Experts' plea Bring the 7ft 7in skeleton of our 'giant' home to Derry
The remains of a legendary Irish ‘giant’ who skeleton is on show in a London museum should be returned to his native Derry so he can be laid rest in peace, campaigners said yesterday.
Charles Byrne died 250 years ago aged just 22 – and his dying wish was that his remains would not become a grotesque attraction.
Now Seamus Breslin and Trevor Temple of City Cemetery Tours in Derry have called on remains the 7ft 7ins giant to be repatriated.
And they are being backed by Booker Prize-winning writer Hilary Mantel and top actor Alex Norton.
Seamus said: “It’s time Charles came back home to Derry. We have the ideal spot in the City Cemetery overlooking the beautiful County Derry countryside, where he was born and raised.
“We have some of the most visited graves in Ireland here. And we believe Charles Byrne should be buried on a hill overlooking County Derry, near Martin McGuinness and John Hume.”
But Seamus added a note of caution: “At the moment there are only two sizes of graves allowed in Derry City Cemetery and neither of them is big enough to accommodate Charles Byrne’s skeleton. But I’m sure Derry City and Strabane District Council will be willing to make the necessary exception.”
From Littlebridge near Drummullan at the edge of the Sperrins, Bryne suffered from a rare mutation in his AIP gene. Today, Byrne’s medical condition affects a small number of people, some of them his direct descendants.
At the age of 17 he headed to London, setting himself up as a sideshow and became known as the ‘Irish Giant’, attracting paying customers who came to wonder at his size.
But on discovering he was destined to die young, he resolved to be buried at sea in a lead-lined coffin to prevent his remains becoming a peep show spectacle.
But a crooked undertaker overseeing Byrne’s funeral had other plans.
He was in cahoots with Scotsman surgeon John Hunter, who was also London’s leading anatomist.
And together they arranged for Byrne’s body to be stolen on the journey to the seaside.
Byrne’s remains were returned to London, where Hunter placed his dead body in a vat of boiling water before removing all traces of flesh and skin.
Four years later, Hunter sold Byrne’s skeleton to the Royal College of Surgeons. It was displayed in a glass case and it has remained in the Hunterian Museum since.
Plans to have Byrne’s remains returned to Derry have found powerful support in the arts world. Hilary Mantel, who wrote a book based on Byrne’s life, said: “I know that in real life he was a suffering soul, nothing like the fabulous storybook giant I created, and that his pleasures were few and his end very grim.
“Science has learned all it can from the bones. And the honourable thing now is to lay him to rest. He’s waited long enough.”
And actor Alex Norton – famous for playing Glasgow detective Taggart – also believes Byrne’s skeleton should go home to Derry.
Yesterday Norton said: “There’s absolutely no doubt about where Charles Byrne’s remains belong. They belong in Ireland.”