An account of the gung-ho surgeon from Blackrock, County Dublin, who became physician and friend to the fallen French Emperor during his exile on the island of St Helena.
THE EARLY YEARS
Dr. Barry Edward O’Meara was born at Newtown House, Blackrock, Dublin, Ireland in 1786. His forebears are thought to have hailed from Lissinisky and Ballymackey in the parish of Toome, County Tipperary. In his “Expositions of the Transactions that have Taken Place at St. Helena,” Barry wrote that he was:
“… the son of an old, and I believe, highly respected officer, [Jeremiah O’Meara] who served His Majesty for a number of years in the 29th Regiment, along with the present [3rd] Earl of Harrington, in North America. He was honoured with a special mark of Royal favour, by his present Majesty, who was graciously pleased to grant him a pension for the loyalty and gallantry he displayed, in seizing with his own hands (in 1763), two of the leaders of an armed mob (of Oak Boys) in the North of Ireland, who afterwards suffered the fate they merited, and expiated their crimes; as also for other services rendered by him, in support of the honour and interests of his sovereign.”
On 1 April 1775, Lieutenant Jeremiah Meara [sic] was awarded a pension of £100 per annum by the Lord Lieutenant for his services against the Oak Boys in Londonderry”. Four days later, he converted to the Established Church (presumably from the Roman Church) and on 12 August 1775 he received a grant of arms (National Library, GO Ms. 103 P. 62). Jeremiah appears to have settled in Blackrock about this time and was a nephew of Edward Murphy (1707-1777) of Blackrock regarded as ‘one of the best critical scholars in Europe.”
In 1781, Jeremiah married Catherine Harpur whose sister Eliza was the wife of the Venerable Philip Ryan (1754-1828), Archdeacon of Lismore. Barry was apparently their third son after Hely Fitzpatrick O’Meara (1782) and Charles Stanhope O’Meara (1784). In a letter to William Fitzwilliam, Lord Lieutenant General and General Governor of Ireland, dated 24 January 1795, Jeremiah O’Meara states that he has “a wife and four children, of whom three are boys, and the eldest (Hely) only turned twelve years. The eldest is now reading the second Iliad of Homer and the other two Virgil (sic) and Lucian.”
Barry studied medicine at Trinity College Dublin and later at the Royal College of Surgeons. In February 1804, the year his father died, 18-year-old Barry entered the Army as assistant surgeon to the 62nd Regiment. He duly served in Sicily, Egypt, and the Calabrian region at the toe of Italy. He proved particularly heroic in Sicily when he scaled a sheer 200-foot cliff face in order to attend to a hoard of wounded and dying British troops. Although he knew their fate was hopeless, he claims he managed to get forty-nine stretchers down the cliff face and back to Messina without the loss of life.
In 1807, he was court-martialed for acting as a second in an illegal duel at Messina and obliged to leave the army. He sailed for Malta, joined the Navy and saw action in the West Indies and the Mediterranean. On 14 July 1815, the 32-year-old Irishman was on board HMS Bellerophon when, after the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon surrendered himself to the ship. During the ship’s voyage from Rochefort to Plymouth, O’Meara’s knowledge of Italian brought him to the former Emperor’s attention. His skills also impressed and Napoleon invited O’Meara to join him in exile on St. Helena as his medical attendant. On 7 August 1815, Barry Edward O’Meara, at Torbay, applied to Admiral Lord Keith to accompany Napoleon to St. Helena. The ship, the Northumberland, sets sail for St. Helena the next day. During this time, his sister Charlotte married what the Freeman’s Journal described as ‘the beautiful and accomplished’ William Deane, Esq., of Castle Street. [Their son Barry O’Meara Deane was born in Dublin on the 5th March 1819].
O’Meara and Napoleon became intimate friends over the next three years. Napoleon gamely suggested Barry keep a day-to-day diary of their time together, advising that ‘it will make you a fortune but please do not publish until after I am dead.’ ‘Flattered and greatly honoured,’ the Dubliner began scribbling what would become an 1800 page, blow-by-blow account of his time with Bonaparte and what the Emperor thought of love and war.
Their friendship prospered during the time of Sir George Cockburn and Sir Pulteney Malcolm, successive Governors of St. Helena. However, in April 1816, a new Governor arrived in the shape of Galway-born Sir Hudson Lowe, a small, thin, stickler for rules who began to make Napoleon’s life increasingly wretched. Lowe, the son of a Scottish army surgeon and an Irish mother, was actually rather a popular Governor in St. Helena, although he would later be scorned as a failure and castigated by the Duke of Wellington as ‘a damned fool.’[i]
When Lowe got wind of a plot by Bonapartists in America to free Napoleon, he firmed up security. Lowe took the orders to extremes and soon Europe was awash with scandalised gossip that the Emperor was now imprisoned in his own residence, burning his bedroom furniture to stay warm.
