Bonaparte at the seams — Frank McNally on Napoleon, Wolfe Tone, and the O’Meara dynasty

A brush with history

The subject of Napoleon is impossible to avoid these days, and not just because of Ridley Scott. For obvious reasons, he was also a big sub-plot of last weekend’s Wolfe Tone conferences in Belfast and Dublin, marking the 225th anniversary of the 1798 leader’s death.

Among the speakers at Dublin Tailors’ Hall was Ronan Sheehan, a barrister and descendant of John Philpot Curran, who recalled a fascinating encounter from his student days many years ago when he had a summer job as maître d’ of a hotel in New Hampshire.

One day, having noticed the nameplate on a table, he introduced himself to a Judge John Francis O’Meara, from Montreal, pronouncing the surname as we do on this island. The judge was deeply impressed. “You must be Irish,” he said, “because only an Irishman knows how to pronounce my name.”

This earned Sheehan an invitation to O’Meara’s mansion on the Chemin de la Cote-des-neiges (“the Shrewsbury Road of Montreal”). Greeted there by a butler, the young man noticed on a table in the hallway a book entitled “Memoirs of Napoleon on St Helena”, by one Barry O’Meara.


Then, by way of confirming descent from the exiled Bonaparte’s Irish surgeon, confidante, and biographer, Judge O’Meara came out to greet his guest wearing a ring, which he pointed to and said: “There’s a lock of Napoleon’s hair in that.”


The O’Mearas are hard to avoid too these days, at least in Dublin. It is because of the same St Helena surgeon, as noted here before, that the city acquired one of its more unusual tourist attractions: Napoleon’s toothbrush, part of a small collection of the emperor’s effects at the Royal College of Physicians on Kildare Street.

But until visiting a current exhibition at the National Gallery, I had never heard of the artist Frank O’Meara (1853-1888). That may be partly because he died young and, while alive, was the near opposite of prolific, painting very slowly, at a rate of about three pictures a year.

Even so, he promised to be big for a time in Impressionist-era France, where he worked for 11 years. And he was important enough once to be a cameo, as subject rather than painter, in the John Lavery show now ongoing at the NGI.

Sure enough, he too turns out to be a descendant of the St Helena surgeon – his grandson. Born in Carlow, he eventually returned to die there too, from malaria.

But in between, he lived in Paris, where John Singer Sargent also painted him and where yet another member of the O’Meara dynasty, Frank’s cousin Kathleen, was a writer and correspondent for the British Catholic magazine, The Tablet.

Not everyone found the famous surname helpful. Since Kathleen’s books also tended to be on Catholic themes, her publishers feared discrimination from British readers. She was instead smuggled into public consciousness – and became enormously popular – under the English-sounding pseudonym Grace Ramsay.


The O’Mearas had a history long before the connection with Napoleon, of course, as another of Ronan Sheehan’s vignettes illustrated.

He was recalling a dramatic moment at dinner in the Montreal mansion that night, where the other guests were Canadian High Court judges and their wives, and the conversation was mostly in French:

“And then at about one in the morning, suddenly there’s silence and [Judge O’Meara] starts to cry. And he starts to recount the history of the Siege of Limerick. And he describes Sarsfield signing the treaty. And he describes the French navy sailing up the Shannon to relieve the siege, and Sarsfield sending them back because he won’t break his word. And now the O’Mearas lose their lands at Tuaim Uí Mheára, on the banks of the Shannon...”

That “now” was telling, considering the event in question happened 124 years before the Battle of Waterloo. Exiled Gaels have long memories. Napoleon and other Johnny-come-latelys, eat your heart out.


Unusually at an academic conference, Sheehan finished his talk by breaking into song: the one about how “they’re hanging men and women for the wearing of the green”. That, as everyone knows, is not a fate Wolfe Tone suffered. But the debate about how he did die rumbles on.

Readers may recall that it was fought out in these pages during the summer when, first, former Late Late Show bandleader Paddy Cullivan advanced his theory (People, June 6th) that Tone was murdered.

Then Trinity College historian Sylvie Kleinman rebuffed Cullivan’s popular history (Letters, June 8th) with the unpopular – but more documented – version, in which Tone cheated the hangman by taking his own life.

Kleinman was also a speaker at last weekend’s conference, this time on Tone’s diary writing – a subject to which I’ll return.

But as if to demonstrate the old saying, “let me make a nation’s ballads and I care not who makes its laws”, Cullivan had the last word (for now). After all the talks, both days of the conference ended with his entertainingly tendentious one-man show: “The Murder of Wolfe Tone”.