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Daniel O'Connell: Losing Heart

In a narrow, sunlit street in the centre of Rome you will find the church of St Agata dei Goti, which is a curious, almost nondescript place that goes back to the 6th Century, and one that has had many incarnations in the intervening years. It is not a place you might expect to go looking for the missing heart of one of the greatest Irishmen of all time, Daniel O'Connell, the Liberator, and inside its sparse interior you will not find it.

That, in itself, is where the mystery lies. For it was in this largely forgotten church in Via Mazzarino, behind the formidable facade of the Bank of Italy, that O'Connell's embalmed heart was last seen more than a century ago. Was the heart of the Liberator stolen for the ornate silver casket in which it reposed, or does it still lie in some forgotten corner of the vaults of the Bank of Italy, which, a century ago, extended into the crypt of St Agata dei Goti?

The church itself is something of a curiosity in that, unlike most of the city's teeming chapels, cathedrals and basilicas, it is neither ornate nor a symbol of the power and circumstance of the Holy Catholic and Roman church.

Saint Agata herself was a martyr who had both her breasts cut off because she declined to renounce her religion -- a macabre event commemorated on the front of the church in a relief, dated 1729, which depicts one of the severed breasts on a plate. So, in a way, the church dedicated to Agata was a fitting last resting place for another displaced organ: the heart of Daniel O'Connell.

As most schoolboys of a certain generation remember, O'Connell, 69, died in Genoa, Italy at 9.37pm on Saturday, May 15, 1847, while making a pilgrimage to the Eternal City of Rome.

The historian Fearghus O Fearghail tells us that O'Connell, who was in bad health, fell ill on the journey to Marseille, but made it as far as Genoa and booked into the Hotel Feder. There he died of "softening of the brain", but not before imparting to his doctor, Fr Miley, these parting words: "My body to Ireland, my heart to Rome, and my soul to heaven."

Whatever about his soul, we do know that his body was eventually brought back to Ireland and now rests in the magnificently restored mausoleum in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin, surrounded by the last remains of family, friends and supporters, and topped off by the round tower which dominates the skyline of the cemetery. But what happened to O'Connell's heart?

When I met Maurice O'Connell, a great-great-great-grandson of the man who achieved Catholic Emancipation, at the reopening of the restored O'Connell vault in Glasnevin Cemetery last year, he had no idea. In fact, the middle-aged English doctor, who is very proud of his historic lineage, was quite surprised to be told that the heart of his famous ancestor was missing, and had not been seen since the Twenties.

Nobody, in Ireland or Rome, has questioned why this bizarre and somewhat gruesome historical artefact appears to have been so carelessly lost.

But back to 1847, and the deathbed of the Liberator. Surgeon Miley, having removed the heart, headed on for Rome with the embalmed organ contained in a rather pedestrian container, although he had grand designs for a more fitting casket.

"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 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 the work," Miley wrote to Fr Paul Cullen, at that time rector of the Irish College in Rome.

Leaving the body of O'Connell in the mortuary in Genoa, Miley had hoped to have the heart as the centrepiece of a funeral Mass in Rome in St Peter's Cathedral, the centrepiece of Catholic power. But the Pope, although an admirer of O'Connell, was not keen. With famine still rife in Ireland, he did not want the event used to provoke any sort of nationalist feeling against the British government, whose powerful diplomats were telling their Vatican counterparts that it would be a big mistake.

That is where St Agata dei Goti came in -- it was the church of the Irish College in Rome, and it was there that a funeral Mass was held, with, as O Fearghail tells us, "the inurned heart lying on a catafalque in the centre of the nave".

A few days later, to indicate the importance of O'Connell, Pope Pius IX received O'Connell's son, Daniel, accompanied by Miley and Cullen, for an audience. He also organised for a famous liberal Catholic preacher to speak during two days of ceremonies in honour of O'Connell in the church of St Andrea della Valle, which is the cathedral church of Rome and one of the most imposing buildings in the city.

Unusually for a church outside the Vatican itself, the bodies of Pope Pius II and Pope Pius III are on display in a corner of the ornate building. It is also also the setting for the first act of Puccini's famous opera, Tosca.

A special Mass, composed by a now forgotten Italian called Terziani, was sung by a choir of 300 voices for the first day of the ceremony on June 28, 1847. Because the following day, the feast of St Peter and Paul, was such a major occasion in Rome, it was skipped, and the commemoration then resumed on May 30. The famous Theatine philosopher and orator Fr Gioacchino Ventura dei Baroni di Paulica spoke for more than an hour, portraying O'Connell as the ardent patron of the alliance between religion and liberty -- something that might not have been all that popular with the papal hierarchy at the time.

The following inscription is to be found in Latin on the plaque commemorating the occasion in a corner of the cathedral: "For Daniel O'Connell, immortal through great deeds, the safeguard and protector of the Kingdom of Ireland; for his distinguished services to the Christian common wealth, the last due offices of the dead have been performed by the nobles and people of Rome. Whether you be a guest or citizen, supplicate heaven with a pure mind for peace and repose for his matchless spirit."

