Cotter (alias O'Brien), Patrick (1760/61–1806), giant and showman, was born at Belgooly, near Kinsale, Co. Cork. His parents were farmers; while no details of his father are available, his mother was still alive at the time of his death and is named in his will as Margaret Cotter. While still in his teens he had grown to a great height and was, according to some accounts, over 7 ft (2.13 m) tall. He worked as a stonemason, bricklayer, and plasterer and was famous in the Kinsale area for his ability to slate shed roofs and plaster ceilings without the use of ladders. At Pallastown House, which was quite near his family home, he plastered the high ceilings of the house without a ladder.
In 1779 his father was approached by a showman who paid £50 to be allowed to use him in exhibitions in England. He moved to Bristol but fell out with his manager when he realised that he had been ‘sub-let’ to another showman. His agent lodged a fraudulent charge against him and he was lodged in Bristol's debtors' prison. William Watts, a local businessman and philanthropist, secured his release and provided him with funds to set himself up as a showman. He became a popular attraction at the St James's and Temple fairs in Bristol, and on the first occasion that he attended a fair he made £30 in three days. There is also evidence to suggest that he ran a public house in Bristol called the ‘Giant's Castle’.
He took the stage name of O'Brien, claiming ‘lineal descent from the old puissant King Brian Boru’ (Cork Hist. Soc. Jn., ii (1896), 230). This was a common ploy among Irish showmen of the period, and another Irish giant, Charles Byrne (qv), also took ‘O'Brien’ as his stage name. Patrick Cotter O'Brien was soon one of the most popular fairground attractions and not only toured local fairs but travelled to London, where he appeared regularly at the St Bartholomew fair. The advertisements for his appearances claimed that he was nearly 9 ft (2.74 m) high, although he always showed a reluctance to be measured. In 1785 he appeared at a show in Sadler's Wells Theatre and delighted the crowd by shaking the hands of the audience in the upper boxes. He later appeared at the Haymarket Theatre and made a tour of Wales in 1794. Although totally uneducated, throughout his career he showed an astute head for business and was soon quite well off, with property in Bristol and a house in Epping Forest. Audiences paid between one and two shillings to attend his show, and illustrations and keepsakes of the ‘Irish giant’ were highly sought after. He drank only in moderation and was known as a witty and generous host, soon building up a wide circle of loyal friends. In 1804 he put on his last London show and a Mr Blair, a surgeon, who visited him estimated that he was around 7 ft 10 in. (2.39 m) tall. Blair also noted that Cotter was in poor health and recorded his lack of energy and feeble pulse. He later wrote: ‘His limbs were not very stout, especially his arms, and I judged that he had scarcely got the use of them for, in order to lift up his hand, he seemed obliged to swing the whole arm, as if he had no power of raising it by the action of the deltoid muscle’ (Gent. Mag., 1804, 421).
Cotter's health was indeed in serious decline, a fact supported by pictorial evidence of the time. He retired in 1804 and died on 8 September 1806, aged 46, at his lodgings in the Hotwell Road, Clifton, Bristol. Fearing that he would be dug up by anatomists, he had left very elaborate instructions as to how he was to be buried. He was encased in three coffins, the outer coffin being over 9 ft long, and was then buried in a 12-ft (3.66 m) grave with iron bars in the lobby of the catholic chapel in Trenchard St., Bristol. Cotter's burial took place at around 6 a.m. in order to discourage onlookers but a crowd of over 2,000 still gathered to witness the interment. In his will he left large bequests to family and friends, including William Watts. He left £2,000 to his mother, who was still living at the family cottage near Kinsale. She died in 1823, aged 100 years.
Patrick Cotter remained a figure of fascination into the twentieth century. This was largely due to the fact that his true height had never been established. According to different reports and advertisements he was anywhere between 6 ft 10 in. (2.08 m) to 9 ft tall. His coffin plate and memorial tablet in the Bristol church claimed that he was 8 ft 1 in. (2.46 m), although the inscription on the coffin plate was later changed to 8 ft 4 in. (2.54 m). His remains were disinterred and examined in 1906 and 1972 and the results showed that he was between 7 ft 10 in. and 8 ft 1 in., proving that Blair's 1804 estimate was near the mark. Analysis of Cotter's remains also showed that he was a pituitary giant who later suffered from acromegaly. There was other evidence of gigantism, including malformation of the skull and enlargement of the sella turcica, and he also suffered from osteoarthritis.
An entry in the Gazetteer of October 1786 mentioned his marriage to a Miss Cave at St Pancras church. There are no further mentions of a wife or children in any other source, including Cotter's will and parish records of the period. The Blaise Castle Museum in Henbury has a collection of material relating to him, including a shoe, his spectacles, a huge chair, and his 53 in. (1.35 m) walking stick. The museum in Kinsale also has some boots and a massive knife and fork.