A reproduction of the portrait of the Irish Giant, Cornelius Magrath. The portrait was painted in Venice in 1757 by the Italian artist Pietro Longhi, when Magrath was 20 years of age. It shows Magrath being viewed by a group of Venetians in carnival bauta costumes, one of whom is wearing a mask called a larva. A man walks under Migrates outstretched arm.He is much taller than any one else in the room and, yet, Margate towers over him. Magarth died three years later and his body was sold to the School of Anatomy in Dublin University, Trinity College. It was dissected and the articulated skeleton remains as part of an historic collection of anatomy specimens, which is currently being curated by Ciarán Walsh of curator.ie.

Pietro Longhi, 1757, “True portrait of the Giant Cornelio Magrat the Irishman; he came to Venice in the year 1757; born 1st January 1737, he is 7 feet tall and weighs 420 pounds. Painted on commission from the Noble Gentleman Giovanni Grimani dei Servi, Patrician of Venice.” Museo di Rezzonico, Venice. Photograph: Osvaldo Böhm.


The Skeleton of The Irish Giant, Cornelius Magrath is held by the School of Anatomy in Dublin University, Trinity College (TCD). It is the most famous item in a historic collection of anatomy specimens, records, and instruments that is held in the ‘Old’ Anatomy Building. The building was decommissioned in 2014 and the collection is being resolved as part of post-grad research programme managed jointly by the School of Medicine TCD, Maynooth University, Kimmage Development Studies Centre, and funded by the Irish Research Council (IRC).

I am employed as a full-time researcher on the project and resolving ethical issues relating to the retention of human remains is a major part of the work in hand. Indeed, the research proposal had to pass rigorous ethical approval procedures in Maynooth University, the School of Medicine TCD, and the IRC before I could get access to the ‘old’ Anatomy building and the collections held therein, which include  the skeleton of Cornelius Magrath.

The skeleton is “in the news” following calls for Magrath’s remains to be buried. The controversy kicked off on the History Show on RTE Radio 1. It was picked up by chat show host Joe Duffy on Monday. Duffy argued that TCD should bury the skeleton of Cornelius Magrath because it was taken in a ‘body snatching’ raid on Magrath’s wake. Since then a debate of sorts has been taking place on the show.

The problem here is that there is no evidence that the body snatching story, however entertaining, is true. Magrath died on 16th May 1760 but the only contemporary account of his death was most likely written by either Robert Robinson, Professor of Anatomy in TCD, or Dr. George Cleghorn, the University anatomist. It is a rather enigmatic account, stating only that “Upon death, his body was carried to the Dissecting House.” (see Daniel J. Cunningham’s 1891 report to the Royal Irish Academy).

Magrath was dying of a wasting disease and it is clear from the Robinson/Cleghorn account that he was receiving medical attention at the time of his death. It records that Magrath’s “complexion was miserably pale and sallow; his pulses very quick at times for a man of his extraordinary height; and his legs were swollen.” Elsewhere, it states that his pulse beat almost sixty times a minutes “on his arrival here.”  It sounds like Magrath was being cared for in the School of Medicine TCD when he died.

The body snatching legend has it that Magrath was being waked when medical students spiked the porter and made off with his body, which was immediately dissected in secret. Such a sensational body snatching could not have escaped notice and, furthermore, the dissection was both public knowledge and uncontroversial. Historians of anatomy in TCD have always believed that the body was paid for by Cleghorn and that the acquisition of the body was legitimate and ethical by the standards of the day. The problem here is that there is no documentary evidence of Magrath having consented to dissection or the permanent display of his skeleton.

That brings us to the contemporary issue of retention or burial. The report of the Working Group on Human Remains in Museum Collections (WGHR), published in the UK in 2003, acknowledged that human remains in collections “represent a unique and irreplaceable resource for the legitimate pursuance of scientific and other research” (p. 28) and concludes: “The Working Group feels that there is much merit in including museum collections of human remains within the regulatory structure proposed by the DH for health authorities and hospitals.” (p. 81).

Supervision by the Inspector of Anatomy of the ‘Old’ Anatomy collections in TCD covers the issue of regulation in Ireland in terms of the retention of Magrath’s skeleton as part of a historical scientific collection. This leaves the burial of Magrath’s remains at the discretion of the college authorities; which means that any decision will have to deal with public perception as to the “morality” of retaining identifiable human remains in collections of scientific material. That is deeply problematic, and Duffy’s attempt to frame the issue in body snatching folklore is distorting what should be a valuable and timely debate.


For more see: http://wp.me/p56Bmf-eP