On This Day – 14.9.1852 – Death of Arthur Wellesley, alias the Duke of Wellington.



duke of wellington.jpg

He was a true-blue Dub, born Arthur Wesley in 1769. He probably never said that the ‘Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton’. This is because he hated his former school with a passion and, when he was a pupil there, in the 1780s, Eton didn’t have any playing fields. But he did give his name to that piece of apparel we refer to affectionately as ‘wellies’. He would probably not have approved. And there is still controversy, if you can be said to stir up a good row concerning a hunk of meat, over whether or not the dish ‘Beef Wellington’ is called after him.


Today we know him as Arthur Wellesley, much grander than plain old Wesley, and the Duke of Wellington, much grander still. He was born on Merrion Street in Dublin, though the family home was in Dangan Castle, near Trim, in Co. Meath. Something else he never said—we’ll get around to what he did say a bit later—was that alleged disparaging statement about his Irishness—‘just because you are born in a stable doesn’t make you a horse’. This was actually an invention of that great Irish patriot and rogue, Daniel O’Connell. Though the Daily Telegraph was still ascribing it to the Iron Duke as recently as 2015. Well, they would, wouldn’t they.


He was educated at Whyte’s Academy in Dublin before transferring to the misery of Eton. This means that he went to the same school as Robert Emmet, though the two would not have been contemporaries. Neither, had they gone to school together, would they have seen eye to eye.

He was, according to his mother, an idle youth and she constantly worried about what he was going to do with his life. Eventually he went into the army and became an aide de campto two Lords Lieutenant in Dublin. His duties seem to have mostly involved some serious partying, which suited young Arthur perfectly. Think Dudley Moore’s Arthurin the film of the same name. His dissolute life included incurring a fine for ‘beating a Frenchman in a Dublin bawdy house’. You’d have to think that was an earnest of things to come.

Not only was he a Dubliner himself, he also married one, though Catherine Pakenham came from a family more associated with the Irish midlands, she was daughter of the Second Baron of Longford, Edward Pakenham. Longford didn’t much like young Wellesley at first and sent him off with a flea in his ear. Only when Arthur began to take his military career seriously was he allowed to swoop and carry off Catherine.


Some clichés about the Duke do appear to be true. He favoured dark clothing on the battlefield so as to make himself a more difficult target. He retired undefeated at the age of forty-six, never having lost a battle, although this can be ascribed to his tendency to withdraw his forces if things looked bleak. He always wore his hair short and did not favour wigs, contrary to the fashions of the early 19thcentury. His emphasis on the study of military strategy and his insistence on a more scientific approach to  war, emanated from his contempt for British army tactics in one of his earliest campaigns, in Flanders in 1794.

Were it not for his signature success against a resurgent Napoleon Bonaparte at the Battle of Waterloo, made even more famous in 1974 when Abba won the Eurovision song contest with the song of that name, he would barely be remembered today as an obscure Tory Prime Minister, overshadowed by his contemporary Robert Peel. In fact had he not been the victor of Waterloo it is unlikely that he would ever have risen to the status of Prime Minister.

He did Irish Catholics a great favour in that he was Prime Minister in 1829 when Catholic Emancipation was introduced in the House of Commons. That favour might have been seen in a more positive light had it not been offered so grudgingly. The Duke was utterly opposed to the idea of Roman Catholics in Parliament but was strong armed into it by the successful campaign of Daniel O’Connell, the same one who lied about horses and stables.

By the way, work began on the famous Wellington monument in Phoenix Park in Dublin as early as 1817, two years after he saw off Napoleon, with lots of Prussian help, and an army that was at least one third Irish. The project, however, ran out of funds very quickly and the obelisk wasn’t actually completed until 1861.  There are more than ninety public houses named after him in different parts of England, which would make for an interesting pub crawl. There appear to be only two pubs named after him, however, in the country of his birth, both in Dublin.

Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, conqueror of Napoleon at Waterloo, twice British Prime Minister, and the inspiration behind wellie throwing competitions the world over, died one hundred and sixty six years ago, on this day.



On This Day – 3 June 1836 – death of Barry Edward O’Meara, surgeon to Napoleon.



One of the most familiar quotes with which he is credited was ‘l’etat c’est moi’ – or ‘I am the state’. But by 1816 the state over which he ruled had shrunk to a corner of the small volcanic island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic. This was all that Napoleon Bonaparte could call his own after his escape from Elba, the raising of a new French Army and his final defeat at the hands of Wellington and Blucher at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

Sharing Napoleon’s exile in St. Helena was an Irishman, Barry Edward O’Meara, a British Navy surgeon. O’Meara was born in Newtownpark House in Blackrock, Co. Dublin in 1786. He studied medicine at Trinity and the Royal College of Surgeons and joined the army as a medic in 1804. He distinguished himself in fighting in Sicily before being court-martialled for his part in a duel in 1807. He had acted as a second to one of the participants and was kicked out of the army. What’s a young man to do? Well obviously … join the Navy. This he did almost immediately. He was still a naval surgeon in 1815 when he found himself in the right place at the right time.

Napoleon Bonaparte had been defeated at the Battle of Waterloo and was trying to escape to America where he would probably have made a fortune on the lecture circuit. Finding his way barred by a naval vessel called the HMS Bellerophon he surrendered to the commander of that ship. The vessel’s surgeon was Dr. Barry Edward O’Meara. The unemployed Emperor was impressed by the young Irishman’s linguistic and medical skills and invited him to act as his physician in the exciting new opportunity he was being offered by the British government on St. Helena. O’Meara accepted and over the next three years the two men became good friends.

O’Meara did not enter the arrangement wide-eyed and innocent. During his time with Napoleon he kept a diary with a view to future publication. The two men fared well enough on their new volcanic home under the first two post-war governors of the island. But then in April 1816 a fellow countryman of O’Meara’s. Sir Hudson Lowe from Galway, took over the position and proved himself to be a Francophobe martinet. He introduced a more spartan regime than that of his predecessors that only became even more restrictive when rumours reached the island of a plot to spring Napoleon yet again. O’Meara’s relationship with Lowe deteriorated rapidly and when he was asked to spy on Bonaparte by the Governor he returned to England.

There in 1822 he wrote Napoleon in Exile, or A Voice From St. Helena in which the hero is the late emperor (Napoleon had died the previous year possibly of stomach cancer, possibly of arsenic poisoning) and the villain is Hudson Lowe. The volume led to his name being removed from the list of naval surgeons but also attracted much support, including that of Lord Byron.

O’Meara is believed to be the only doctor to have performed a surgical procedure on Napoleon. He extracted one of the Emperor’s wisdom teeth in 1817. When he died in 1836 the tooth was auctioned and fetched seven and a half guineas. It was sold again in 2005. This time it cost the buyer £13,000.

After his St. Helena experience O’Meara became a dental surgeon, married a sixty-six year old heiress at the age of thirty-seven and was one of the founders of the Reform Club in London. He died of complications following a chill contracted while attending a fund-raising meeting organized on behalf of fellow Reform Club member Daniel O’Connell. Some accounts have him catching his death of cold at one of O’Connell’s Monster meetings – a much less mundane demise I’m sure you’ll agree.

Dr. Barry Edward O’Meara, briefly and controversially physician to Napoleon Bonaparte died one hundred and eighty years ago, on this day.