Wolf Hall author Dame Hilary Mantel has called for the repatriation of the skeleton of the 18th-century ‘Irish giant’ after he asked to be buried at sea.
Mantel wrote The Giant, O’Brien, a fictionalized account of 8ft 4 in Charles Byrne, who suffered from acromegalic gigantism and became a London celebrity for his height.
Born in Co Londonderry in 1761, Byrne went to great lengths during his lifetime to ensure that his skeleton was not put on display after his death – a fate then usually reserved for executed criminals.
But after he died in his quarters in 1783 at the age of 22, his remains were acquired by Scottish surgeon and anatomist John Hunter against the giant’s express instructions that his body be buried at sea.
His skeleton appeared in Hunter’s private collection four years later and remained in the Hunterian Museum, run by the Royal College of Surgeons in London, for most of the next 200 years.
Dame Hilary Mantel has called for the repatriation of the skeleton of the 18th-century ‘Irish giant’ currently held by the Royal College of Surgeons, after asking to be buried at sea
Charles Byrne, who was born in Co Londonderry in 1761 and reached 8 ft 4 in tall, went out of his way to ensure that his skeleton was not put on display after his death – a fate then usually reserved for executed criminals
The Queen seems impressed when she sees 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 returning Byrne’s remains to his homeland for a sea funeral during renovations, but the museum’s reopening has been delayed until at least 2022.
Dame Hilary, the Booker-winning author of Henry VIII’s acclaimed Wolf Hall novels set in Henry VIII’s England, has now added her voice to the call to respect Byrne’s wishes and to bury his remains decently.
Write to The Guardian, she said “ it’s time for Charles to go home, ” adding, “ I know in real life he was a suffering soul, nothing like the fantastic storybook giant I made, and his thanks were less and his end very grim.
‘I think science has learned everything from the bone, and the honorable thing is to let him rest now. It would fit the spirit of the times and I see no reason for delay. He’s waited long enough. ‘
Dame Hilary said, “I assumed the funeral at sea was just an attempt to avoid Hunter, and that if the RCS bones were recovered, he would be buried in Ireland.
He entertained paying audiences in rooms in Spring Garden gate, then Piccadilly, and finally Charing Cross. Reports from the time showed that he could light his pipe on streetlamps without getting on tiptoe. In London, he was the toast of the city and his gentle, lovable nature inspired great public affection that was splashed by the newspapers of the day
After he died in his quarters in 1783 at just 22 years of age, his remains were acquired by Scottish surgeon and anatomist John Hunter against the Giant’s express instructions that his body be buried at sea. His skeleton appeared in Hunter’s private collection four years later and remained in the Hunterian Museum, run by the Royal College of Surgeons in London, for most of the next 200 years.
The life and death of Charles Byrne, the 8ft 4in ‘Irish Giant’ whose dying 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 was conceived on a haystack and that this was the cause of his great height.
By his late teens, Byrne had decided to leave for Britain in search of fame and fortune. It landed first in Scotland and was an instant success.
His celebrity spread as he traveled across Northern England arriving in London in early 1782 at the age of 21. Here he entertained paying audiences in rooms in Spring Garden gate, then Piccadilly, and finally Charing Cross.
During this time he became a pickpocket while drinking in his local pub, the Zwarte Paard; Byrne’s worldly earnings were on his person in the form of banknotes, stolen. The loss of his income was related to his ill health, and two months later Byrne died in June 1783, aged 22.
Byrne lived 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.
When Byrne’s health deteriorated, and knowing that Hunter wanted his body to be dissected (a fate at the time reserved for executed criminals) and likely manifested, Byrne devised a plan. He made explicit arrangements with friends that when he died, his body would be sealed in a lead casket 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 were realized when Hunter arranged for the cadaver to be snatched on its way to Margate.
Hunter reduced Byrne’s corpse to his skeleton, and four years later he put Byrne’s skeleton on display at his Hunterian Museum. His skeleton was purchased by the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London in 1799 and was put on display for nearly two centuries thereafter.
“I hope there is a welcome party for him, and I hope I can join.”
A Hunterian Museum spokesperson told MailOnline that the museum is currently closed and undergoing redevelopment, adding, “An update on plans for all exhibitions in the new museum will be released in due course.”
Born in Littlebridge, between Cookstown and the west bank of Lough Neagh, Byrne left home to make fortune and traveled through Scotland and the North of England as a ‘curiosity act’ before settling in 1782 at the age of 21. London settled.
He entertained paying audiences in rooms in Spring Garden gate, then Piccadilly, and finally Charing Cross. Reports from the time showed that he could light his pipe on streetlamps without getting on tiptoe.
In London, he was the toast of the city, and his gentle, lovable nature inspired great public affection that was splashed by 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 offered to pay Byrne for his corpse, the Irish Giant, whose health was deteriorating and knowing Hunter wanted his body to be dissectioned, made plans with friends to have his body sealed in a lead box, taken to Margate, and then shipped off. to ship. out for a sea funeral.
But the Scottish surgeon arranged for the corpse to be snatched on the way to Margate, before reducing Byrne’s corpse to his skeleton.
In 2011, the British Medical Journal called Len Doyal, emeritus professor of medical ethics at Queen Mary, University of London, and lawyer Thomas Muinzer to stop displaying Byrne’s skeleton in the museum and to being buried at sea “as Byrne intended for himself.”
Dr. Cliona McGovern, the chief 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 exhibited and most unusually for a case from 1783, we know what his explicit wishes were: buried at sea.
“Hunter interfered with a funeral, which was (and is) a legal right, nor did he refer to any of Byrne’s family, who also had a legal right to Byrne’s estate.”
Francie Molloy, the Member of Parliament for mid-Ulster, where Byrne was born, has called on the museum to respect Byrne’s wishes.