Irish Giants


Irish giant lore abounds in Northern Ireland and is tied to the land of the North. The most well-known mythological Irish giant is Fenian warrior Fionn MacCumhaill.  Legend has it that in a fit of rage as he prepared for battle, Fionn tore a clump of earth from the ground and hurled it into the Irish Sea, creating the Isle of Mann with Lough Neagh, Ireland’s largest freshwater lake, forming in the void left behind. He is also credited with creating the UNESCO World Heritage Site  Giant’s Causeway on the Antrim Coast. The story is that when the Scottish giant Benandonner challenged Fionn to a fight,  Fionn created the columnar pathway to connect Ireland and Scotland and gain access to his enemy. Some stories say that Fionn defeated Benandonner easily and then ripped up the stones that stretched to Scotland to keep Benandonner from returning. Other stories tell a more complicated tale of trickery with Fionn’s wife Oonagh playing a prominent role in deceiving the Scottish giant who fled in terror at the very thought of fighting Fionn.


Mythology, landmarks, and folklore related to giants permeate the land with Ireland’s very topography reflecting the history of giants who have lived there for centuries. The Beaghmore Stone Circles stand near Cookstown, south of the Antrim Coast.  A complex array of stone circles and cairns align on a northeast to southwest axis in the southeast region of the Sperrin Mountains. Beaghmore dates to the early Bronze Age and appears to align astronomically with the phases of the moon and the summer solstice. Legend has it that when night falls on the summer solstice, the large stones transform into giants who dance throughout the darkness until first light comes when the giants solidify back into stones to wait until the next solstice’s sunset when they can rise again in celebration.


The Beaghmore Stones are not the only landmarks with giant history. The Northern Ireland Place-Name Project, Queen’s University Belfast, references fifty-eight giant-related sites. Some place names seem solely descriptive, such as the Giant’s Ring, but what is most notable is how 41 of them are purported to be a giant’s grave with 22 of the 41 graves clustered in a tight geographic area near Cookstown in the counties of Tyrone and Derry.


From the 1700s, three Irish giants are documented through physical artifacts. Cornelius McGrath (7 ft. 5 in.) was born in Tipperary in 1736 and died in Dublin in 1760 where his skeleton now hangs in a museum at Trinity College. Patrick Cotter (8 ft. 1 in.), born in County Cork in 1760,  died and was buried in Bristol in 1806. His remains were exhumed and studied extensively in 1972 only to be reburied and later cremated. Charles Byrne who was born in 1761 and died in 1783 was a contemporary of Cotter. More information about Byrne is on this website under the “Charles Byrne” tab.


In the 1800s, Patrick Murphy (1834-1862) lived in the Mourne Mountains in County Down until leaving for Liverpool where he attracted interest for his great height. He decided to make a career of exhibiting himself and in 1857 visited the Emperor and Empress of Austria.  Dr. Virchow measured him as being 7 feet, 4 inches. He died of smallpox while touring in France.