‘Kiss me, Magrath!’ – The words that might have been

An Irishman’s Diary: How a Tyrone-born ship’s surgeon missed Trafalgar

The medals of Sir George Magrath (1775-1857), awarded for his work as ‘Inspector of hospitals and fleets for the royal navy’, have a pre-sale estimate of £9,000-£12,000.

The medals of Sir George Magrath (1775-1857), awarded for his work as ‘Inspector of hospitals and fleets for the royal navy’, have a pre-sale estimate of £9,000-£12,000.

Mon, Mar 25, 2013, 06:00

‘Kiss me, Magrath!” could have been Nelson’s famous last words but “fate”, in the unlikely form of Yellow Fever and a certain Capt Hardy from Dorset, intervened and Irish manhood’s blushes were forever spared.

George Magrath, a Co Tyrone-born ship’s surgeon, was meant to be on board HMS Victory on what turned out to be the most important day in British naval history. On October 25th, 1805 the royal navy, under the command of Admiral Lord Nelson, defeated a Franco-Spanish fleet at Trafalgar, off the south-west coast of Spain. Before the battle commenced, Nelson sent a message to his sailors, many of whom were Irish: “England expects that every man will do his duty”. And they did. The result sealed Nelson’s reputation as Britain’s greatest naval hero, led to widespread rejoicing at home and ensured that Britannia ruled the waves for another 100 years.

But the day was bittersweet because, despite the decisive victory, Nelson himself was wounded during the battle. A bullet had shattered his spine and he died, after reputedly asking his second-in-command to “Kiss me, Hardy!”,that very afternoon. His body was pickled in a barrel of brandy and shipped home to London where he was accorded a state funeral in St Paul’s Cathedral.

Magrath regretted not being present as history was made and later wrote about the “mortification of not sharing in the glory of the Battle of Trafalgar, which would have infallibly led to promotion”.

His naval career had begun aboard HMS Theseus in the 1790s. During a spell in the West Indies, he contracted Yellow Fever which led to the loss of vision in his left eye. Ironically, Nelson himself also lost the sight in one eye during his own turbulent seafaring career.

The slight disability didn’t, however, prevent Magrath being promoted to surgeon and he was eventually appointed flag medical officer for HMS Victory – which he joined on July 31st, 1803 – to serve with Lord Nelson.

Nelson greatly admired the Tyrone surgeon, describing him as “by far the most able medical man I have ever seen”, and instructed him always to have a warm saw ready for quickie amputations during naval battles. Nelson had not forgotten the horror of having his own right arm amputated – after being wounded some years earlier during a battle off Tenerife. In his memoirs, Magrath recalled, “His Lordship’s abhorrence of the cold instrument”, and wrote: “I had general instructions, in consequence, whenever there was a prospect of coming to action, to have a hanging stove kept in the gally [sic], for the purpose of heating water, in which to immerse the knife, in the event of his being the subject of operation”.

But Magrath’s stint on board HMS Victory was short-lived. Shortly after his appointment, there was a devastating outbreak of Yellow Fever in Gibraltar which killed thousands. Nelson appointed Magrath to run the Naval Hospital – to try to limit the spread of the deadly disease – and sailed away to his date with destiny at Trafalgar.

And so, the Tyrone man, despite a subsequent knighthood, was consigned to a footnote in history. On March 27th, in London, the medals he was awarded during his distinguished, but ultimately frustrated, career will be sold by auction at Bonhams saleroom in Knightsbridge.

The medals of Sir George Magrath (1775-1857), awarded for his work as “Inspector of hospitals and fleets for the royal navy”, have a pre-sale estimate of £9,000-£12,000. They include: The Most Honourable Order of the Bath, CB, Military Division breast badge in gold and enamel; The Royal Guelphic Order, KH, Knight’s breast badge in gold and enamel; Naval General Service 1793-1840, two bars, Camperdown, Copenhagen 1801; and, Portugal, Order of Christ, Knight Commander’s neck badge in gold and enamel.

In a poignant twist of fate, Magrath had been replaced as surgeon on HMS Victory by a fellow-Ulsterman, the Derry-born William Beatty. Although he was also highly-regarded, and saved many lives on the day by performing several amputations, Beatty could not save Nelson.

Magrath and Beatty were not the only Irishmen associated with the death and memory of Horatio Nelson. The great Cork-born Victorian painter Daniel Maclise was commissioned to paint a mural of the “death-scene” on a wall in the Palace of Westminster; and, the Tramore, Co Waterford-born sculptor, John Carew made “Death of Nelson”, one of the four bronze panels which decorate the base of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square.

While Magrath may be largely forgotten, poor Capt “Kiss me, Hardy!” is cruelly doomed to posterity as the butt of British humour.