An Irishman's Diary

 

THE WELL-FED face with full, red lips gazes down from the wall of the German Historical Museum in Berlin.

The man is in red and blue military regalia, with a rifle, satchel and long white socks with garters. A plaque at the bottom claims the subject was James Kirkland, 6 ft 8 in. Tall by today’s standards, but a sensation in 1734.

That was the year Kirkland, from Ballygar, Co Longford, was made an offer he couldn’t refuse by Friedrich Wilhelm I, King of Prussia.

Known as the “Soldier King” because of his military obsessions, Friedrich Wilhelm had another foible: what he called a “weakness for tall soldiers”.

A team of scouts combed Europe on his behalf for tall men. As Friedrich Wilhelm’s 18th-century biographer Thomas Carlyle put it, they were “collected, crimped, purchased out of every European country at enormous expense”.

A British agent of the king, Casper Wilhelm von Borcke, made regular scouting trips to Ireland where he spotted Kirkland, described by Carlyle as “of good inches . . . but by no means a beautiful man”.

Von Borcke wrote an excited letter to the king in code – luring away men for foreign armies was illegal – saying that he had found a particularly interesting “Irish horse”.

The king replied enthusiastically, “I don’t have any of that variety yet” – and, like the 18th-century equivalent of a football manager, ordered Borcke to close the deal.

Surviving documents suggest that Kirkland was not just the tallest man in the king’s army, he was also the most expensive acquisition.

As part of the deal to come to Potsdam, Kirkland received £1,000 “on condition of his giving up his person”, as well as £60 as three years’ wages.

The king’s accounts list other incidental expenses: for travel and accommodation, watchers, spies, horses and even postage, bringing the total cost to an astronomical £1,200 and 10 shillings.

The new acquisition was “very pretty” wrote the king. An obsessive compulsive workaholic, he had slashed all expensive pomp in the court he inherited in 1713 on the death of his father, King Friedrich.

The army was his one luxury and the giant battalion of the sixth regiment, the grenadier guards known locally as the “ Langer Kerls” or “Tall Guys”, was his most expensive hobby.

Voltaire, a regular visitor in the Prussian court, was amazed at the joy the regiment brought the 5ft 5in monarch.

“Every day, armed with a huge sergeant’s cane, he marched forth to review his regiment of giants,” noted the writer. “These giants were his greatest delight. He played with them as a child would with enormous living toys.” When the king was too ill to go outside – he suffered from the hereditary disease porphyria – the soldiers came to him.

A visitor to court noted how, “preceded by tall, turbaned Moors with cymbals and trumpets and the grenadiers’ mascot, an enormous bear” around 300 of the soldiers “would march in a long line through the King’s chamber to cheer him up”.

Friedrich Wilhelm didn’t just drill the soldiers, he even painted them – literally. His sister notes in her memoir that if the model soldiers’ appearance did not match that of a portrait on which the king based all his portraits, “he was in the habit of colouring the cheeks of the soldier to correspond to the picture”.

First established in 1717, the king’s collection of giants grew to more than 4,000 over the next 20 years. Any number of means were employed to fill the ranks.

If the man was not interested when approached, he was often kidnapped.

The relatively good conditions and pay in Potsdam ensured that most of the hostages came around to their fate, although there are records of desertions and suicides.

Whether the giants served any practical purpose beyond pleasing the king is something of a mystery. Some military historians suggest these taller soldiers were better able to load the long rifles used at the time.

Carlyle, the king’s biographer, mentions another Irishman in the brigade, “his name was probably M’Dowal”, but offers no further information.

Other monarchs around Europe contributed to the regiment after hearing that sending Friedrich Wilhelm a few “tall guys” was the the quickest way to please the Prussian king.

As the expense of recruiting the giants grew – no doubt news of the king’s generosity spread through out Europe, driving up the market price in giants – the notoriously stingy king hit on the idea of creating

his own.

There are rumours that he tried to stretch regular soldiers on a rack, but abandoned the idea when it caused unrest in the ranks.

He then took to luring tall women to Potsdam and forcing them to marry his soldiers.

By the time of the king’s death in 1740, the reputation of Kirkland and the “Tall Guy” regiment had spread throughout Europe.

The regiment was retained, unwillingly, by the king’s son Friedrich Wilhelm II but dissolved in 1806.

And what became of Kirkland? While some doubts have emerged about whether the portrait by court painter Johann Christof Merk really is of Kirkland, there appears little doubt that he stayed in Berlin and went into business.

“Poor Kirkman [sic], does he sometimes think of the Hill of Howth, and that he will never see it more?” asked the biographer Thomas Carlyle.

“Kirkman, I judge, is not given to thought; – considers that he has tobacco here, and privileges and perquisites [sic]; and that Howth, and Heaven itself, is inaccessible to many a man.”