Just arrived in Town, and to be seen in a commodious room, at No. 11 Haymarket, nearly opposite the Opera House, the celebrated Irish Giant, Mr. O'Brien, of the kingdom of Ireland, indisputably the tallest man ever shewn; he is a lineal descendant of the old puissant King Brien Boreau, and has in person and appearance all the similitude of that great and grand potentate. It is remarkable of this family, that, however various the revolutions in point of fortune and affiance, the lineal descendants thereof have been favoured by Providence with the original size and stature which have been so peculiar to their family. The gentleman alluded to measures near nine feet high. Admittance, one shilling.(1)
Patrick Cotter was born at Kinsale, County Cork in either the year 1760 or 1761, 'of obscure parentage', which is to say he was of humble origins. He began work as a bricklayer but Patrick was remarkable in that he stood over eight feet tall by his late teens. Quite how tall Patrick became is uncertain; one accounts claims that "At twenty-five he attained the height of eight feet and seven inches" whilst his tombstone attests only to a height of eight feet three inches.
But whatever his exact height, it was sufficient to attract the attention of a certain class of eighteenth century entrepreneur, and at around the age of eighteen Patrick entered into an arrangement with a showman who paid £50 for the right to show him for three years. The pair then left for England but soon some disagreement seems to have arisen between Patrick and his master. The exact cause of the disagreement seems disputed; one account claims that it was as the result of the showman attempting to subcontract "the liberty of showing him" "to another speculator", an arrangement to which Patrick objected; another that Patrick himself "demurred to being exhibited, without some remuneration for himself, besides the mere food, clothing, and lodging stipulated in the contract". Whatever the reason, the disgruntled showman endeavoured to have Patrick arrested for a fictitious debt and thrown into the debtors' prison, hoping no doubt to thus force him into submission.
Patrick might well have languished in prison for some time had not a "benevolent stranger" appeared and either paid his debt or proved the debt to be illegal and therefore secured his release. Thereafter Patrick decided to exhibit himself for his own profit and having earned himself thirty pounds in three days was soon convinced that there was a good living to be earned.
He was billed as 'O'Brien, the Irish Giant' and took on the performing name of 'Patrick O'Brien', taking his cue from another contemporary Irish Giant by the name of Charles Byrne who had also assumed the surname of O'Brien, and adopted the same billing. Mr Byrne had however died in 1783(2), thus leaving the field clear for Patrick, but in both cases it appears that the adoption of the O'Brien was the preferred as a way of pretending descent from Brian Boru who, in the popular imagination of the time, was believed to have the king of a race of the Irish giants.
The first definite evidence we have of Patrick appearing in public is at the Full Moon tavern in Bristol(3) on the 19th July 1783; and indeed it appears that he made his home at Bristol whilst travelling around the country appearing at various theatres and fairs. In 1785 he appeared at the Sadler's Wells theatre in a bill shared with some performing animals and fourteen years later he was still turning a profit whilst appearing in a booth at the Bartholomew fair. His career certainly extended over twenty years until 1804 when he decided he had made enough money to retire to Clifton in Bristol.
Despite the fact that he made his living by appearing in public, Patrick appears to have been somewhat reclusive in his habits and avoided going out during daylight as he disliked being commented upon and taunted by the general public. Even when he did venture out at night he was still capable of making an impression as one accounts records how he once terrified a nightwatchman in Bath by reaching up to a street lamp to light his pipe. (These were the days of gas lighting of course). However he appears to have been perfectly sociable in private and was described as "unoffending and amiable in his manners, to his friends and acquaintance, of whom he had latterly a large circle; and he was neither averse to a cheerful glass nor pleasant company".
Here lie the remains of Mr. Patrick Cotter O'Brien, a native of Kinsale, in the kingdom of Ireland. He was a man of gigantic stature, exceeding eight feet three inches in height, and proportionably large.
Patrick died at his home in the Hotwells Road, Clifton, on the 8th September 1806 at the age of around forty-five. He left a fortune of some £3,000, most of which went to his mother, Margaret Cotter and was buried in the Roman Catholic chapel in Trenchard Street, Bristol. The funeral was scheduled for six o'clock in the morning in an attempt to avoid attracting a crowd, but despite this precaution over 2,000 people are said to have attended and police assistance was required to guard the chapel doors and prevent a crush developing.
One source provides the following account of his internment;
The coffin, of lead, measured 9 feet 2 inches in the clear, and the wooden case 4 inches more. It was 3 feet across the shoulders. No hearse could be procured sufficiently long to contain it; on which account, that end of the coffin which could not be shut in, was covered with black cloth. Fourteen men bore him from the hearse to the grave, into which he was let down with pulleys. To prevent any attempt to disturb his remains, of which Cotter had, when living, the greatest horror, the grave was made 12 feet in a solid rock.
Indeed the memorial tablet at the Trenchard Street chapel echoes the message that he was "buried in the solid rock at the depth of twelve feet, and his body was secured with iron bars, so as to render removal impossible". In Patrick's case his fears were quite justified. The corpse of his fellow Irish Giant Charles Byrne had been hijacked by a surgeon named John Hunter who boiled it down in a large kettle and mounted his skeleton for display at the Royal College of Physicians; Patrick clearly had no wish to become a medical curiosity after his death.
Patrick Cotter is known to have kept a diary, but unfortunately this has not survived as Patrick himself burnt it on the "whim of the moment" although "he afterwards much regretted the circumstance".
(1) The text of hand-bill advertising one of Patrick Cotter's many public engagements
(2) Despite being his exact contemporary Charles Byrne died in 1783 at the age of only twenty-two due, it is said, to his excessive drinking.
(3) The Full Moon at Stokes Croft not far from the city centre in Bristol remains open for business to this day.
- K. D. Reynolds Cotter, Patrick (performing name Patrick O'Brien) from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
- Chambers' Book of Days http://www.thebookofdays.com/months/sept/8.htm
- Curiosities of Human Nature, 1849 by the author of Peter Parley's Tales, published by Rand and Mann, Boston, 1849
- O'Brien, The Irish Giant from
The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction. Volume 20, No. 567, Saturday, September 22, 1832