They tended not to live for very long, and, although people, quite literally, looked up to them, they were hardly treated with great respect, either in their lifetimes, or after their deaths.
Of the three most famous eighteenth century Irish giants, Charles Byrne and Cornelius McGrath died before they were twenty-four, while Patrick Cotter lived to the grand old age of forty-six.
McGrath, from Tipperary, reached the height of seven feet six inches at time when men of average height would have been two feet shorter. Between the age of fifteen and sixteen he shot up by twenty-one inches, causing him to suffer from chronic growing pains, from which the consumption of cider appears to have offered some relief. By the time he was sixteen he was already being exhibited for profit, mostly that of others. A portrait of McGrath exists in which he stands beside a Prussian grenadier—Prussians being reckoned as the tallest soldiers in Europe at the time—and McGrath towers over him.
His great height did enable the Tipperary giant to see much of Europe. He was, for example, painted by the artist Pietro Longhi in Venice in 1757, when he was twenty years old. But he didn’t have much longer to live, and when he died in 1760 his body was taken by a number of Trinity College Dublin students to the Department of Anatomy, where he was duly dissected. His skeleton is still retained there today, exhibited for anatomy students, despite many efforts to have his remains properly buried.
Born the year that McGrath died, were the celebrated Charles Byrne, and the even taller Patrick Cotter.
Byrne was born in Co.Derry and stopped growing when he reached seven feet seven inches, the same height as the tallest player in the history of the American National Basketball Association, the Romanian Gheorghe Muresan. By the age of twenty-one he was already performing in a show in London which was built around him, called, predictably enough, The Giant’s Causeway. Within a year, however, he was dead.
Byrne was aware before he died that the famous anatomist, John Hunter, had designs on his corpse. Hunter had already amassed a collection of notable ‘specimens’—his description—for his private museum. To thwart the acquisitive pathologist Byrne ordered that after his death his body should be deposited in a lead coffin, and buried at sea. When the Irish giant died in June 1783, after having had his life savings stolen from him by an enterprising pickpocket, Hunter arranged for his body to be hijacked as it was being transported to the coast. It has been on display ever since in the museum named after Hunter in the Royal College of Surgeons in London. Numerous campaigns to have Byrne’s dying wish honoured have been ignored. Byrne might be said to have had the last laugh, however, as he was immortalised by Booker prize-winning novelist Hilary Mantel in The Giant, O’Brien in 1998.
Patrick Cotter, born the same year as Byrne, 1760, is one of fewer than twenty people whose height has been verified at over eight feet. Based in Bristol, Cotter adopted the stage name O’Brien and was exhibited in the ubiquitous freak shows of the eighteenth century, until his death in 1806. He was more fortunate than McGrath and Byrne in that he lived longer than the other two combined, and, on his death, left a legacy of £2000. He also managed to avoid the post-mortem fate of his contemporaries. He was not anatomised, although he greatly feared that he would be and wanted to entombed in twelve feet of solid rock to thwart graverobbers. However, his body was exhumed three times, in 1906, in 1972—when he was officially measured at eight foot and one inch—and in 1986, after which he was cremated, thus finally and definitively avoiding the undignified fate of McGrath and Byrne.
Patrick Cotter, one of three celebrated but generally unfortunate Irish giants of the eighteenth century, was born two hundred and fifty-eight years ago, on this day
Charles Byrne and someone of much lesser stature