In 1781, there were no televisions, or Internet. No HD or video games. Literature, even, was a premium, a luxury, reserved for the educated few. Consequently, eighteenth century society made its own entertainment. Some viewed this entertainment as cruel, or exploitative, but most were grateful for it, and kept coming back for more.
The Old White Swan, on Goodramgate, is a friendly pub. It has a good range of drinks, a regular quiz, even a couple of fruities knocking round if you fancy a punt. What is missing from the twenty-first century drinking hole, however, is an eight-foot-tall Irish man on display. Yes, you read that right. In 1781, for an extended period, an unnaturally tall man from across the Irish Sea was situated at the pub for the public’s viewing pleasure.
Patrick Cotter O’Brien was the first of only thirteen people in medical history to be recorded as having a height of eight feet or more. In more recent years, it is known that O’Brien suffered from the disease called gigantism. A description in a 1792 copy of The Salem Massachusetts Gazette, dated 15th May, describes O’Brien as “An athletic make, a great example of proportion, and justly allowed to be the greatest wonder of the age.”
The landlord of The Old White Swan charged 1781 onlookers a shilling to see O’Brien, in the building at the back of the pub, which is now the kitchens. The show was very popular, and made both the landlord and O’Brien a tidy sum. O’Brien toured the world on the back of his height, his gigantism, and died a very rich man in 1806, aged forty-six. Bequeathing £2000 to his mother, his only request was that his gargantuan body be buried within twelve square feet of solid rock, to avoid the very high risk that it would be exhumed for medical research.
Nevertheless, in 1972, his remains were retrieved and much study was exacted on O’Brien. It was found that he stood at eight feet one inch, and was at that time the tallest man in the world. One of his arms has been preserved in the Medical Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, London, and his enormous, custom made boots are on display at the Kinsale Museum, County Cork.
Aside from the quiz, (and the odd ghost, apparently), The Old White Swan has little in the way of entertainment. Chart music is piped in through the speakers, and the cackle and hubbub of drinkers and diners accompany the tunes in a familiar pub soundtrack. There are no eight-foot tall men, or even any other kind of alternative backroom show. But next time you’re in the area, spare a thought for The Irish Giant, and the varied and unusual history of York.