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Irish Giants: Prehistoric and Otherwise February 7, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern, Prehistoric , trackback


Beach stumbled the other day on this passage from the Dublin Freeman’s Journal, August 1812.

‘It is not a little surprising, considering our veneration for Irish antiquities, that no notice should be taken of the skeleton recently disinterred at Leixlip. This extraordinary monument of gigantic human stature was found by two laborers in Leixlip churchyard on Friday, the 10th [?difficult to read] ult., when making a kind of sewer, near the Salmon leap, for conveying water, by Mr. Haigh’s orders. It appears to have belonged to a man of not less than ten feet in height. It is believed to be the same mentioned by Keating, Phelim O’Tool, buried in Leixlip churchyard, near the Salmon leap, 1,252 years ago. In the same place was found to be a large finger ring of pure gold. There was no inscription or characters of any kind upon it, a circumstance to be lamented, as it might throw a clear light upon this interesting subject. Our correspondent saw one of the teeth, which was as large as an ordinary forefinger.’

We have seen before in these pages the confusion of fossils with humans. Then there is too the danger of expectation: there was apparently a legend of a medieval giant in this part of the world. As one sage commentator put it thinking of Irish giants more generally.

Often, when opening a ‘Giant’s Grave’, workmen have drawn attention to the great size of the human bones which they disinterred, when in reality the bones had formed the framework of a man of but medium stature. The minds of the searchers were imbued with the idea that the bones must of necessity be of superhuman size, for were they not found in a ‘Giant’s Grave’? In the same way the judgment of an antiquary may, insensibly to himself, be biased by his own imagination regarding some preconceived theory. A distinguished writer on archaeology has observed: ‘There is no failing to which antiquarian observers seem more liable than seeing too much’.

Perhaps something similar happened in Leixlip and before things could be contained a report had made its way into the not particularly scientific pages of the Freeman’s Journal? Or could ‘it’ have been real? Well, Robert Wadlow reached almost nine feet and and he certainly didn’t have teeth as big as an ‘ordinary forefinger’.

Another great and much better known giant story also comes from Ireland: the perhaps even more famous picture heads this post.

Pre-eminent among the most extraordinary articles ever held by a railway company is the fossilized Irish giant, which is at this moment lying at the London and North-Western Railway Company’s Broad-street goods depot, and a photograph of which is reproduced here. This monstrous figure is reputed to have been dug up by a Mr. Dyer whilst prospecting for iron ore in Co. Antrim. The principal measurements are: Entire length, 12ft. 2in.; girth of chest, 6ft. 6.5.in.; and length of arms, 4ft. 6 in. There are six toes on the right foot. The gross weight is 2 tons 15 cwt.; so that it took half a dozen men and a powerful crane to place this article of lost property in position for the Strand Magazine artist. Dyer, after showing the giant in Dublin, came to England with his queer find and exhibited it in Liverpool and Manchester at sixpence a head, attracting scientific men as well as gaping sightseers. Business increased and the showman induced a man named Kershaw to purchase a share in the concern. In 1876, Dyer sent this giant from Manchester to London by rail; the sum of £4 2s. 6d. being charged for carriage by the company, but never paid. Evidently Kershaw knew nothing of the removal of the ‘show’, for when he discovered it he followed in hot haste, and, through a firm of London solicitors, moved the Court of Chancery to issue an order restraining the company from parting with the giant, until the action between Dyer and himself to determine the ownership was disposed of. The action was never brought to an issue.

What most delicious nonsense. Beach loves the way that the iron prospector (from Country Antrim!) turned impresario. What happened to the body? Drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

Then just to round off this giant post a nice story recalling the superstitious venality of the Irish peasant in the nineteenth century.

Near the village of Cliffoney are the remains of a ‘Giant’s Grave’, presenting no feature of interest. No inducement could prevail on the tenant to allow of an excavation. He and his father before him, he stated, refused to do so, although ‘untold gold’ had been offered. However, some few days afterwards, having occasion to verily the compass bearings of the monument, a return to the spot has necessitated, when it became evident that, in the interval, the grave had been dug out to a great depth. In short, the suspicious yokel, imagining that the contemplated search was for a crock of gold, had determined to retain the treasure for himself.

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11/2/12: PJT has some good giant material here:  Your Irish giant reminds me of the Cardiff giant, an infamous American ‘petrified man’:  The world seems to be awash with giant bones, if YouTube is to be believed:  Nothing fakey or photoshopped in this presentation–no sirree.  ;-) ‘ Thanks PJ!

