Irish giants (of which I am one) are a unique phenomenon amongst a wider national populace of green-wearing little people and folk of average height.
Giants are recorded throughout Irish history, but it wasn’t until the growth in popularity of amusement theatres, freak shows and museums in the late eighteenth-century that they achieved broader notoriety.
The renowned Irish giant, Charles Byrne was born in 1761 in Drummullan, near Coagh in County Tyrone, by the shores of Lough Neagh. He was regarded as a freak from birth (his mother was of normal size and never forgave Charles for the long and painful parturition).
Byrne’s childhood years are abstruse, but at the age of twenty-one (standing seven-foot seven-inches tall), he made his way to London in search of fame and fortune.
His career as a stage show curiosity was instantaneous though sadly short-lived. Byrne spent his final months in comparative luxury amongst his bespoke furniture (fig. 2) in Charing Cross where his cothurnal life concluded in July 1783, by which time he had attained the height of eight-foot four-inches.
In fear of doctors dissecting his corpse, Byrne left instructions that upon his death, he be buried at sea. Unfortunately the venal sailors who had been paid to scuttle a vessel containing Byrne’s body in the Downs, sold the corpse to John Hunter. Byrne’s skeleton now resides in the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London (fig. 3).
Byrne’s enduring celebrity can not be underestimated; Charles Dickens even made mention of Byrne in his 1850 novel David Copperfield, to draw a parallel with a large umbrella:
But her face, as she turned it up to mine, was so earnest; and when I relieved her of the umbrella (which would have been an inconvenient one for the Irish Giant), she wrung her little hands in such an afflicted manner; that I rather inclined towards her.
There appears to have been a kinship amongst Irish giants, though it’s unsure what exactly they shared personally or professionally. The giant, Patrick O’Brien (fig. 4), who was born in Cork, certainly knew Byrne and modelled his career on Byrne’s (figs. 5 & 6).
The early existence of the seven-foot two-inch tall Irish Knipe twins (figs. 7 & 8) is also recondite, but again, they followed the freak show circuit forged by Byrne.
On the other side of the coin are Ireland’s little people who are so steeped in history and Irish lore they need little introduction. The venerated leprechauns though, aren’t subjected to the same scrutiny or ridicule as the giants.
Irish folk fiercely protect known leprechaun habitats and often leave out gifts in the form of food and other necessities for them. In return, the leprechauns occasionally set out the furniture and other bibelots of those who depart without kin.
The small furniture is particularly collectible and can fetch astronomical sums when it comes on the market. Seamus Connolly, from Muff in County Donegal, has been a respected restorer and dealer of antique leprechaun furniture for over forty years (fig. 9).
My own story as a giant is comparatively unremarkable: My mother, in her day, was considered tall for her gender, but by no means teratoid. However, her great, great, great grandfather, George ‘Weean’ Hamilton (fig. 10) was indeed a giant of a man at seven-foot eight-inches tall.
For the occasion of my sixteenth birthday, my family commissioned the High Wycombe chair-making firm of Dancer & Hearne to make me a fitting Windsor chair. My father and sisters took the ferry across to England to collect it from the factory (fig. 11).
As I sit on the veranda in my big Windsor chair at day’s end, whiskey in hand, watching the sun sinking slowly behind the Great Dividing Range, the only thing wanting is one of them singing ducks to accompany me whilst tapping my size 21 foot as I sing along to The Wild Rover playing on the gramophone.