Hilary Mantel calls for 'Irish Giant' skeleton to be repatriated

Author Dame Hilary Mantel calls for skeleton of 8ft 4in ‘Irish Giant’ held at the Royal College of Surgeons to be returned to his homeland after he asked to be buried at sea

  • Dame Hilary Mantel has called for Charles Byrne’s remains to be repatriated
  • Byrne, born in Co Londonderry in 1761, became known as the ‘Irish Giant’
  • At 8ft 4in tall, he entertained audiences in Scotland, the North and then London
  • His remains were acquired by Scottish surgeon John Hunter after his death
  • The skeleton appeared in Hunter’s private collection and stayed on display for much of the following two centuries at London’s Hunterian Museum 

Wolf Hall author Dame Hilary Mantel has called for the skeleton of the 18th Century ‘Irish Giant’ currently held by the Royal College of Surgeons to be repatriated after he asked to be buried at sea.

Mantel wrote The Giant, O’Brien, a fictionalised account of 8ft 4in Charles Byrne, who suffered from acromegalic gigantism and became a London celebrity on account of his height.

Byrne, who was born in Co Londonderry in 1761, went to great lengths while he was alive to ensure his skeleton was not put on display after his death — a fate then usually reserved for executed criminals.

But after he died at his lodgings aged just 22 in 1783, his remains were acquired by Scottish surgeon and anatomist John Hunter against the Giant’s explicit instructions that his body should be buried at sea.

His skeleton appeared in Hunter’s private collection four years later and stayed on public display for much of the following 200 years at the Hunterian Museum, run by the Royal College of Surgeons in London. 

Dame Hilary Mantel has called for the skeleton of the 18th Century ‘Irish Giant’ currently held by the Royal College of Surgeons to be repatriated after he asked to be buried at sea

Charles Byrne, who was born in Co Londonderry in 1761 and grew to be 8ft 4in tall, went to great lengths while he was alive to ensure his skeleton was not put on display after his death — a fate then usually reserved for executed criminals

The Queen seems impressed as she views the skeleton of the Irish Giant in the Hunterian Museum during her visit to the Royal College of Surgeons

Two years ago the museum said it would reconsider sending Byrne’s remains back to his homeland for a sea burial during renovations, but the museum’s reopening has been pushed back to at least 2022.

Dame Hilary, the Booker-winning author of the acclaimed Wolf Hall novels set in Henry VIII’s England, has now added her voice to calls for Byrne’s wishes to be respected and his remains to be decently buried.

Writing to The Guardian, she said ‘it’s time Charles went home’, adding: ‘I know that in real life he was a suffering soul, nothing like the fabulous storybook giant I created, and his gratifications were fewer and his end very grim.

‘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.’

Dame Hilary said: ‘I assumed the burial at sea was just an attempt to evade Hunter, and that if the bones were recovered from the RCS he would be buried in Ireland. 

He entertained paying audiences at rooms in Spring Garden-gate, then Piccadilly, and lastly Charing Cross. Reports at the time noted how he could light his pipe from street lamps without standing on tiptoe. In London, he was the toast of the town and his gently, likeable nature inspired huge public fondness which was splashed across the newspapers of the day

After he died at his lodgings aged just 22 in 1783, his remains were acquired by Scottish surgeon and anatomist John Hunter against the Giant’s explicit instructions that his body should be buried at sea. His skeleton appeared in Hunter’s private collection four years later and stayed on public display for much of the following 200 years at the Hunterian Museum, run by the Royal College of Surgeons in London

The life and death of Charles Byrne, the 8ft 4in ‘Irish Giant’ whose final wish to be buried at sea was thwarted

Byrne’s family lived in a remote part of Co Londonderry called Littlebridge, not far from Lough Neagh. It is said that Byrne had been conceived on top of a haystack, and that this was the cause of his great height.  

By his late teens Byrne had decided to set off for Britain in pursuit of fame and fortune. Landing first in Scotland, he became an instant success.   

His celebrity spread as he made his way down northern England, arriving in London in early 1782, aged 21. Here he entertained paying audiences at rooms in Spring Garden-gate, then Piccadilly, and lastly Charing Cross.  

He was pickpocketed in this period while drinking in his local pub, the Black Horse; Byrne’s worldly earnings were on his person in the form of banknotes, and were stolen. The loss of his earnings interacted with his failing health, and two months later Byrne died in June 1783, aged 22. 

Byrne was living in London at the same time as surgeon and anatomist John Hunter. Hunter had a reputation for collecting unusual specimens for his private museum, and Hunter had offered to pay Byrne for his corpse. 

As Byrne’s health deteriorated, and knowing that Hunter wanted his body for dissection (a fate reserved at that time for executed criminals) and probable display, Byrne devised a plan. He made express arrangements with friends that when he died his body would be sealed in a lead coffin and taken to the coastal town of Margate and then to a ship for burial at sea. 

Byrne’s wishes were thwarted and his worst fears realised when Hunter arranged for the cadaver to be snatched on its way to Margate.

Hunter then reduced Byrne’s corpse to its skeleton and four years later put Byrne’s skeleton on display in his Hunterian Museum. His skeleton was purchased in 1799 by the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London and it was then displayed for nearly two centuries. 

‘I hope there would be a welcome party for him, and I hope I can come and join it.’ 

A spokesman for the Hunterian Museum told MailOnline the museum is currently closed and undergoing re-development, adding: ‘An update on plans for all the displays in the new Museum will be issued in due course.’

Byrne was born in Littlebridge, between Cookstown and the western shore of Lough Neagh, and left home to make his fortune and travelled through Scotland and the north of England as a ‘curiosity act’ before settling in London in 1782, aged 21. 

He entertained paying audiences at rooms in Spring Garden-gate, then Piccadilly, and lastly Charing Cross. Reports at the time noted how he could light his pipe from street lamps without standing on tiptoe.

In London, he was the toast of the town and his gently, likeable nature inspired huge public fondness which was splashed across the newspapers of the day.

Byrne was living in London at the same time as Hunter, who had a reputation for collecting unusual specimens for his private museum.

After Hunter had offered to pay Byrne for his corpse, the Irish Giant, whose health was deteriorating and knowing that Hunter wanted his body for dissection, made plans with friends to have his body sealed in a lead coffin, taken to Margate, and then shipped out for a sea burial.

But the Scottish surgeon arranged for the cadaver to be snatched on its way to Margate, before he reduced Byrne’s corpse to its skeleton.

In 2011, calls were made in the British Medical Journal by Len Doyal, Emeritus Professor of Medical Ethics at Queen Mary, University of London, and law lecturer Thomas Muinzer to put an end to the display of Byrne’s skeleton at the museum and for it to be buried at sea ‘as Byrne intended for himself’. 

Dr Cliona McGovern, the head of forensic and legal medicine at University College Dublin, told The Guardian: ‘This is still something Byrne objected to. 

‘We know Byrne did not consent to his body being on display and most unusually for a case from 1783, we know what his explicit wishes were: burial at sea. 

‘Hunter interfered with a burial, which was (and is) a legal right, and he also made no reference to any of Byrne’s family, who also had a legal right over Byrne’s estate.’ 

Francie Molloy, the MP for mid-Ulster, where Byrne was born, has called on the museum to respect Byrne’s wishes.

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