Saturday, March 25, 2017

John Hunter and Charles Byrne, A Clash Of Giants

Rebuilding the Royal College of Surgeons, London, 1834

Years ago I read a book called "The Giant, O' Brien" the book called out to me for numerous reasons, foremost of which being, the protagonist and myself shared a name-Charles O' Brien. The book was written by Hillary Mantel and is a great, if harrowing tale of the clash of Irish and English cultures in Britain.

Once Charles came of age, having heard of other giants who had made their fortune in London, he contrived to leave Ireland. O' Brien exhibited himself as a "freak" in England and changed his name from Charles Byrne to Charles O' Brien (claiming descent from warrior king, Brian Boru, founder of the O' Brien clan).  Charles Byrne was an "Irish Giant" born in rural county Derry in 1761. It seems there were numerous giants in his district, turns out they were suffering from a congenital disease called giantism.

John Hunter is known as "the founder of scientific surgery." He was a giant in his own field and was certainly one of the most famed and knowledgeable surgeons of his day. Hunter tried to itemise a whole world of anatomy, diseases and disorders, placing his discoveries in marked jars and vials. Though much of it was destroyed in WWII, the remains of Hunter's collection can still be seen today in the Hunterian Museum in the Royal College of Surgeons, London. He added greatly to our understanding of surgical practice and dissection and detailing of physical disorders. Hunter even gave his own body over to research once he died, and was dissected "for the cause" once he passed away in 1793. His zealousness for science, unfortunately, did not take into account the wishes of others, and when he caught wind of the Giant O' Brien he was determined to not led this specimen get away from him. 

O' Brien, at first, got on well in London. He exhibiting himself in a Cane shop next to "Cox's Museum" (along with a Polish dwarf, Count Borulwaski) and was the talk and toast of London. One day while drinking in his local pub "The Black Horse" he was pick pocketed, unfortunately for Charles, he carried with him that day, in bank notes, all the small fortune he had made. Thus began a spiral of drinking, melancholia and sickness which led to his death.

Knowing O' Brien was sick, the surgeon, Hunter, employed a man called Hewison to follow him around, waiting for the giant to pop his clogs. Another colleague of Hunter's who met O' Brien at this time thought him "an ill-bred beast, though young." They paid no heed to the wants of this "ill-bred" man. O' Brien knew he was being followed and at twenty two years of age paid for his funeral arrangements, his express wishes being, that when he died, he would be buried at sea in a lead coffin, at the mouth of the thames-far from the Royal College of Surgeons. When O' Brien died a few short months later, his will was initiated, the coffin bought, the last journey begun. One of the undertakers though, was paid a sum of 500 pounds to snatch the giant's body and Charles was brought into the arms of John Hunter who rapidly dissected him, eventually putting his bones on permanent display.

The Dissecting Room, Watercolour by Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827)
A few days before a recent trip to London I saw and signed an online petition to have Charles Byrne's bones buried at sea, it brought back memories of the book by Hillary Mantel I had read, so, while in London I decided to visit the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College Of Surgeons. O' Brien's bones still have pride of place among the vials of dissected humanity and animal life. Just around the corner from O' Brien is an 18th century painting of Owen Farrell an Irish Dwarf.

Charles Byrne's Bones

Hillary Mantel portrays the clash of cultures of Ireland and England as "belief wrestling with knowledge and science wrestling with song" there is indeed some truth in this, but as well as that, the English over the centuries seem to want the Irish to be this superstitious, maybe innocuous other-a fantasy of "illborn brutes." We need to remember the Irish in the era of Charles Byrne were striving to be modern on their own terms, literally dying to break free of the grasp of the old world "monarchy" and into the arms of a new republic through the 1798 rebellion. What the English thought "a wayward child's dream," would be curtailed, we Irish would be moved into the modern world in the 19th century in a way deemed fit by Britain, not by methods of our own choosing. All of this superstition, republicanism and royalty's significance is perhaps diluted in recent times, but still, the Royal College of Surgeons hosts Charles Byrne's bones and a little painting of "An Irish Dwarf."

All of the images in this post are from a leaflet and postcards I got in the Hunterian Museum, © 2007 Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons. Photography was prohibited in the museum. 

Friday, March 3, 2017

Glory O Glory O to the Bold Fenian Men!



The Illustrated London News


Supplement, March 2, 1867

There is no longer the slightest apprehension of any renewal of the late silly attempt of the Fenian conspirators to raise an insurrection in the county of Kerry. The presence of a whole division of British Troops, under Sir Alfred Horsford, seems not only to have checked the advance of the Irish American marauders, who are now reckoned at no more than 50 or 100 men, but to even to have scared them out of existence; for none can be found by the most assiduous beating of Toomies Wood and all the neighbouring coverts on the shores of the lakes of Killarney. We are reminded of the legend of The O' Donoghue, not the hon, M.P. for Tralee, but his reputed ancestor the romantic chieftain of those lakes, who exchanged his ancient castle of Ross Island for kind of fresh water merman's palace at the bottom of Lough Leane, where nobody can approach him to dispute his sovereignty of the primeval rocks and boulders. It is conjectured that the Fenian heroes who marched from Cahirciveen to Killarney on Tuesday, the 12th, stealing five rifles, and sword bayonets, with some ammunition from the coastguard in Kells and shooting a single mounted policeman who was passing with a message, have disappeared into the lakes or the stony bowels of the mountains, where the soldiers cannot follow them.

