This article is drawn from a drawt written by Fearghus Ó Fearghail
DANIEL O’CONNEL ROMAN BEQUEST
In the “cortile" of the Irish College in Rome stands a monument to Daniel O’Connell which commemorates not only the Liberator’s great triumph in gaining Catholic Emancipation for Ireland and Great Britain in 1829, but also the bequest of his heart to Rome. The inscription incised on the monument states that it contains the heart of O’Connell, but the truth of the matter is that the monument in the Irish College does not contain it. The “story of the heart” begins in Genoa in May 1847. Ever since his short imprisonment in Dublin, 30 May to 7 September 1844, the health of the 69-year-old O’Connell had been in decline.
O’Connell left Ireland on 26 January 1847 for London; on 8 February he made a last desperate appeal in barely audible tones to the British parliament for action in Ireland. Confined by ill-health to his residence in London, O’Connell expressed a wish to be “within the reach of Doctor Miley”, by 1844 O'Connell's unofficial chaplain.
On his arrival in London Miley found O'Connell greatly enfeebled from the effects of acute bodily suffering. On 26 February Miley wrote to Cullen, Rector of the Irish College in Rome, informing him of his plan to bring the patient to Rome.
It was probably in Hastings that Miley proposed the pilgrimage to Rome, perhaps in light of O'Connell's improving health. At any rate it was there, according to Miley, that O'Connell solemnly committed himself to the journey.
After some days the party pressed on to Folkestone and, on Monday 22 March, O'Connell, his son Daniel, his servant Duggan and Miley set sail for Boulogne. They reached Paris four days later.
But O'Connell's condition was disimproving, and French doctors diagnosed slow congestion of the brain. Nevertheless they advised him to continue his journey. The party travelled to Lyons by easy stages over twelve days and in bad weather. In Lyons it was snowing hard and O'Connell's enfeebled state gave rise to fears for his life. From Lyons the party travelled by the Rhone to Avignon where they stayed for eleven days and then to Arles where they remained five days The party continued on by steamer for Marseilles but by this stage Miley was exceedingly apprehensive about his charge.
The party arrived in Genoa on Thursday afternoon, 6 May, on board the Lombardo - a ship that was later to enjoy certain notoriety in Garibaldi’s campaign – and stayed in the Hotel Feder in Piazza Bianchi.
Initially O'Connell showed signs of improvement, and Miley was anxious to press on immediately to Rome. But O’Connell’s health quickly declined and on Sunday, 9 May, he complained of violent headaches.
He died at 9.37 p.m. on Saturday, 15
May Miley dispatched the sad news to Rome: ‘O'Connell is dead! He expired last night at half past nine. ‘Nothing could be more edifying or consoling than the manner in which he died’.
Miley spoke of the solemn commitment O'Connell had made to his pilgrimage to Rome and added: ‘the desire of fulfilling this occupied him continually ... Now since it has not been permitted him to reach Rome in life it is his desire that his heart should be deposited there in testimony of his vow’.
Acting on these we have decided to have the heart embalmed, placed in a silver urn and transported to Rome
In Genoa solemn obsequies were celebrated in the church of S. Maria delle Vigne lasting from Monday to Wednesday (17-19 May), concluding with a ‘grand requiem mass in musica’. The newspapers reported that all the consuls of the city were present except the English one. The heart was removed and embalmed, and the body, having also been embalmed, was placed in a leaden coffin which was enclosed in one of hardwood. An urn of some kind was acquired in Genoa to transport the heart to Rome. It was reported in a letter from Genoa of 20 May to the Censeur de Lyons that the words ‘Daniel O'Connell, Natus Kerry, Obiit Genuae, Die 15 Maii, 1847. Aetatis suae ann LXXII’ were inscribed on it, but on 19 May Miley wrote to Cullen: “we attempted to get here an urn of glass encased in silver in which to carry it with us; but the design was so miserable, the time is so short, the Subject one requiring so much thought and admitting of so much emblematical ... the emblems of Ireland, of the Holy See, of O'Connell's own family arms so I thought it would be a pity not to reserve for Rome the execution of this work … Will you then be turning the matter over in your mind both with a view to getting the best design for the urn and the fittest inscriptions, mottos…”.
As he prepared to leave Genoa on the ‘Pilgrimage of the Heart’, as he termed it, Miley was still hopeful that O'Connell's legacy would be received in St. Peter's. In Rome, however, the guardians of the ‘tombs of the Apostles’ were not so keen on the legacy, nor was, the English representative in Rome.
Nevertheless, St. Peter's was not to be the resting place of O’Connell’s heart, but rather St. Agatha's, the church of the Irish College. Funeral obsequies were held a week later with the inurned heart lying on a catafalque in the centre of the nave.
There were further official Roman obsequies in the Theatine church of S. Andrea della Valle.
