Byrne, Charles (1761–83), giant, was born in Littlebridge, Co. Londonderry, of an Irish father and a Scottish mother. All his relatives were of normal height and his growth was caused by a tumour on his pituitary gland. By August 1780 he was said to be 8 ft (2.4 m) tall, with his body in perfect proportion to his height, and to have grown to 8 ft 2 in. by April 1782; when measured after his death he was said to be 8 ft 4 in (2.54 m). He travelled throughout Britain on exhibition, forming a double act with the 3 ft (0.91 m) tall Count Joseph Borulwaski. When exhibiting in Edinburgh he had great difficulty in getting up and down the narrow stairs of the Old Town, and was obliged to crawl on all fours. He first went to London 11 April 1782 and exhibited himself at Spring Gardens, laying claim to the title ‘The Irish Giant’, and maintaining that others who had used this title were impostors. On 6 May 1782 a journalist who visited Byrne was astounded at ‘the elegance, symmetry, and proportion of this wonderful phenomenon of nature’ (Wood, 159). Visitors were charged a half-crown and he was so successful that he moved to an elegant apartment at Charing Cross, and then to 1 Piccadilly before finally settling in Cockspur St., Charing Cross. He created such a sensation in London that he inspired a pantomime, ‘Harlequin Teague or the Giant's Causeway’, produced at the Haymarket on 18 August 1782. In April 1783 he vested all his profits from exhibitions into a banknote for £700, and was greatly distressed when this was stolen from his pocket in a public house. He died 1 June 1783 in Cockspur St. According to one account he died from tuberculosis, but the more popular account is that his death was caused by excessive drinking brought on by vexation at the loss of his savings. Anxious not to be dissected by anatomists, he left instructions that he be buried at sea, but his plans to avoid the scalpel were in vain. A newspaper reported that surgeons ‘surrounded his house just as Greenland harpooners would an enormous whale’ (Wood, 163) and his corpse was purchased by the famous anatomist Dr John Hunter for a large sum, said to be either £500 or £800. Byrne's skeleton, which measures 7 ft 8.75 inches (2.36 m), is preserved in the museum of the College of Surgeons in London, where there is also a portrait of him. Because he used the name ‘O'Brien’, claiming lineal descent from Brian Bórama (qv), he has often been confused with another Irish giant, Patrick Cotter (qv), who also called himself ‘O'Brien’ to cash in on Byrne's popularity.
Gent. Mag., liii (1783), 541; Annual Reg., 1783, 209–10; ‘Of giants’, Dublin University Magazine, lxvi (Aug. 1865), 204–5; John Kay, Original portraits and character etchings (2 vols, 1877) (etching), i, 10–11; Edward J. Wood, Giants and dwarves (1868); G. Frankcom and J. H. Musgrave, The Irish giant (1976)