Thursday 23 November 2017

A tall story: Ailin Quinlan on eight-foot Irishman Charles Byrne

Charles Byrne, an eight-foot Irishman earned his fortune as a ‘freak’ in 18th-century London. Ailin Quinlan retraces his steps and discovers a living relative

Byrne's skeleton
Brendan Holland. DNA tests revealed that he is related to Byrne
Byrne's skeleton
A depiction of the giant on his deathbed

He was the Irish giant -- the man who left Ireland to make his fortune as a freak. He went on to became one of London's biggest celebrities and rubbed shoulders (although, not literally, of course) with royalty, before dying an alcoholic pauper, riddled with pain and disease.

Although this year is the 250th anniversary of Charles Byrne's birth, the tale doesn't end with the man promoted by his manager as a towering eight-foot four-inch giant who lit his pipe on street lamps.

TV producer Ronan McCloskey accidentally stumbled upon a living link to Byrne while researching a documentary the giant.

McCloskey helped uncover a distant relation of Byrne's, who in reality measured seven-foot, eight-inches and whose skeleton now stands at the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London.

In 2009, McCloskey was researching the story of Charles Byrne in east Tyrone when, he recalls, a local resident casually observed: "There's a man in Killeeshil and he's brave tall," which, in colloquial terms, means the man was quite, or very, tall.

"I began to wonder if there was a link with Charles Byrne," says McCloskey. He made contact with the man, six-foot, nine-inch Brendan Holland.

"He didn't know about Byrne, but was interested because there was another instance of this condition [Pituitary Gigantism] in his family.

"Prior to this, it was uncertain whether there was a genetic link to the disease, but he knew his cousin had the condition and when it emerged that Charles Byrne was from roughly the same area as his family, Brendan became very interested in the story."

As a result, McCloskey's TV documentary divided in two: one half tracing the footsteps of Charles Byrne, the pituitary giant born in Drumullan in 1761, an area on the borders of Tyrone and Derry; the other accompanying 59-year-old Brendan Holland on a modern-day voyage of discovery into the history of his illness.

McCloskey visited Byrne's skeleton in London and met Professor Márta Korbonits of St Bartholomew's Hospital of London, who explained Byrne's condition.

"Byrne was a pituitary giant -- he had a huge tumour on his pituitary gland which was causing it to secrete enormous amounts of growth hormone," says McCloskey.

"The gene involved is called AIP. A mutation of this gene gives you a one-in-three chance of developing the condition."

In the 1760s, when Byrne was born, the average person was smaller than today -- generally, not much more than five-foot tall -- so most people would have reached up to his waist, explains McCloskey. "He was enormous. People wouldn't have seen anything like him. In effect, he was almost the equal of being nine or 10-foot high in today's terms. He is still one of the tallest people who has ever lived."

In September 2009, Brendan Holland, diagnosed with Pituitary Gigantism at age 19, met Dr Korbonits, who was researching the condition.

"She told me that she believed there was a very strong possibility that there were other Irish people related to Byrne," he recalls.

Korbonits had tests carried out on Byrne's 250-year-old DNA, and checks showed a definite, though distant, genetic link with Brendan Holland.

"I was diagnosed with Pituitary Gigantism in 1972. I didn't find out about the genetic link with Charles Byrne until we started the programme. The genetic link with Byrne proved we had common ancestors. We were obviously distantly linked, but more analysis has to be carried out to establish the exact relationship," Holland explains.

"The film was a voyage of discovery and self-discovery -- I found out why I was affected by this condition and I also discovered that I had this famous ancestor who had even met King George III. He was quite a celebrity."

Born in 1761, in the area of Drumullan, Charles Byrne quickly grew to gigantic proportions and, by the time he was a teenager, towered over everyone else. Byrne's freakish height reportedly made him a symbol of inspiration to the Volunteer movement, which was flourishing in north-west Ulster at the time.

In his late teens or early 20s, he left Ireland, first for Scotland and then for London, where he enjoyed a brief but intense burst of fame, making headlines and meeting a host of high-profile people, including King George III.

