Charles Byrne (giant)

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Byrne in a John Kay etching (1748), alongside the Brothers Knipe and dwarves
The skeleton of the 7.5 feet (230 cm) tall Byrne displayed at the Royal College of Surgeons of England in London (middle of this image)

Charles Byrne (1761–1783) or "The Irish Giant", was a man regarded as a curiosity or freak in London in the 1780s. Byrne's exact height is of some conjecture. Some accounts refer to him as being 8 ft 2 in (2.49 m) to 8 ft 4 in (2.54 m) tall, but skeletal evidence places him at just over 7 ft 7 in (2.31 m).

Byrne's family lived in a remote part of northeast County Tyrone, Ireland, called Drummullan, not far from the shores of 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. Little is known of Byrne's family other than that his parents were ordinary people, and that they were not unusually tall.[1]

At the age of 21 he left his home in Littlebridge, Ireland, and travelled to London to seek his fortune. He found work at Cox's Museum, an establishment not unlike P. T. Barnum's American Museum. He moved in next door in an elegant apartment with custom-built furniture at the cane-shop, in Spring Garden-gate.

He soon became the toast of the town; a 6 May 1782 newspaper report bears out: "However striking a curiosity may be, there is generally some difficulty in engaging the attention of the public; but even this was not the case with the modern living Colossus, or wonderful Irish Giant."

Fame and wealth soon overtook Byrne, and he took to drinking excessively. According to newspaper reports he was out drinking when his pocket was picked of his 700-pound life savings. Inconsolable, he tried to drown his sorrows in drink and died in June 1783, in his apartment on Cockspurstreet, Charing Cross, at the age of twenty-two.

It was rumoured that Byrne was so afraid that doctors would dissect his corpse that on his deathbed he requested to be buried at sea.[2]

Reports at the time indicated that Byrne had paid fishermen near Bristol to bury him at sea. After being bribed by John Hunter, however, they allowed the body to be pulled behind their boat until nightfall when they pulled the corpse back in and sold it to the surgeon for £130[citation needed] (2013: £50,000). His 2.31-m (7 ft 7 in) skeleton now resides in the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London.[2]

Medical condition[edit]

The American surgeon Harvey Cushing studied Byrne's bones in 1909 and found that Byrne had had a pituitary tumour based on an enlarged pituitary fossa.[3] In 2011, British and German researchers determined the cause of Byrne's gigantism. They extracted DNA from Byrne's teeth and found that he had a rare mutation in his AIP gene that is involved in pituitary tumours.[4] The researchers also found that four contemporary families living in Northern Ireland which have a history of related pituitary disorders also carried this mutation. The researchers inferred that Byrne and these families had a common ancestor about 57 to 66 generations ago (1425 to 1650 years ago).


Author Hilary Mantel wrote a fictionalised novel of his life in The Giant, O'Brien. The plot of the novel focused on the battle between the revolution of science and the ways of poem and song. O'Brien (Byrne) was portrayed as a man whose faith was in tales of kings and the little people, while his polar opposite John Hunter was portrayed as at the dawn of the scientific age, destroying all that is old and cherished. It also mentions that O'Brien (Byrne) was related to another Irish giant in Patrick Cotter O'Brien of Cork, who exhibited himself shortly after the death of Charles, stating that he was 8' 7" in height. An exhumation of his bones in 1972 showed that his true height was 8' 1". The book also mentions a sort of kinship with two other Irish giants known simply as 'The Brothers Knipe' who both stood 7' 2" each. They were recognised by the Guinness Book of World Records as the tallest identical twins in history.

Author Tessa Harris also made him one of the main characters in her novel The Dead Shall Not Rest, which examines the beginnings of forensic science, anatomy and surgery. The book, which is well referenced, emphasises the difficulties that anatomists of the time had in gaining access to bodies to dissect, and the resulting illegal trade in dead bodies.[citation needed]

He is mentioned in Ch. 32 of Charles Dickens' novel David Copperfield, to illustrate the enormousness of an umbrella: "But her face, as she turned it up to mine, was so earnest; and when I relieved her of the umbrella (which would have been an inconvenient one for the Irish Giant), she wrung her little hands in such an afflicted manner; that I rather inclined towards her."[5]


  1. ^ Cubbage, Eric. "The Tragic Story of Charles Byrne "The Irish Giant"" (PDF). The Tallest Man. Retrieved 1 May 2011. 
  2. ^ a b "Royal College of Surgeons reject call to bury skeleton of 'Irish giant'". The Guardian. 22 December 2011. Retrieved 22 December 2011. 
  3. ^ Gina Kolata (5 January 2011). "Charles Byrne, Irish Giant, Had Rare Gene Mutation". New York Times. Retrieved 6 January 2011. And there the bones remained, studied in 1909 by the renowned American surgeon Harvey Cushing, who removed the top of the skull and pronounced that Mr. Byrne had had a pituitary tumor. 
  4. ^ Chahal, Harvinder S.; Stals, Karen; Unterländer, Martina; Balding, David J.; Thomas, Mark G.; Kumar, Ajith V.; Besser, G. Michael; Atkinson, A. Brew; et al. (2011). "AIP Mutation in Pituitary Adenomas in the 18th Century and Today". The New England Journal of Medicine. Massachusetts Medical Society. 364 (1): 43–50. doi:10.1056/NEJMoa1008020. Retrieved 6 January 2011. 
  5. ^ Dickens, Charles (1869). David Copperfield. Retrieved 6 January 2011.