Waking the Dead: Standing on the Bones of Irish Giants

Seven foot six and eight foot four. One coffin, two coffins, three. Concrete slippers, the smell of kippers and a funeral at sea. Ladies and Gentlemen, Blather.net and the stupendous Mr. Panting present the amazing, the fantastic, the spectacular tale of the Irish giants, Messrs. Charles O’Brien and Patrick Cotter.


High-Kings? Or Just high?
The remains of Charles O’Brien, the celebrated Irish giant, who died in 1783 from alcohol-induced illness, have long held a macabre place of honour in the collection of the Royal College of Surgeons, London. He was one of two Irish giants living in England at the end of the eighteenth century who were household names. The second was Patrick Cotter. Curiously, both men were said to claim to be direct lineal descendants of Brian Boru, the eleventh century High King of Ireland.
Confusion seems to abound about O’Brien. There’s the spelling of his name and even different names. Also known as Charles Byrne, O’Brien’s exact height is also a source of some confusion: advertisements of the day say he was eight foot four. Yet his skeleton stands seven foot six. In reality, he was probably seven foot ten. The heights of giants have always been, as Jan Bondeson notes, exaggerated.
The modern living Colossus
Born in 1761, in the village of Littlebridge, O’Brien was spotted by business manager Joe Vance when he was a teenager. Vance whisked him off for a tour of fairs and fetes, where they eeked out a small living charging gawping spectators to see the hulking boy. They were quite the hit in Edinburgh and finally, in 1782, they went to London. It was at this time that O’Brien was described in the newspapers as the ‘modern living Colossus’.
The fame was double-edged. Although it brought O’Brien an income and maybe even some happiness (such as could be derived from baying onlookers at a freak-show) it also brought him attention from a shadowy section of 18th century society even more unpleasant than that found in the circus tent: the anatomical schools.
The remains of O’Brien were, upon the announcement of his last illness in 1783, a commodity which many men sought. O’Brien, of course, knew full well that his great height would make him a desirable specimen for a curious anatomist seeking to further his studies or simply his name.
The hunted and the Hunterian
So, with his end in sight, the Irishman made arrangements for his body to be safely kept away from the avaricious Resurrection men and their employers’ the anatomists. He gave strict instructions that his corpse was to be watched night and day (presumably until putrefaction set in), sealed in a lead coffin and finally buried deep at sea, by a group of fishermen that he had paid. They swore that they would see it done.byrne_skeleton.jpg
But none of this would divert John Hunter, the famous anatomist and later founder of the Huntarian museum. He was the most determined of a gaggle of anatomists who were hell-bent on securing the giant’s body their frenzy fuelled by newspaper speculation as to what would become of the Irishman’s cadaver.
A fisherman’s friends
Upon the news of O’Brien’s death, Hunter dispatched his man Howison who made contact with several of O’Brien’s fishermen friends. Hunter came to meet them. Quite what persuaded the men to give his body up is a little unclear, but I have the feeling that the £500 pounds that he dangled in front of them might have had something to do with it.
Eventually, O’Brien’s remains were reduced in a copper vat – the body moved under the cover of night in Hunter’s carriage, hacked into pieces and boiled down so that only the bones remained. And remain they do – on display to this very day in the Royal College of Surgeons, London.
In 1909 Harvey Cushing asked permission to examine O’Brien’s remains. After examination of the skull, it was discovered that O’Brien had been gifted/cursed his height by an abnormal pituitary adenoma which had produced elevated growth hormones.
The stupendous Mr. Panting
The second of the giants, Patrick Cotter, took no chances. According to Robert Wilkins’ wonderful book ‘The fireside book of Death, Cotter was a man of some means at the time of his passing in 1806 and did everything that was humanly imaginable to foil the anatomists and their grave-robbing lackeys. Although Hunter himself had died some years previous, there was no shortage of scalpel-wielding hacks only too eager to get their hands on the remains of the seven foot Irishman.

byrne.JPG
Cotter, who had years before competed with O’Brien for the job of most-famous freak attraction in London, knew they would be coming for him. He left detailed instructions that he be buried in three tightly-sealed coffins: the interior one of wood, the second of lead and the third a spectacular contraption known as ‘Mr. Panting’ ‘stupendous coffin’. All in, the entire Russian-doll assemblage was a whopping nine feet long and three feet wide across the shoulder. Fourteen men were required to lift it.
We’re gonna need a bigger coffin
The coffin was lowered into a twelve-foot shaft, cut through solid rock beneath a Roman Catholic church on Trenchard St., Bristol. When the pulleys had finally placed the gargantuan coffin in, the grave was sealed in concrete. With iron bars through it.
And it worked. The anatomists never did get their hands on Cotter’s bones. That is, until 1906. When new drains were laid, his remains were accidentally disturbed and then, when the men obviously saw the sheer size of the guy, exhumed in full for examination by scientists. A century after his burial, the anatomists finally got their wish: Cotter’s remains were exhumed, examined and photographed by Professor Fawcett.
The twin giants
In addition to Cotter and O’Brien, a whole host of other giants chanced their arm on the freak-show circuit of 1780- 1820. Amongst them were the Knipes: twin brothers, who were from, yes, Ireland. They even claimed to have been distant relatives of OBrien’s. Sadly, information on the fate of their bodies seems to have disappeared. If anyone can enlighten us, please mail us or leave a comment. In truth we have no idea why there were so many Irish giants living in London at that time or indeed why, quite simply, there were so many of them.
So, the next time that you find yourself in an old London cemetery, make sure you look out for any graves of unusual size. You might just be standing on the bones of Irish giants.
For more information on giants, Irish or otherwise, make sure to check out the books listed below.
More:

The Irish Giant
(Duckworth, 1976)
The Fireside book of Death (Wilkins, 1990)
Cabinet of Medical Curiosities (Bondeson, 1997)
The Irish Body Snatchers (Fleetwood, 1988)

Waking the Dead:
Full list of all articles in the Waking the Dead series

damien

Damien DeBarra was born in the late 20th century and grew up in Dublin, Ireland. He now lives in London, England where he shares a house with four laptops, three bikes and a large collection of chairs.


7 comments

  1. good piece damien, btw there is a bit of a do on at Glasnevin Cemetary on the 27th (i think) of Feb. Bertie was leafletting the area this week about it. They are lighting up the towers and sticking up some plaques. You can go into the towers which might make for some good photos.

  2. I just found out these giants were my ancestors. No wonder I was the tallest girl in my class!

  3. Charles Bryne O’Brian was my ancester and it sounds like I might also be cousins with Patrick Cotter O’Brian and the Brothers Knipe if they were all related as some articles suggest.

  4. Kay Price,
    I am working as a researcher on a BBC documentary about Charles Byrne and Irish Giants – can you please contact me at raphboland@gmail.com as I would love to ask you a few questions?
    Many thanks and I look forward to hearing from you.
    Best wishes,
    Raphaelle

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