For more than a year after his arrival in London in April 1782, Byrne enjoyed the good life. He made plenty of money and lived in a plush apartment, where, dressed in a three-cornered hat, elegant frock-coat, waistcoat, knee breeches, silk stockings, frilled cuffs and collar, he is said to have entertained audiences for several hours, six days a week.

However, as the months went on, the number of people coming to see the Irish giant dwindled and the excruciating pain caused by his condition made him turn to alcohol.

"This would have been very common for someone with his condition because of the amount of physical pain he would have endured," explains McCloskey.

'It would have been excruciating -- the huge tumour pressing on the base of his brain and on his optic nerve was limiting his vision, giving him tunnel vision.

"His body was growing uncontrollably so there would have been dreadful growth pains. He would have had pains in his legs, and the body would have been out of proportion. He descended into alcoholism," he says.

Byrne had already come to the attention of John Hunter, a renowned surgeon of the time. Hunter became obsessed with Byrne, and, realising that he was extremely ill, hired a man to follow him at all times.

"He's called the father of modern surgery and he was obsessed with Charles Byrne, totally fixated. Hunter knew Byrne was sick, though he didn't understand why. It was reported that Byrne died of TB, but he also would have had a whole raft of health problems, issues with his heart and organs," says McCloskey

A few months before his death, Byrne was robbed of his life savings, about £700, which at that time was an enormous amount of money -- more than many men of the time would have earned in a lifetime.

"He made that money in just one year, despite living in one of the most expensive areas in London. People think of Byrne as a victim, but he seemed to be enjoying the celebrity lifestyle," McCloskey says.

Byrne died on June 1, 1783, at about the age of 22 and his friends brought the body to Margate to bury him at sea. Along the way, however, the corpse was stolen from the coffin, replaced with stones and brought to Hunter.

Hunter allegedly "chopped it up, boiled off the flesh and reassembled the skeleton, but it was years before he even hinted to people that he had it," says McCloskey.

However, as Brendan Holland points out, the story is still not over. "The film tells an intriguing but incomplete story. The full story has yet to be told because there are lots of unknowns. We have to try and find several pieces of the jigsaw."

One of those pieces, says Holland, is the existence of an ancient grave containing the bones of extremely tall people, south of Magherafelt, Co Derry, and only a few miles from where Byrne was raised.

"We have discovered that in 1800 the bones of several huge people were discovered in a grave near a quarry in Ballymoughan. Apparently one of the skulls was so big that the man who found it could fit the skull over his head -- on top of his wig!

"We believe the burial ground must be at least 500 years old," he says, adding that his own mother's family almost certainly originated a few miles from the suspected site of the grave.

However, nobody is quite sure where the bones are located. "The discovered bones were put back in the ground with quarry spoil, treated with enormous disrespect even by the standards of 1800," says Holland.

When Byrne was alive, Holland reports, he had two cousins called the Knipe twins, who also had gigantism -- they were reputedly only a few inches shorter than Byrne.

They were born just a stone's throw from this gravesite, so finding these bones could be an important key to unlocking the mystery surrounding gigantism in the area:

"We have had an archaeologist out to visit the site and we are investigating to see if we can uncover those bones. If we do discover the bones we'll have them tested for DNA and see how long the rogue gene has existed in the south Derry area -- for me, the next step now is to find and test these bones, " Holland explains.

There is a lot of folklore about giants in the Tyrone area, says McCloskey.

"One of the great myths was that Lough Neagh was created by a giant who tore up a sod, the resultant hole creating Lough Neagh, and threw it into the Irish sea, where it became the Isle of Man.

"The focus of this film is to show that an ancient Irish myth has been explained by science," he adds. "It shows that the myth about Ireland being a land of giants does indeed have some scientific basis."

'Charles Byrne -- An Fathach Éireannach' will be broadcast on TG4 on Wednesday, April 6 at 9.30pm, and repeated on Saturday, April 9 at 8.10pm

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