By Liam Nolan
When he died of a heart attack in 1793, they buried him at St Martin-in-the Fields, London. But they dug him up again in 1859 and put him in the ground in the north aisle of the nave in Westminster Abbey. That, they said, reflected his importance to the country.
John Hunter was no low-life body snatcher, but a hugely distinguished surgeon and scientist, one of the most famous of his day. From whom, you may ask, did he steal the Irish Giant? Answer: from the Giant himself.
And who exactly was this Irish Giant?
He was born in 1761 in Littlebridge in County Tyrone, was reportedly conceived on the top of a haystack, and his name was Charles Byrne. The top-of-a-haystack legend is a local makie-upper to explain the cause of Charles’s extraordinary height.
Disputed is Charles Byrne’s actual height. It used to be claimed that he stood either 8 ft 2 ins or 8 ft 4 ins. Either of those is more impressive than 7 ft 7 ins., which is the actual height his skeletal remains showed him to have been.
Charles’s parents were average sized people. No size peculiarities there.
His abnormal height naturally drew attention to him, and by the time he was 19 he had made up his mind to capitalise on it. He’d put himself on show, charge people for the privilege of gaping and gawping at him.
He first toured Scotland, and then worked his way southwards to London.
Edinburgh’s night watchmen were fascinated by the sight of him lighting his pipe off a streetlamp’s flame, and not having to stand on his tiptoe to do it!
He was gentle and courteous, and reporters called him “the modern living Colossus, or wonderful Irish Giant.”
Now to John Hunter, the doctor who stole Charles Byrne.