‘Fake News’ in the Georgian Era: My Accidental Quest for Ireland’s Tallest Man by SPUR student Ben Herron

This summer our undergraduate student Ben Herron also worked with Dr. Alison FitzGerald on a research project examining the leisure pursuits of those in Ireland between 1750 and 1870. Here he reflects on what he learned.

Conflicting reports, apparently sworn statements, and morally questionable advertising: these were just some of the obstacles I encountered on the path to discovering the true “Irish Giant” as part of the SPUR programme for undergraduate students at Maynooth University this summer.  However, this was not my initial goal.

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Ben and Andrea examining playbills in the Royal Irish Academy

At the beginning of my research journey I applied to work on the project “Spectacles and Shows: Exhibitions and Entertainment in Modern Ireland, 1750 – 1870”, headed by Dr Alison FitzGerald, of the History Department at MU. This project involved working (along with my SPUR colleague Andrea) in a number of different research venues including: the Royal Irish Academy, the National Library of Ireland, the National Gallery of Ireland, and Maynooth University. Working in these different archives, under the mentorship of Dr FitzGerald, we had the opportunity to study a range of primary sources, including, diaries, city guides, travel literature, playbills, etchings, watercolours, newspapers, and pamphlets.

One of our key tasks involved working with a list of focused search terms relating to spectacles and exhibitions using the Irish Newspaper Archive, an extensive database of newspapers, which yielded much rich evidence relevant to the project. This was one of the more systematic and methodical pieces of research work we undertook and probably gave me the most realistic insight into what research work is really like.

While working away, inputting particular search terms, navigating and refining the parameters in terms of relevance and dates, the term “Irish giant” particularly caught my interest. These were extraordinarily tall Irish men (and women) who exhibited their exceptional height as a way of making a living. Shows like this were a feature of urban life in Ireland during the eighteenth and nineteenth century, but some of the individuals involved were successful enough to make the journey to London and attract large crowds.

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Ben studying in the Prints and Drawings Department of the National Gallery of Ireland

The evidence I encountered showed that at times there was conflict and rivalry between some of the individuals involved. Matters could became quite heated with one giant publicly denouncing his rivals and declaring supremacy as the only true “Irish giant”. But even these assertive and often emotionally-charged public proclamations could be shrouded in confusion. I located a number of articles where the journalist interviewing a particular giant was able to secretly record their height (approximately) having had their initial request to do so turned down. In one particular case, the giant was reckoned to be a whole foot shorter than the height that the advertisements in the newspapers announced. I wondered if much of this false advertising came not from the giants themselves but from their shrewd managers who noticed a glut of competition in the market and were looking to whip up interest in and draw audiences for the  “true tallest man in Ireland”.

Ben Herron Blog Image 3 Irish Giant
Thomas Rowlandson, The surprising Irish giant of St. James’s Street, London, 1785, Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University

Unfortunately as my foray into the world of academic research ended just as soon as it had begun and I had little time to explore this true height conspiracy much more, but my interest in academic research was certainly whetted. There was far too much work to be done on this particular seam of research and I encountered lots of primary and secondary sources attesting to the fact that I was not the only one captivated by the phenomenon of Irish giants. I thoroughly enjoyed my research work, particularly with the travel guides of Dublin in the Royal Irish Academy and with the microfiches in the National Library. I believe it was an invaluable experience that I received and it was an absolute pleasure to work alongside and in conjunction with some of the academics in the History Department of Maynooth and also in many of the research venues I briefly worked in.




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