The Irish Giant -Patrick Cotter

I picked up this book via Southcart Books store on Ebay. So in part this post is a review, but also it’s a brief summary of the titular character’s remarkable life. Do check out Southcart Books, they have some great books.

The Irish Giant by G Frankcom. At first I thought it would be about the famous Irish Giant Charles Byrne, however to my delight I discovered it was actually about a gentleman called Patrick Cotter O’Brien (O’Brien was his show name).  This particular Irish Giant was contemporary with Byrne for some of his life but died long after him.

Patrick Cotter O’Brien (19 January 1760 – 8 September 1806) was the first of only thirteen people in medical history to stand at a verified height of eight feet (2.44 m) or more. O’Brien was born in Kinsale, County Cork, Ireland. His real name was Patrick Cotter and he adopted O’Brien as his stage name in the sideshow circus. He was also known as the Bristol Giant and the Irish Giant.’Brien

Yes you read that correctly – he stood at over 8ft tall. The first of only a handful of people to top 8ft tall.

He was afflicted by Giantism and acromegaly; when he died at the age of 46 no hearse could be found to accommodate his 9 ft coffin. He was carried to his grave by relays of 14 men, and he asked to be buried 12 feet under solid rock to discourage grave robbers – or ‘resurrection men’ exhuming him and selling his remains to a doctor.  Anatomists would often pay well for the recently dead – in order to dissect for their medical students. This was, technically, illegal, although hanged prisoners could be given to them. Such a fate terrified many people and with a body of such immense proportions it was a real risk for poor Mr Cotter. Later in his life he became increasingly disabled – as his conditions meant his joints etc. kept growing and he suffered from back pain, damaged joints and heart problems, among other problems.

Cotter made a decent living – financially at least . When he died his mother received over £2000 – a substantial sum in the early 19th Century (equivalent to as much as 150k today). Whether he was happy – living his life on show and plagued by the many problems related to his medical conditions, is another matter entirely. He made friends, by many accounts he was an intelligent and congenial man but there is only one, unsubstantiated, report of marriage.  He managed to find some privacy in a house he purchased but even so a man of his stature and renown would hardly be able to blend in.  However occasionally his extreme height was an advantage – he worked as a bricklayer and builder able to paint ceilings or tile some roofs without a ladder, and once his specially adapted coach was stopped by a highway. Who then fled in terror when an 8 foot tall man stepped out.

In the 1970s Cotter’s skeleting was rediscovered during the excavation of foundations for a building and interest in him renewed. His skeleton was examined – to find out the causes of his giantism. That’s basically what the book is about. Cotter’s life, death and rediscovery.

I really enjoyed the subject – the author had obviously done a great deal of research about Cotter, the particular medical issues he suffered and the exhumation of his remains. Many of the sources are contradictory (especially as there were, remarkably, a couple of other ‘Irish Giants’ about at the same time.  The author discusses the sources and the contradictions and tries to find the most consistent and accurate account.

I’d recommend this for those who enjoy biographies of interesting and unusual people, medical anomalies, local history and the attitudes of the time to those individuals who had such conditions.

If you want to learn more about the subject these websites and blogs might be of interest. Especially The Tallest Man – this link will take you to a page about ROBERT PERSHING WADLOW who was 8ft 11! The tallest verified man in medical history.


Monsters and Myth – British Giants – Cormoran

Giants have been a feature in mythology and literature for centuries; Cormoran,  Gog and Magog, Goliath, the giant slain by David, Polyphemus (see my post about cyclopes),  the Brobdingnag giant, from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels,  the giant from Jack and the Beanstalk and many more. Perhaps based on the discovery of huge bones and enormous stone ‘seats’ the mythology around this particular creature is diverse. After all, if you lived a thousand years ago, knew nothing of dinosaurs, or evolution, or science and you dug up a leg bone taller than yourself you might just think it was from a giant man.

For now, I am going to focus on some of the myths surrounding British giants, and their influence on my culture is everywhere. Here are but a few of our larger inhabitants, now lost in the fog of myth.

Today’s guest is Cormoran. He’s a Cornish giant, who features in Jack the Giant Killer, and gets a rum deal as the first giant slain by Jack, a farmer’s son, who is fed up with the local giant raiding his cattle. Luring the giant into a pit trap the wily lad then goes on to receive the giant’s wealth and magic sword. Continuing his adventures in the world of giant-slaying Jack goes on to slay a two-headed Welsh giant, is captured by  Blunderbore, who has sworn revenge for Comoran’s death and held in an enchanted tower. The giant is no match for Jack and ends up as dead as his friend.  Not content with this Jack works his way through the giants’ land, eventually rescuing a Duke’s daughter, whom he later marries. It’s the age old story of the simple lad (Jack, David etc.) overcoming adversity, monsters, wicked creatures and ending up rich and powerful, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake – albeit the bodies of said monsters.