On friday week, after daily fruitless explorations of the place where they were last visible and of the whole mountain district between the lower lake and the Gap of Dunloe, a party of troops and constabulary went in search of arms and rebels to Glenflesk, on the opposite shores of the lake. In this glen is a spot known as Filedown or Robber's Cliff, and a cave known as Leabey Owen, or Owen's bed, which will hold 60 men with ease. The place is extremely of access, and the situation most romantic. But neither Fenian men nor Fenian arms were found, and no trace of any. It is stated that, as the troops were returning, signal fires were seen lighted on the mountains, perhaps intended by the fugitives to assure their friends below of their safety; but the official reports declare that these fires have been satisfactorily accounted for. Another rumour speaks of the finding of the dead body of a Fenian who had perished of fatigue, hunger, and exposure on the Glencar mountain; but this also wants confirmation.

The resident (stipendiary) magistrates at Killarney, Mr Cruice and Major Perry, assisted by another, Mr. Green, have been engaged, with the local justices of the peace in trying to find out the guilty persons. Ten were arrested at Cahirciveen; but at the petty sessions last Saturday, the evidence was so defective against them that the Bench, consisting of Dr. Barry, the Knight of Kerry, Captain Segrave, Mr Cruice, and others, had to release them all upon their own recognisances to keep the peace. Searches for arms are now made almost daily, but hitherto the search has been invariable unsuccessful, both in town and country. The arms given up at Killarney since the county was proclaimed include some sixty or seventy rifles or fowling pieces. But these are generally surrendered by people whose loyalty is known, while the disaffected persons bury their firearms in the bog, where, with a little grease rag in the muzzle and around the nipple, a gun will keep from suffering any injury. Last Monday the detachment of the 48th Regiment was sent back to the Curragh from Killarney. Its place will be taken by the 14th Regiment. General Horsford returned on Saturday from his visit to Kenmare, Sneem, Cahirsiveen, Killorglin, and other outlying places at which detachments are stationed. It will probably be necessary to continue a small detachment for some time to come at these places, and especially at Cahirsiveen, where the conspiracy broke out on the 12th.

It may be remembered that, on the 13th, as soon as the attack on the Kells station was known, troops were sent from Cork and Fermoy; and on the same day a force of marines and sailors was landed at Cahirciveen from the H.M.S. Gladiator, which had been stationed at Dingle Bay, signals for aid having been made by the coastguard at Cahirsiveen to the ship. This force was at once dispatched on the track of the insurgents, the Rifles moving out to meet them from Killarney. This probably caused them to make themselves so remarkably scarce.

We are indebted to Dr.W.J. Eames surgeon to H.M.S. Gladiator, for the view of Cahirsiveen which we have engraved. It is a town of about 2000 inhabitants, half the size of Killarney, situated at the head of the harbour of Valencia, and a market for some of the most delicious butter in the world. The aspect of the place, backed by the majestic range of the Iveragh mountains, is rather imposing till one gets into it, while the squalid meanness of the streets, with bogs and bleak hills beyond the town, produce a contrary impression. We also present a view of Killorglin, from a sketch by a lady correspondent. Killorglin is at the mouth of the river Larne, which runs through the lakes of Killarney into Dingle Bay. The deep inlets of the Atlantic in this part of the coast of Ireland afford great facilities for a hostile landing. The mouth of the Larne was a favourite base of operations with the Danes, the nearest representative perhaps of the Fenians. They built a fort (the rampart of which is shown in our view, on the left of the bridge), and constructed vaults under it to hold stores, so that their countrymen, on landing, might not be destitute of provisions till able to furnish themselves at the expense of the natives. The Conway family held Killorglin in the sixteenth century.

This article comes direct from the smug belly of the beast, that being London. You get a great sense of how difficult it was for the Fenians to try to take on the structures of power that were around them (not to mind what it might have taken to dismantle them completely). When many would have said and known "might was right" and kept their head pointed to the floor (rather than risk it being taken from their shoulders), to tear down the propaganda they were faced with with arms, to try and silence the overarching edicts and voices from across the water with guns was then a bold and brave decision. 

The debasement of the insurrectionists, their aims and means, so much so to make them seem irrelevant, is what shines through most in this article. The "squalid meanness of the streets" from which the "conspirators" came from were indeed tough. The Illustrated London News views the Fenians as almost pointless, a type of joke, foreign ("Irish-American Marauders" or like "the Danes"), or from the past (like "the romantic chieftain O' Donohue"). Yet still the troops are rolled out from H.M.S. Gladiator. But something was stirring and the blanket of fog would finally be emerged from in the coming century, an independent Republic for the south of Ireland would eventually be declared, in no small thanks to the likes of those "marauders" who took on British imperialism this week 150 years ago! Incidentally, the Kerry rising of which I relate here was a premature one in February of that year, "a Kerryman joke" could be employed but I'll leave that to someone who isn't a Kerryman! 



 from "Rio Grande" directed by John Ford