Mysteries of the heart

An Irishman’s Diary takes refuge in the Fiddler’s Elbow while Rome burns

‘Had circumstances allowed, which they didn’t, I might have made the short journey from Gino’s pub to a church called St Agata dei Goti. Wherein resides the heart of Daniel O’Connell. Or so it’s supposed.’ Image: Getty Images

‘Had circumstances allowed, which they didn’t, I might have made the short journey from Gino’s pub to a church called St Agata dei Goti. Wherein resides the heart of Daniel O’Connell. Or so it’s supposed.’ Image: Getty Images

Wed, Jun 26, 2013, 01:00

Rome can be hard on the heart, as poor James Gandolfini found. Or maybe his demise was unrelated to the location. Still, last week’s heat-wave, bringing August temperatures in June, couldn’t have helped. Nor, if he had to climb any, could the famous Roman hills. I hope he was at least spared the stresses of city’s public transport, unlike some of us.

In fact, the Metro worked well for most of the Flann O’Brien conference. Then, on Thursday afternoon, there was a hold-up somewhere and we had to transfer by bus to a reading event in the city centre. Unfortunately, buses also became very scarce around this point. So as time passed, and the crowds multiplied, the bus-stop came to resemble a refugee camp.

It was clear that, whenever a vehicle finally arrived, not everyone at the stop would get on. Thus John McCourt, one of the conference organisers (and co-founder of the Trieste Joyce Summer School, which starts this weekend), rallied his troops. Like a Roman general, he explained it was imperative we the conference attenders all boarded, by whatever means possible. Literature depended on it.

Sure enough, thanks to ruthless elbow use and other dirty tactics, we did all make it aboard. But then, incredibly, so did everyone else at the stop. I think the driver was going for a world record in passenger numbers. By the time he pulled away, we had the population of medium-sized town on board. He could only shut the doors when everybody breathed in together.

Mercifully, the temperatures had by now fallen into the high 20s. Even so, the journey was not for the faint-hearted. It would have been long enough as an express service. But of course the bus had to stop every so often to let one person off. Each time, it took seven or eight attempts to get the doors opened and then closed again. It was as if the driver was shaking the passenger loose.

We were all shaken by the time we reached the venue, a bar named the Fiddler’s Elbow. Which, by the way, is a Roman monument in its own right. It purports to be the oldest Irish pub in Rome, and possibly Italy: occupying its present site near the Esquiline Hill since the late 1970s, having moved there from an even more ancient location.

The pub was founded by Gino Bottigliero and his wife Mary, who also own an Italian restaurant in Dublin’s Temple Bar. This sounds like a very diplomatic arrangement. But happily, Gino’s Rome embassy is a proper pub. And after the bus journey from hell, many of us had to apply for asylum.

Had circumstances allowed, which they didn’t, I might have made the short journey from Gino’s pub to a church called St Agata dei Goti. Wherein resides the heart of Daniel O’Connell. Or so it’s supposed. Nobody knows for certain any more, because Rome has been hard on that too.

As we all learned at school, O’Connell was on a pilgrimage to the Eternal City when he died, at Genoa, in 1847. He bequeathed his body to Ireland, heart to Rome, and soul to God. And we know that the first two objectives, at least, were achieved. But the one involving his heart proved surprisingly complicated.

First, hopes to have it installed in St Peter’s were discouraged by a nervous Vatican, under pressure from England. The fear was that it might become a political shrine. So the compromise was St Agata’s, a church undistinguished by Roman standards, except that it was then attached to the Irish College.

Perhaps St Agata’s life-story also recommended it as a venue for bodily relics. A third-century martyr, she is said to have been tortured by having both breasts cut off. This the medieval Christians commemorated, with typical delicacy, in pictures that portray her carrying the breasts on a platter. Anyway, O’Connell’s heart was duly installed there, in a silver casket. A wall tablet was added in 1855. And for decades, the heart was presumed to be behind the tablet, as the inscription implied.

That was until 1920s, when the church’s next-door neighbour, the Bank of Italy, expanded and the Irish College moved. The plaque had to go too, whereupon it was discovered there was no heart behind it. So the plaque moved anyway and now stands, equally heartless, in the modern Irish College.

O’Connell’s relics, meanwhile, are assumed to be in St Agata’s, buried in the crypt. But nobody’s sure. There must be a risk they ended up in the expanded bank vaults. And if so, I suppose, given what we now know about banks, he was lucky he only lost his heart.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

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