Inside the Irish Giant: History, Science and Art
The Irish Giant
Table of Contents
Welcome to the Irish Giant
Inside the Irish Giant: History, Science and Art was conceived and convened by Dr Claudia Stein, Director of the Warwick Centre for the History of Medicine, as a two day public engagement event combining Cartoon de Salvo’s theatrical production, ‘The Irish Giant’, with expert panel discussions exploring two separate themes from the piece.
In January 2011, after viewing Cartoon de Salvo’s ‘Irish Giant’ at Battersea Arts Centre (London), and Ronan McCloskey’s BBC ‘Irish Giant’ production (involving Brendan Holland [a pituitary patient genetically linked to the original Irish Giant, Charles Byrne – the Irish Giant], and Professor Márta Korbonits [an endocrinologist at St Bart’s & Queen Mary University], Stein began organizing an event that would merge the arts with academia.
With the assistance of Ed Collier and Paul Warwick (China Plate) and Warwick Arts Centre, she planned to bring the tragic Enlightenment intersection of Charles Byrne’s life and John Hunter’s quest for scientific and anatomical discovery to the University of Warwick. Using panel discussions to frame the theatrical production, Stein’s proposed programme would combine discursive themes -- ‘what it is to be human? who owns our bodies? are we just flesh and bone?’ --with contemporary debates about the relative merits of medical breakthroughs and individual choice (in this case about what happens to the body after death). With these themes in mind, the first panel addressed questions of ‘Enlightenment science, religion and commerce’, while the second panel considered the scientific theme ‘Gigantism, genetics and history’.
For more information please contact the Centre Director, Dr Claudia Stein or CHM Administrator; Tracy Horton via email: T.Horton@Warwick.ac.uk
"A very interesting introduction to a range of issues - ethical/ moral/human and societal - associated with medicine in the C18 and C21.""Thought provoking – taking interest in history and the ‘dry facts’ and progressing it into ideas/ethics – relevance to what is known now and how social/public opinion perceive historical ideas"
This public outreach event centred on an historical encounter in Georgian London between the Irish giant Charles Byrne and the famous anatomist and surgeon John Hunter (1728-1793). While the outcome of the encounter is known – Byrne’s skeleton ends up in Hunter’s possession – the exact details of how it got there remain in the dark.
Charles Byrne (1761 – 1783), also known as Charles O'Brien or the “Irish Giant", was a human curiosity in London in the 1780s. His exact height is unknown: most accounts refer to him as from 8 ft 2 in (2.48 m) to 8 ft 4 in (2.54 m) tall, but skeletal evidence suggests that he was just over 7 ft 7 in (2.31 m). His family lived in a remote part of north-east Tyrone called Drummullan, not far from the shores of Lough Neagh. Local tales tell that Byrne was conceived on top of a haystack to explain the cause of his unusual height. Little is known of Byrne's family other than that his parents were ordinary people, and that they were not unusually tall.
At 21, Byrne left his home in Littlebridge, Ireland and traveled to London seeking his fortune. The city was a magnet for every manner of human oddity at the time.
Londoners were eager to pay to see ‘freaks’ and ‘wonders’ -- people with deformed and extra limbs, great or diminutive height, or with visually shocking medical conditions. He found work at Cox's Museum and moved into an elegant adjacent apartment, stocked with custom-built furniture. Charles soon became the toast of the town. A 6 May 1782 newspaper report noted: ‘However striking a curiosity may be, there is generally some difficulty in engaging the attention of the public; but even this was not the case with the modern living Colossus, or wonderful Irish Giant.’
Among those whose attention was drawn to London’s latest wonder was the anatomist John Hunter. Driven – even possessed -- by a deep curiosity about unusual bodies and preoccupied by scientific studies of human malformation Hunter became obsessed with procuring Byrne’s body for his anatomical collection, whatever the cost. Under permanent surveillance from Hunter’s spies, Byrne, a stout Catholic, began to fear for his soul and afterlife. Indeed Byrne was so afraid that Hunter would dissect his corpse that on his deathbed requested to be buried at sea.
Fame and wealth soon overtook Byrne, and he gained a reputation for excessive drinking. According to newspaper reports he was drunk when his pocket was picked of his 700-pound life savings. Inconsolable, he drowned his sorrows and died in his apartment on Cockspurstreet, Charing Cross, in June 1783, at the age of only twenty-two.
Against his explicit wishes, Byrne's corpse was purchased by John Hunter for five hundred pounds (2011: £50,000). To achieve this end, Hunter bribed a member of the funeral party and filled the coffin with rocks at an overnight stop as Byrne’s body was taken from London to the sea where he had wished to be buried. For reasons unknown, Hunter who had put so much effort into procuring Byrne’s body, never displayed the sceleton during his lifetime. Today it remains on display at the Royal College of Surgeon’s Hunterian Museum in London, where it continues to elicit controversy.