So what of Cormoran – what’s his myth? Said to inhabit and to have built St Michael’s Mount, in Cornwall (which got its name because of a said vision of the Archangel in the 8th Century), he rather a feisty fellow, but not endowed in the brain department. ‘Of fierce and grim countenance’ (James Orchard Halliwell-Phillips 1861) the giant is known for terrorising the neighbourhood and making off with cattle and other livestock. Wading across the river he would steal half a dozen at a time, and tie sheep and pigs around his waist. Some folklore states there were two giants – who fought and killed one another – or the giant’s family also resided there. The giant was said to have six digits on each hand (which would have been useful in hauling rock, no doubt). And during an excavation a skeleton of a very tall man (7 feet or more) was found.

Cormelian was the giantess who also inhabited the caves and brought mayhem. Both the giants are thought to have fetched white granite from the neighbouring area and carried it ‘in their aprons’ to build a stronghold. One day when the male giant was asleep Cormelian tried to get closer greenstone, but awoke her husband, who kicked her, making her drop the stone which came to rest alongside the causeway.  The, of course, Cormoran encountered a young farmer’s lad and his woes became far worse than a clumsy wife and marital abuse.

Cormoran is sometimes linked with Trencrom – and the two are believed to have thrown rocks back and forth at one another, unfortunately one hit the giant’s wife and killed her.

Interestingly the name Cormoran is NOT a Cornish name – it may be a corruption of Corineus – the legendary founder of Cornwall who was also said to have defeated the giant (Gogmagog) near the region of St Michael’s Mount, as told by Geoffrey of Monmouth’s great Historia Regum Britanniae. The base myth may have been of Brythonic (Celtic) origin, and King Arthur is believed to have smote a giant in roughly the same region.

Then came to [King Arthur] an husbandman … and told him how there was … a great giant which had slain, murdered and devoured much people of the country … [Arthur journeyed to the Mount, discovered the giant roasting dead children,] … and hailed him, saying … [A]rise and dress thee, thou glutton, for this day shalt thou die of my hand. Then the glutton anon started up, and took a great club in his hand, and smote at the king that his coronal fell to the earth. And the king hit him again that he carved his belly and cut off his genitours, that his guts and his entrails fell down to the ground. Then the giant threw away his club, and caught the king in his arms that he crushed his ribs … And then Arthur weltered and wrung, that he was other while under and another time above. And so weltering and wallowing they rolled down the hill till they came to the sea mark, and ever as they so weltered Arthur smote him with his dagger.

(Sir Thomas Malory in 1485 in the fifth chapter of the fifth book of Le Morte d’Arthur)

There will be more British giants to follow. Maybe the others will have more luck than our friend, the giant Cormoran…. But I doubt it.


The Lore of the Land (Westwood and Simpson 2006).

A Natural History of the Unnatural World (Jo Levy – Carroll and Brown, London)

Book Review – The Lore of the Land

The Lore of the Land: A Guide to England’s Legends, from Spring-heeled Jack to the Witches of Warboys  by Westwood and Simpson

This is a fascinating book covering every county in England. Tales of ghosts, giants, heroes, villains, monsters, place-names, kings, witches and so much more. England has a very rich history of folklore – some of it very strange indeed! The accounts are about a paragraph or so each, interspersed with longer two-page spreads, images and at 900 or so pages is a hefty read. This is a must for any fan of English history, folk-lore, fairy tales, ghost stories, and the general oddness of folk.

Many of the counties had similar beliefs, some now seeming strange to us and some of the accounts are sad, some funny, and some just plain weird. Most are from the fairly recent or more distant past – when science was in its infancy and religion accounted for most people’s knowledge of the world. Yet it wasn’t clear cut as belief in god went hand in hand with belief in fairies, giants and dragons.  You’d be surprised how many churches were moved; how often the Devil tried to drown/bury or otherwise play havoc with a town; how many dragons and giants stride the land and how many ghosts, headless horses and boggarts haunt us.  This is a book which shows us the mythic past of England.

The book is long but a great resource, and a great book to dip into.