Now Boney’s away from his warring and fighting
He has gone to a place where there’s nought can delight him
He may sit there and dwell of the glory’s he has seen
While forlorn he does mourn on the Isle of St. Helena
So ends ‘The Isle of St. Helena’, a song that was truly brought to life by singer Frank Harte, and one of many great songs popular in this country which include reference to Napoleon Bonaparte. His presence in the Irish oral tradition of songs isn’t all that surprising – Napoleon had once been a figure who loomed large over Irish political affairs, building important links here with the United Irish movement, meeting Theobald Wolfe Tone in Paris and even developing an Irish Legion within his French Forces in the years that followed the defeat of the United Irishmen. Frank Harte would record an entire CD of songs relating to Napoleon Bonaparte, in a great collaboration with Donal Lunny. ‘You Sons of Old Ireland’ is a particular favourite of mine:
This year of course witnessed the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo, when the Duke of Wellington (born here among us) overcame Napoleon Bonaparte on the 18th of June 1815. Napoleon’s defeat marked the end of his political and military career, but not his time on earth. Napoleon lived out his days in exile on St. Helena, an island in the Atlantic Ocean,located over 1,160 miles from the west coast of Africa.
On the island, Napoleon was cared for by Doctor Barry Edward O’Meara, a Dubliner who some claim had been educated at Trinity College Dublin and the Royal College of Surgeons. O’Meara could speak both Italian and France, enabling him to talk freely with the fallen leader. He had served as a surgeon with the British Army in Egypt and Sicily, before landing himself in hot water for partaking in a spot of pistol dueling. As David Murphy has written:
In 1807 he acted as second in a duel at Messina in Sicily, and his commanding officer, who was determined to suppress the practice of duelling, had him court-martialled. He was dismissed the service in 1808 but entered the RN as an assistant surgeon, initially serving on HMS Victorious in 1810.
O’Meara would later publish a memoir of his time in the company of Napoleon Bonaparte, entitled Napoleon in Exile : or, A Voice from St. Helena. It was a huge commercial success when published in 1822, and provided some great insights into the closing chapter of Napoleon’s life. In a 1952 edition of The Bulletin of History of Medicine, it is claimed that “when the book was first published, police had to keep back the crowds around the publisher’s office”, such was the demand for copies.
In one episode, he recalled an unlikely conversation they had:
“What do you think,” said he, “of all things in the world would give me the greatest pleasure?” I was on the point of replying, removal from St. Helena, when he said, “To be able to go about incognito in London and other parts of England, to the restaurateurs, with a friend, to dine in public at the expense of half a guinea or a guinea, and listen to the conversation of the company; to go through them all, changing almost daily, and in this manner, with my own ears, to hear the people express their sentiments, in their unguarded moments, freely and without restraint; to hear their real opinion of myself, and of the surprising occurrences of the last twenty years.” I observed, that he would hear much evil and much good of himself. “Oh, as to the evil,” replied he, “I care not about that. I am well used to it.
Having little in his final years, Napoleon bestowed unlikely gifts upon close-confidants before his death in 1821 . In O’Meara’s case, a toothbrush and some other mementos. The toothbrush has the letter ‘N’ stamped upon its silver gilt handle, indicating that even at the end there was some pomp and ceremony at least for Napoleon. In time, the toothbrush would find a home in the Royal College of Physicians on Kildare Street, with their excellent blog noting that:
O’Meara’s collection of Napoleon relics passed through the hands of several Irish surgeons, finally falling into the possession of Sir Frederic Conway Dwyer. Dwyer was a leading Surgeon in the early years of the twentieth century, and was both Professor of Surgery at the Royal College of Surgeons and President of that College from 1914-1915 (…) Sir Frederick Conway Dwyer died in October 1935. In his Will he left his considerable fortune to the daughter of a family friend, Mrs Tyrell, which caused some consternation at the time. In 1936 Mrs Tyrell presented Conway Dwyer’s collection of Napoleonic items to the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland.
Today, it is surely one of the most unusual items on display in this city, and a reminder that even Napoloeon Bonaparte was only human and had to brush his teeth twice a day!