29 March 2012: MacMac writes in with this brilliant piece: The Irish Giant is an enigmatic character to be sure.  But the creator of the Giant, and the back story associated, would test the fancies of Munchhausen.  I can also address for you the fate of the body. I have researched for several years an Australian petrified giant displayed to the public of Sydney in May 1889.  He was known as the “Marble Man of Orange”.  His creator was one Guiseppe F. Sala.  In tracing his exploits, I discovered that Sala under the pseudonym Salle was in fact one of the carvers of the original Cardiff Giant.  He was not the originator of that hoax, the honour of which belongs to George Hull, who intended to lampoon religious zealots faith in the literalness of the Biblical “there were giants in the earth”.  Sala confessed his part in 1902, and Hull named him that year just prior to his own death. Sala was one of two stone carvers engaged in Chicago and kept on site with “buckets of beer” so that they wouldn’t wander off for a drink and give the game away.  Having observed the success of the 1869 Cardiff Giant in gathering coin from the curious, Sala moved to Troy NY where gainful employ as a monumental sculptor (the Clock Tower in Buffalo NJ is adorned with his statues) soon gave way to a hoaxing of his own with a “petrified man” in New Hampshire.  I’ve traced his (and his sons) exploits through at least six more hoaxes, including the Irish Giant (see below) and the Australian Marble Man, and even a second Marble Man after debts forced the sale of the first. If you would indulge me, rather than re-write the episode, I’ve lifted from an earlier draft article of mine (with footnotes) not as yet having found a publisher.  I hope you find some amusement in the story. “Back in 1876, New York had been scandalised by the exhumation and abduction of the body of the recently deceased retail magnate Alexander T. Stewart.  While ransoms had been sought for return of the body, accusations levelled and rumours floated, the corpse had still not been found by 1879.  In August of that year, Guiseppe Sala put in a clandestine appearance before one Judge Hilton with a confession to a tale of treachery involving international grave robbing, petrifications and a New York femme fatale.[35] Sala claimed that towards the end of his time in Troy [1876], he had fallen in with a gang of three men and a woman of “rare beauty” and “notorious past”, both banker and controller of the gang.  Sala had bragged to the woman of knowing the secret of petrifying bodies, seeming to imply he could turn old or fresh corpses to stone.  Soon Sala found himself discussing schemes of substituting petrifications for buried celebrities, or “resurrecting” bodies for a ransom.  For a sum, Sala then embarked with the gang for London with no less an intention than digging up the body of the infamous American traitor Benedict Arnold and ransoming the body.  The local police confounded their plans, and Sala with two members of the gang departed for Ireland.  Sala traveled there with another stone-cutter named Dye or Dyer, and another gang member named E. J. Ford, whose father had been Superintendent of the Poor back in Troy county.[36] An initial scheme once in Ireland was to disinter a statue to be secreted on the property of the Earl of Leitrim that would be exhibited as “the true St Patrick”.  This idea quickly gave way to another equally audacious. In May 1876, Sala carved a limestone colossus at the coastal village of Green Isle, located about 10 miles north of Belfast and 2 miles from Carrickfargus.  The body was secreted away on a farm owned by an accomplice named Coleman located close to the Giant’s Causeway.  In June, the figure was unearthed in County Antrim and claimed, to the great astonishment of the Irish who flocked to the site, as the petrified body of none less than the mythical Irish Giant, Finn MacCoul.  With due apologies to purists of the Feanna myth cycles, MacCoul will forever be mainly associated with the more populist legend involving the creation of the Giant’s Causeway. This story goes that the geological feature was created by the hurling of rock’s at a rival Scottish giant Fergus during a legendary feud.  With the close association by geography, the claimed petrified body was also known as the “Causeway Giant”. [37] The giant was a sensation at first, and was attended by a throng of sightseers intent on viewing the 12 foot 2 inch [3.7 metres] high figure with the heroically non-petite 6 ft 6 inch [2 metres] chest, weighing in at over 2 ton (2.03 tonnes) and with six toes upon one foot.[38] The gang appeared not to have heard of the legends of an entire “petrified city” beneath the waves of Lough Neagh just a few miles south of their chosen location, or they could have swollen the petrified population.[39] Sala claimed that he departed Ireland at the end of May 1876 just before the “discovery”.  After a successful exhibit in the area local to the find, the “Irish Giant” was taken by Dye or Dyer to Dublin, thence to Liverpool and Manchester with viewing at 6 pence per head [40].  An interest in the Giant was sold to a local entrepreneur named Kershaw, and the giant shipped to London.  The strangest item in left luggage history was occasionally reported upon in local papers through the years.  The Strand of 1895 claimed it had been abandoned by Dyer without Kershaw’s knowledge, and ownership was disputed in the courts.  Sala’s story instead was that suspicion had been aroused concerning the Giant’s genuineness and the police had prevented further exhibition until this was resolved.  The Irish Giant’s unfitting demise in the 1940s was noted recently in Fortean Times, which reported that the body—cleverly nicknamed “Patrick”—had apparently been used to fill a WWII bomb crater [see Fortean Times 217:72]. RIP Patrick the Causeway Giant. Sala went on to tell Judge Hilton that on the return to New York the gang soon plotted robbing A.T.Stewart’s body from its vault. The idea developed over several more meetings almost up to the actual event, but when Sala demanded more money to play his part in the scheme, the lady banker cooled his involvement.[41] Sala’s accusations against Ford and others soon quietened when he was paid a small stipend and travelled to Troy with detectives to point out accomplices.  On arrival there, Sala claimed the money was not sufficient to betray the culprits, fearing reprisals. Judge Hilton and his detectives lost patience, and the grave robbing tale eventually appeared to be little other than a false lead.[42] Stewart’s remains were never recovered. [35] New York Times, 14 August 1879, p. 2 [36] New York Times, 15 August 1879, p. 5 [37] The Galveston Daily News, 2 January 1878, col G [38] The Strand Magazine, December 1895, pp. 646-647.  The Leeds Mercury,1 June 1876, p. 2. [39] See James Joyce, Ullyses.  It is an Irish superstition based on frequent discovery of petrified wood [known locally as “petrified potatoes”] along the shore.  See Buckland, W., ‘On the Occurrence of Nodules [called Petrified Potatoes] found on the Shores of Lough Neagh in Ireland’, Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society, 1846, v. 2, issue.1-2, pp. 103-104. [40] Liverpool Mercury, 8 July 1876; Fortean Times 215:75 [41] New York Times, 14 August 1879, p. 2 [42] New York Times, 15 August 1879, p. 5; Fanebust, W., The Missing Corpse: Grave Robbing a Gilded Age Tycoon, 2005.’ We are in awe of Mac Mac!