On 12 June the Pope Pius IX received in audience O'Connell's son Daniel, accompanied by Miley and Cullen
The ceremonies were to be held over two days, Monday 28 and Wednesday 30 June – interrupted by the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul which was an especially solemn festival in Rome
Pius IX chose Ventura to preach at the obsequies. Ventura was the foremost preacher in Italy at the time and when the Pope asked him to preach on O'Connell Ventura is said to have hesitated, saying to Pius IX that his sermon might not please him or might cause him difficulties. Asked to explain this he said that he saw in O'Connell an ardent patron of the alliance between religion and liberty and could only preach in this way. Pius is said to have replied: ‘Questo è anche il mio punto di vista - vi prego quindi di comporre l'orazione funebre’ and have it ready for 28 June.
This speech was later seen as a important text for interpreting the liberal spirit of Pius IX in 1847.
Immediately after the obsequies in S. Andrea della Valle Miley, Daniel and Duggan left for Genoa to bring the Liberator's body to Ireland.
O'Connell's remains were laid to rest in Glasnevin Cemetery.
The next chapter of the history of O'Connell's legacy to Rome opens with the arrival in the Rome in November 1851 of Charles Bianconi, a friend and supporter of O'Connell. A native of Tregolo, in Lombardy, Bianconi was well-known in Ireland where his coaches plied the length and breadth of the country.
He lamented the fact that ‘the Heart of our immortal country man ... was there as if it had not been there’. He expressed his anxiety to have an inscribed marble slab placed in the chapel wall and he took upon himself the cost of the monument.
While in Ireland Bianconi consulted John Hogan on the choice of an artist. Hogan was well qualified to advise Bianconi as he himself had spent twenty-four years working as a sculptor in Rome (1824-48). He suggested that the work be entrusted to his friend Giovanni Maria Benzoni (1809-73). They had lived and worked near one another in the area of via del Babuino and probably often met in the Cafè Greco, a well-known haunt for artists, and Hogan’s son later studied under Benzoni in Rome. On his return to Rome in 1853 Bianconi entrusted the work to him.
The theme chosen for the relief on the marble monument was not surprisingly O'Connell's refusal to take the anti-catholic oath at the bar of the House of Commons on 19 May 1829.
The Tablet reported on 23 June 1855 that a letter from Rome in the Messagero of Modena states that the monument had just been completed and was to be erected in St. Agatha’s.
The inurned heart was to be removed from the vaults of the church and deposited in the wall behind the sculptured urn of the relief. For this purpose an arched niche was made in the wall (1½' high, about 1' broad, with two depths, the lower half, a palm-breadth, the upper half almost two).
The monument was erected in the place now occupied by the monument to Cardinal Dante.
The third part of the story concerns the removal of Benzoni's monument from St. Agatha's when the Irish College moved for the fifth time in its history, this time to its present location on the Coelian hill.
The monument was detached from the wall of the church of St. Agatha on 17 September 1927 and moved to the new College. When this marmista did this, however, there was nothing behind the monument.
Everybody was shocked at the discovery, but the rector John Hagan seemed to be aware of this. This opinion is based on the fact that Hagan had struck out the word ‘heart’ from the phrase ‘monument and heart’ in the act of consignment of the church. It is presumed that he had discovered something when the heating was being installed under the church in 1910.
The possible solution is the following: when the monument was being erected, it was found that there was not room behind the monument for the urn and that it was placed under a slab in the floor of the church directly beneath the monument.
This might help to explain why no publicity was given to the erecting of the monument in St. Agatha’s church at the time. It is eminently possible that the authorities were simply embarrassed at the miscalculation and kept it quiet.
But if a new resting place had been made for it in the Church, this would hardly have gone unnoticed. It seems to me more likely that it was buried in the vault more or less underneath the monument. An urn might have turned up when the heating was being installed under the church in 1910 and this might account for Hagan's attitude.
There are two pieces of evidence that point towards the vault in St. Agatha’s as the present resting place of the heart of O’Connell.
An entry in the Irish Catholic Directory of 1859 announcing the death of a student Terence McSweeney notes that ‘his remains were deposited in a vault of the church of St. Agatha beside the heart of O'Connell’. Twenty years later in 1875 in the course of a letter to the O'Connell Centenary Committee in Dublin Tobias Kirby who would have known what had transpired in 1856 and probably was the author of the notice in the Irish Catholic Directory of 1859 wrote: ‘You will see that we have the privilege of preserving the great heart of the father of his country beneath our Church of St. Agatha’. The use of the word ‘beside’ rather than ‘beneath’ in the notice of Terence McSweeney’s death and Kirby’s reference to the heart of the father of the country preserved ‘beneath’ the church seems clear evidence that O’Connell’s heart was buried in the crypt of S. Agata dei Goti where Bianconi had first seen it.
In the centenary year of O'Connell's birth in 1875 an inscription was placed on the house where he died in Genoa and a medallion added in 1897. Benzoni's monument pays tribute to him in the cortile of the Irish College. In St. Agatha's alone which received O'Connell's legacy when St. Peter's would not - and where its remains still lie there is now no reminder of the momentous events of May and June 1847. Is it time to rectify this lacuna?