Charles Byrne (1761-83), also known as ‘The Irish Giant’, had an extraordinary life because he was remarkably tall. Contemporary accounts differ but it’s now thought his height was at least 7 feet 7 inches. In his lifetime, Byrne was considered a living wonder, a freak, a gentleman, a trophy, a fine performer, an ‘ill-bred beast’ and a person who held within his bones secrets that anatomists longed to understand. What we can say, definitively, is that Byrne lost sovereignty of his own body, surrendering it in life to alcohol and in death to the anatomist’s boiling pot.
Byrne exhibited himself in London as a piece of living art. Despite this, thoughts of the ‘resurrection men’ filled him with existential terror. Working clandestinely for surgeons and anatomists, these graverobbers threatened to steal Byrne’s corpse after death and boil it to strip his flesh from the bones so his skeleton could be put on public display.
As his health deteriorated, Byrne saved up a considerable sum of money which he gave to undertakers who promised to put his corpse in a lead-lined coffin and drop him in the sea. But the surgeon John Hunter was so keen to acquire Byrne’s remains, he arranged for the corpse to be stolen as Byrne’s funeral procession made its way to Margate beach. Rocks were put in place of Byrne’s body, unknown to the mourners present. Some months later, Hunter revealed Byrne’s skeleton to the world, first of all through cryptic notes to friends: ‘I have a tall man – I can’t wait for you to see him‘.
It’s debatable how much public prurience, professional vanity or the desire for medical progress prompted Hunter’s betrayal of Byrne – the tragedy at the heart of this opera. Byrne’s skeleton remained on public display until 2016 when the Hunterian Museum closed for refurbishment. We’re waiting to hear if Byrne’s wishes for a sea burial will finally be honoured when the museum reopens in 2021.
Byrne’s life and death is the topic of Giant, a new electroacousti opera I’m composing with writer Ross Sutherland and director Sarah Fahie. See a video of work in progress from summer 2018.