On the Seating of Irish Giants and Leprechauns

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).

Thomas_Rowlandson__The_Surprising_Irish_Giant_c1785_01aFig. 1. Thomas Rowlandson, The Surprising Irish Giant, circa 1785.

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.

Patrick_O'Brien's_chair_01aFig. 2. One of Byrne’s elbow chairs beside a normal Hepplewhite side chair.

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).

Charles_Byrne's_skeleton_Royal_College_of_Surgeons_01aFig. 3. Charles Byrne’s skeleton. (Huntarian Museum)

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).

Patrick_O'Brien_01aFig. 4. Patrick O’Brien alongside fellow freak show performer, Józef Boruwłaski.

Patrick_O'Brien_02aFig. 5. Patrick O’Brien appearance flyer, July 19, 1783.

Patrick_O'Brien_03aFig. 6. Newspaper review of O’Brien’s performance at Saddler’s Wells, July 9, 1784.

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.

Charles_O'Brien_with_the_Knipe_Brothers_c1784_01aFig. 7. Patrick O’Brien with the Knipe brothers.

Knipe_brothers_01aFig. 8. Newspaper review of the Knipe Brothers’ Scottish tour, July 9, 1784.

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).

Seamus_Connolly_01aFig. 9. Seamus Connolly holding two restored leprechaun chairs.

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.

Weean_c1756_01aFig. 10. My great, great, great, great grandfather, George Hamilton.

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).

Kitty_Anne_&_Hamilton_sisters_with_Windsor_chair_01aFig. 11. My sisters (left) and cousins with my Windsor chair at Dancer & Hearne’s works.

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.

Jack Plane

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About Jack Plane

Formerly from the UK, Jack is a retired antiques dealer and self-taught woodworker, now living in Australia.
This entry was posted in Antiques and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to On the Seating of Irish Giants and Leprechauns

  1. Glen Luther says:

    So I’m guessing that Wellard, pictured with your Bow Back Windsor is actually an Irish Wolfhound. That puts the size of that chair in perspective.

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  2. Tim Raleigh says:

    It’s not often that you see the word “parturition” used. Thank you for that…

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  3. homesy135 says:

    “Irish giants (of which I am one) are a unique…………..”

    Well, I’m willing to take your word on antique furniture (even buy your word when your book is out) but I’ll need a photo to credit your claim. :)

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  4. Linda Lyons says:

    I would love to own one of those Leprechaun chairs but Ihave searched and I can’t find any prices for them? Do you have any for sale?

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  5. hughjengine says:

    So fine are the proportions, one easily forgets the scale of the furniture shown on this blog.

    Visiting Chez Plane for the first time was akin to being transported to a Swiftian world, populated with massive Georgian furniture. While Virginia’s turban added to the sense of otherness, I did later learn that it was a precautionary measure adopted for her protection as she frequently struck her head on the side of the tables, or when opening drawers.

    Cheers,
    Burbidge.

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  6. Pingback: Picture This CI | Pegs and 'Tails

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