diary, January 8th and subsequent letters), but there seems to be a clearer moral case for repatriating the remains of another exile whose posthumous fame continues to grow.

I refer to Charles Byrne, “the Irish Giant”: still packing them in at London’s Hunterian Museum, where his skeleton remains on display almost 230 years after he died, aged only 22 and so fearful of dissection by scientists that he asked to be buried at sea.

Alas, the unfortunate Byrne had far too much curiosity value to allow him a dignified funeral. He had, after all, made a livelihood displaying his outsized frame to the English public. Its freak appeal survived even his death, so that, as a newspaper of the time sarcastically commented, “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”.

The prize ultimately fell to one John Hunter, a collector in whose honour the museum is named. After bribing the undertaker and paying off others in the giant’s retinue, he it was who secured the remains. Following which, lest leisurely dissection give time for a recovery operation, he hastily plunged the body into a copper boiler filled with acid, and thereby stripped the bones.

When Hunter himself died, his collection – including the skeleton – was acquired by the Royal College of Surgeons, in which the Hunterian is housed. Thus was Byrne’s fame sealed in a glass case: far from the sea and even further from his native Ulster, where he had been born, on the borders of Derry and Tyrone, in 1761.

When I last wrote about Byrne, in 2008, I was contacted by Michael Brennan from Mayo, who it turned out had been conducting a one-man campaign to have the giant’s dying wishes honoured. His motives were neither religious nor familial. But he had himself been an exile and was, if not a colossus, unusually tall, at over six foot six.

So Byrne’s story struck a chord. And ever since seeing a programme about it on BBC’s Open University in the 1980s, Brennan had been haunted by the giant’s fate. He subsequently wrote to the museum, various UK authorities, Irish politicians, and anyone else he thought could help. After all, as he pointed out, the Royal College had previously repatriated the remains of Australian and Maori aboriginals once collected in the name of science.

Sadly, his argument was rebuffed. To cut a long story short, the museum insisted in 2009 that Byrne’s case was different, because – among other things – his skeleton illustrated a condition that remained of “active medical interest”.

THIS STANCE HAS, it must be said, been partly vindicated by recent events. Just last week, researchers who had studied Byrne’s DNA revealed that he suffered from a rare genetic mutation discovered only in 2006.

The scientists had found the same variant in a cluster of living and unusually tall people from Northern Ireland. So, working on a hunch – and on two of Byrne’s teeth – they were able to prove that he and the others shared the gene and that, circa 1,500 years ago, they had a common ancestor. The quality of Byrne’s DNA had not been helped by Hunter’s acid bath and other ravages, but it was enough to work with.

The research could yet help many people who suffer from gigantism and the related pituitary tumour that Byrne had. Medicine aside, meanwhile, it also lends scientific credence to a long literary tradition concerning Irish giants: one that stretches from the legend of Finn MacCool up to Hilary Mantel’s 1998 novel, The Giant O’Brien, via passing mention in Dickens.

Mantel’s book conflated two real figures: Byrne and the later Patrick Cotter O’Brien, from Cork, who made a similar living in England and had similar concerns about posthumous dissection (in the event, he was safely buried in Bristol, where he had lived).

But it was mainly inspired by Byrne and his tense relationship with Hunter, which was portrayed as a collision of two worlds: an older romantic one – in the novel, Byrne was a professional storyteller before leaving Ireland – and that of remorseless science.

This battle continues today, clearly, with the scientists having just won another round. Yet as Michael Brennan argued, doing the decent thing by Byrne need not be at the cost of progress. As has been shown, very small samples of DNA can give scientists all the information they need. And a mere cast of the skeleton would serve other educational requirements.

One obstacle to Byrne’s interment is that he has no known descendants. Consequently the question of where to bury him – the sea may have been the choice of a desperate man, after all – might be problematical. But here I suggest that the aforementioned James Joyce could help.

Joyce was yet another writer to draw on Irish giant lore. The multiple meanings in the title of Finnegans Wake include reference to Finn MacCool: portrayed in the book as sleeping under Dublin, his head forming the Hill of Howth and his feet a pair of hillocks near Phoenix Park, while Irish history courses through his brain.

Perhaps if they’re ever released from their glass case, Byrne’s remains could be consigned to the sea off Howth. Alternatively, it might be assumed that – had its security been assured – he would have preferred a conventional grave. In this vein, maybe he could be buried somewhere between Finn MacCool’s two extremities of Howth and Chapelizod. Off the top of my head, I suggest Glasnevin.