The Irish Giant



Charles Byrne was seven

Feet and seven inches tall.

He came to London

From County Tyrone,

And was quickly persuaded

To join a freak show:

‘Roll up everyone!

Come and see the Colossus!

The Irish Giant!’

He was twenty-two,

And was driven to drink by

The humiliation.


Soon he was dying

In a house in Cockspur Street,

Near to Charing Cross.

Before so doing

He made his last wishes clear:

‘Burial at sea’


To ensure that he

Would avoid the curious,

And any doctors

Keen to dissect him.


“I want a lead lined coffin

To preserve myself,

At the sea’s bottom.”


However, word of his death

Attracted London’s

Medical circles.

It was reported that,


Tribes of surgeons

Put in a claim for

The poor departed Irishman

And surrounded his house,

Just as harpooners

Would an enormous whale.”


Dr. John Hunter,

A London surgeon,

Avid for rare specimens,

Won through bribery.

He left with the corpse,

Spending five hundred pounds

(Fifty thousand today),

And boiled the body

Down to its enormous bones.

Now Byrne’s skeleton

Is in a museum:

The Hunterian, Royal

College of Surgeons,

Where it’s earned its keep,

In the interests of science,

For two hundred years –

Thanks to John Hunter,

The medical grave-robber.
But a Belfast lawyer,

Called Thomas Muinzer,

Has told the British Medical Journal

It’s time for a change.

Professor Doyal,

The medical ethicist,

Supports Muinzer’s view


“The fact is

Hunter knew of Byrne’s terror

Of him and ignored

His wishes for the

Disposal of his body.”


Yet the Royal College

Still clings to the bones

They’ve had for two hundred years –

Bones they’ve now picked clean.

They’ve scraped his DNA –

Analyzed Tyrone family

Pituitary glands

That overproduce

The growth hormone

In Byrne’s relatives

Accelerating growth –

The Byrne acromegalic

And ancestral gene

That’s led to myths that

Byrnes built the Giants’ Causeway,

Or even Stonehenge.


“And there were giants

In the land in those days,”


Overlaps with myth.

Romantic Ireland’s

Dead as fairies, yet surgeons

(Who’d chloroform fairies

For their College),

Keep a pet giant patiently

Standing in their box.

The friends of the giant

Insist that it is high time

Byrne’s wish was granted,

That he left the glass case,

As befits his dying wish,

For the Irish sea.


The Royal College

Says no: ‘there’s a scrap more meat

On the giant’s bones’.


Facetiously call it a

“Bone of contention.”


Medicine’s purpose

Is to free mankind from pain,

But always for a fat fee,

And Byrne will earn more

For the College of Surgeons

Than he will at peace.


Charles Byrne’s growth hormone

Is still invaluable to

Doctors’ bank accounts

So giants must wait

Patiently for two hundred

Years for fair treatment.


The Queen of England

Once came to stare at the giant,

And then she passed on.

Royalty’s rogue genes

And medicine’s greed are both

Weird enormities,

But they’re protected

By privilege, and exempt

From imprisonment.
The lonely giant –

A colonial victim

Of market forces –

Still stands in his booth,

Scrutinized by visitors

From an alien world.




Heathcote Williams


By Heathcote Williams

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One Response to The Irish Giant

    1. Interesting! He was a giant among men yet his life lived in torture…a freak of display and even in death he was ripped apart and once more displayed as a freak but only to his final resting place!

      Comment by Brent Schuster on 16 March, 2012 at 3:36 am

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