After the ceremonies, O'Connell's son, Miley and Cullen went back to Genoa to collect the body and begin the funeral procession to Dublin, which ended with almost half a million people lining Sackville Street and the route to O'Connell's final resting place outside the city.

Meanwhile, back in Rome, the story returns to St Agata dei Goti, the little church behind the Bank of Italy.

Fearghus O Fearghail recounts how in November, 1851 Charles Bianconi, the Italian who had introduced coach transport and inns to Ireland and was an ardent supporter of O'Connell, became interested in the heart while he was visiting Rome. Bianconi had done rather well in business, and was living in Longfield House near Boherlahan, Co Tipperary.

Seeking out the urn, he found it more or less abandoned in the vault of St Agata dei Goti. "The heart of our immortal countryman was there . . . as if it wasn't there," he reported back.

Determined to have the matter rectified, he consulted the church sculptor, John Hogan, on what should be done. Hogan recommended a sculptor friend of his in Rome, Giovanni Benzoni, who was commissioned to make a tablet, which was completed in 1855. It is reported that the heart, now contained in a silver casket, was taken from the vault and placed in the wall of the church. The tablet, which depicted O'Connell refusing to take the anti-Catholic oath required to become a member of the House of Commons, was then cemented into place.

There is possibly some record of this event in Bianconi's private papers, which were secretly acquired by the aviation millionaire, Dr Tony Ryan, in the Eighties. Ryan, a train driver's son, was also from Boherlahan, and when he heard that they were being disposed of by a Tipperary solicitor, he bought them to add to his collection of rare documents and books. But so far nobody has explored the papers.

Curiously, there is no record of any ceremony taking place in St Agata dei Goti to mark this event and some observers believe that the urn was not placed behind the tablet, but left in the crypt.

In 1910, central heating was installed in the church, and it is possible that workmen tampered with or even stole the casket containing O'Connell's heart.

Another clue is contained in A Brief History of St Agata, which is available to visitors. "In order to extend the buildings of the Bank of Italy, the monastery was torn down, and the Irish College transferred" from St Agata dei Goti. This refers to the Benedictine cloisters that were attached to the church

The Bank of Italy, housed in a massive building which fronts on to the nearby Via Nazionale, one of Rome's main thoroughfares, bought part of the churchyard and, in 1925, extended into the grounds of St Agata dei Goti, and possibly into the vaults of the church. O'Connell's heart, if it was still in the vault, may have been moved or lost. Or, indeed, it may be hidden somewhere in the bank building to this day.

Certainly the Irish community in Rome were shocked on September 17, 1927 when, in the process of moving out of St Agata dei Goti to new premises, Benzoni's commemorative tablet was prized off the wall and there was nothing behind it. The casket and the heart of one of Ireland's most famous sons had vanished. The tablet itself was taken to the site of the new Irish college, but no questions seem to have been asked to find out what happened to such an important part of Ireland's history. Daniel O'Connell's missing heart became a church secret.

To enter the nondescript main door of St Agata dei Goti today, you descend a few steps and, unusually for Rome in the summertime, the atmosphere is almost dank in the little courtyard in front of the entrance. The sun does not seem to penetrate the tiled area, and damp colonises some of the ragged array of stones and friezes which lie scattered along the outer walls.

The first thing you find just inside the door, embedded in the floor, is a plaque commemorating Terence McSweeney, a young seminarian at the Irish College who died in Rome in 1859. His father, Peter Paul McSweeney, a wealthy Dublin alderman, commemorated Terence's short life with this monument.

According to an entry in the Catholic Directory of the time, his remains were to be interred in the vault "beside the heart of O'Connell".

But how could the heart be in the vault if it had been placed behind the tablet in the wall of the main part of the church? Possibly the entry in the Catholic directory was a misunderstanding, but it adds to the mystery of O'Connell's heart.

Shaking his head and indicating that he did not understand English, a priest at St Agata dei Goti declined to open the crypt. The door to the vault appears to be nailed shut with a covering of plywood over the original door. A passing churchgoer said that it was too "dangerous" to open and allow people to go down and poke around, even if they had come from Dublin in search of a patriot's missing heart.

Later, a tour guide explaining the history of the church to a group of earnest Italian scholars at inordinate length was asked about the heart. Although she knew almost everything about the church, she seemed totally unaware of the O'Connell connection and was not aware that his heart should be somewhere in the building.

Obviously the whole saga made a big impression on Fr Paul Cullen, who remained rector of the Irish College until 1850. It was he, as Cardinal Cullen, who presided over the reinterring of O'Connell's body at its present site under the round tower in Glasnevin on May 14, 1869, 22 years after the original funeral. By that time, O'Connell had given his name to Dublin's main street, and 50,000 people turned up for the official opening of the O'Connell mausoleum in Glasnevin that day.

Neither did Cullen forget St Agata dei Goti. When he decided to build Holy Cross College in Clonliffe Road, he modelled the church on the plans of St Agata's church in Rome.

The whereabouts of Daniel O'Connell's heart remain a mystery, and maybe nobody really cares anymore -- after all, O'Connell, once one of the greatest figures in world politics, had to give way to a boyband singer when the public were asked to select the greatest Irishman of all time.

How sad is that?


Sunday Independent