Mar 10 2023
The Irish Giant
As Charles Byrne, ‘The Irish Giant’, lay dying he knew a famous surgeon wanted his remains. Stolen by body snatchers, his greatest fear came true and Charles’ skeleton has been on display to the public for the past 240 years. Until recently, thanks to the efforts of campaigners. In this episode we hear about his life and death, how the legal requirements for respecting the wishes of the dead isn’t so very different today and explore the ethics of modern day museums. A University of Aberdeen podcast, in this episode of ‘Inside the Headlines’ Laura talks to Dr Thomas Muinzer, senior lecturer at the School of Law, and Neil Curtis, head of Museums and Special Collections about the life and death of 18th century celebrity Charles Byrne, better known as ‘The Irish Giant’. Born in 1761, due to a growth disorder he rose both in stature – reaching a height of 7ft 7 in - and fame. A celebrity of his time, Charles was the toast of the town, featuring in many newspapers and even inspiring a hit London stage show. But his health was poor and the vultures were circling. Knowing at least one eminent surgeon wanted his body for dissection, Charles went to great lengths to make sure his remains would not be put on display as a curiosity. He died aged just 22 and his greatest fear was realised. Charles’ skeleton has been on display to the public at the Hunterian Museum in London ever since. That is until recently, when it was removed in response to the efforts of campaigners. Explored in this episode: · Who was Charles Byrne? · What happened after his death and how his remains ended up on display to the public. · How the campaign, which had support from others including author Dame Hilary Mantel, came about. · Where the line is between education and public interest when it comes to museum collections like this. · How Charles’ bones being removed from display is only the first stage and what a proper burial for him might look like. · Where the law sits in relation to property versus personal law and the rights of the dead, both historically and today. · How the University’s own historic collections are being looked at. · What the repatriation process for items of historic relevance looks like. · Why the movement for repatriation is gaining traction. · Where the legal and ethical frameworks align and diverge. Mentioned in this episode: · Website: John Hunter · Paper: A Grave Situation: An Examination of the Legal Issues Raised by the Life and Death of Charles Byrne, the 'Irish Giant' · Book: The Giant, O'Brien - Hilary Mantel · Press release: Ceremony to complete the return of Benin Bronze · Website: Museums Association Ethics Committee · Website: Royal College of Surgeons of England - Hunterian Museum This podcast reflects the views and opinions of contributors, not necessarily the institutional position of the University of Aberdeen.