Click the image for more photos
All Images courtesy of Ronan McCloskey. http://www.ronanmccloskey.com
John Hunter (1728 – 1793) was a Scottish surgeon and one of the most distinguished eighteenth-century scientists. He was an early advocate of scientific observation and was unique in seeking to provide an experimental basis to surgical practice. Born at Long Calderwood, now part of East Kilbride, Lanarkshire, Scotland, Hunter came to London in 1748 at the age of 20. He worked as an assistant at the anatomy school of his elder brother William who was already an established physician and obstetrician. Under William's direction, John learnt human anatomy and showed great aptitude in the dissection and preparation of specimens. He continued his studies under the then eminent surgeons William Cheselden (1688-1752) and Percivall Pott (1714-88) at Chelsea Hospital and St. Bartholomew's Hospital.
In 1760 Hunter left London to join the army. During his three years in Portugal and France, he developed not only new ideas on the treatment of common ailments, such as gunshot wounds and venereal disease, but he also spent much of his spare time collecting animal specimens. On his return to England in 1763, Hunter began to build up his private practice and anatomy museum. His scientific endeavour did not go unnoticed and, in 1767, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, followed by an appointment as Surgeon to St George's Hospital.
In 1783 he moved – together with his wife Anne Home whom he had married in 1771 - to a large house in Leicester Square. The large house soon became a leading centre for medical teaching. It was equipped with an own anatomy theatre and a large anatomical collection of nearly 14,000 specimens. Mainly thanks to the social skills of his wife – Hunter himself was known for his fervent temper – their home also became a ‘must’ for London’s fashionable eighteenth-century society. While Hunter kept Byrne’s skeleton, most certainly with his other specimens, he never exhibited it publicly during his own lifetime. The reason remains a mystery...
This is an early stage work in progress of The Irish Giant, devised by Cartoon de Salvo
click the image for more photos
The Irish Giant is the true tale of two remarkable men. John Hunter: a pioneering 18th-century surgeon obsessed with life, death - and abnormal bodies. And Charles Byrne: Georgian London’s biggest celebrity, an 8ft-tall Irishman.
Developed in close collaboration with a medical ethicist and a medical historian, this work-in-progress performance plunges its bloody hands into Byrne's history to discover: who owns our bodies - and who should? Are we all just flesh and bone? and how do you live when death is daily shadowing your every step..?
Intellectually the production asks important and timeless questions about what it means to be human in the past and present, and of the relationship between science, faith and commerce. Can our belief in the ‘usefulness’ of science justify the disregard of other beliefs and value systems?
How ‘valuable’ is human life?
Cartoon de Salvo’s brand new show The Irish Giant is a work-in-progress production. Following a period of research with their science advisers and short residencies at New Greenham Arts and BAC, they spent time in London and one week at Warwick reworking the piece to the Centre for the History of Medicine’s length and venue specifications.
As Cartoon de Salvo make devised theatre from improvisation, rather than a script, the piece performed was the result of around 3 weeks work on the show, starting from scratch. Working closely with CHM, they built a set, composed and learned the music and tailored the story to open and inspire wider discussion.
"Most memorable moments: The metaphoric journey of the soul showed in the cartoon, the cycle of life showed by the cartoon, the songs are beautiful and illustrative."
"I think the show should be commended for its emphasis on drawing together of art/life, for making a statement and for making the audience reflect on the modern day relationship/dominance of science/religion and morals."
"I particularly liked the songs and the animations, and equally the use of space. Fantastic!"
Cast & Creative Team
Performed by: Alex Murdoch, Brian Logan, Brian Thunder
Directed by: Alex Murdoch
Designed by: Rebecca Hurst
Lighting designer: Ben Pacey
Composer: Daniel Marcus Clarke
Illusions: Paul Murray
Lyrics: Brian Logan with additional lyrics by Daniel Marcus Clark
Animation by: Rebecca Hurst
ASM & AV Adviser: Dori Deng
Lyrics: Brian Logan
Production Manager: Jeremy Walker
Producer: Ed Collier
Many thanks to: BAC, New Greenham Arts, The Wellcome Trust, South St Reading, Sandy Grierson, Neil Haigh, Caroline Horton, Phil Moore, Ric Watts, Caroline Routh, Charlie Morrison, Helen Blythe and Ed Borlase.
click the image for more photos"A fantastic forum where previous ideas about the medicine/religion divide were greatly stimulated."
"Like a live radio 4 'In Our Time' and a perfect illustration of why it's interesting for scientists and artists to work together."
Each of the two evening performances was followed by a panel discussion including a member of the theatre company with academic specialists on a specific theme:
Friday 27th: 'Religion, Science and Commerce':
(Dr Claudia Stein - Warwick, Professor Steve Fuller - Warwick, Dr Carole Reeves - UCL, Fr P.P. Jayalath Fernando - Warwick, Alex Murdoch - Cartoon de Salvo)
Saturday 28th: 'Gigantism, Genetics and History':
(Brendan Holland - Pituitary Patient, Professor Márta Korbonits QMU, Dr Claudia Stein - Warwick, Ronan McCloskey - Producer/Director of BBC's Irish Giant, Brian Logan - Cartoon de Salvo)
"Valuable debate, interesting detail about endocrinological aspects, insight into development of theatrical productions."
"Panel was very interesting – it was fascinating to hear the personal insight of Brendan as someone with the condition."