By August 1817, O’Meara and Lowe had a serious fall out when the Governor demanded O’Meara cease his daily habit of brining Napoleon a newspaper to read. O’Meara managed to stay on for another year but ultimately, denounced by the Governor for his refusal to spy, he left St. Helena in August 1818.
He tried to inform the authorities that Lowe was a mad man and that Napoleon was dying. However, the authorities sided with Lowe and O’Meara’s name was erased from the list of naval surgeons, thus depriving him of his pension. The Comtesse de Surveillers [Julie Bonaparte, née Clary, the wife of Napoleon’s brother Joseph] awarded him a pension in compensation for this loss. He received 1200 francs from her in 1819 and 1820 but then the checks stopped.
He was living at 28 Chester Place in 1818, when sacked by the Admiralty on 2 November that year. The letter of dismissal can be found here. By 1820, his address was 3, Lyons Inn, St. Clement Danes.
Napoleon died in June 1821. The following year, Barry O’Meara published ‘Napoleon in Exile, or a Voice from St. Helena’, slamming Lowe for his treatment of the fallen emperor. The book was a massive hit with the public and O’Meara became a highly sought after-dinner speaker. When Lowe took a libel action against him, a short-changed O’Meara was obliged to write to the Comtesse de Surveillers requesting that she pay him the out-standing pension she had promised him.
His finances were further boosted on 5 February 1823 when the 37-year-old surgeon married 66-year-old Dame Theodosia Beauchamp Leigh at No. 18, Montagu Square, London. He was still living in the St. Clement Danes neighbourhood at this time. Theodosia was an heiress of advanced years, styled Lady Leigh, who died in 1830. Intriguingly she had inherited her fortune from her brother Sir Theodosius Beauchamp when he was allegedly poisoned by her first husband Captain John Donellan. Following Captain Donellan’s execution for this crime, she married Sir Egerton Leigh and, at his death in 1818, she married Dr. O’Meara.
O’Meara rented rooms on Edgeware Road in London and opened up as a dentist. He displayed a wisdom tooth he had extracted from Napoleon in the window; in 2005 that tooth was sold in Swindon for nearly £13,000. He also had Napoleon’s toothbrush which he later donated to the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland. Dr O’Meara also apparently invented a best-selling tooth powder.
Meanwhile, O’Meara’s friend Dr. John Stokoe had succeeded him as surgeon to Napoleon. Dr. Stokoe received much the same treatment from Lowe and was actually court-martialled. He spent two years trying unsuccessfully to clear his name, before migrating to New Jersey to work for the Emperor’s brother Joseph Bonaparte. He died at York railway station in 1852.
In 1830, he published a two volume memoir on his time with the Emperor entitled ‘Napoleon in Exile, by Barry E. O’Meara, His Surgeon.’ In his memoirs, O’Meara revealed that the Emperor once told him The Times was in the pay of the exiled Bourbons. When The Times dismissed this as a lie, O’Meara horse-whipped the editor John Walter only to discover he had in fact punished his brother William Walter.
THE OTHER IRISH DOCTORS
Writing ‘An Irish Diary’ for The Irish Times on 28 November 2023, here, Frank McNally clocked five Irish doctors who were based on St Helena during Napoleon’s exile, as documented by Cork eye surgeon Denis Wilson (father of actress Fiona Shaw). As well as Dr O’Meara there were:
- James Verling from Cobh, who replaced O’Meara (‘and turned down another £3,000 from the patient, while providing him scrupulous care’).
- Walter Henry, born in Donegal, who interviewed Napoleon in his last months and attended the post mortem.
- George Henry Routledge of Cavan, ‘who touched the emperor’s heart – literally – when placing it a preservative vessel after the autopsy.’
- Francis Burton, from Tuam, ‘a man responsible for the most literal impression left by the emperor – his death mask.’
DEATH IN LONDON
In 1836, he helped Edward Ellice found the Reform Club in Pall Mall, London. That same year he attended a subscription meeting in the Crown & Anchor Tavern on behalf of his friend Daniel O’Connell. Standing by an open window, the doctor caught a deadly chill, dying of erysipelas at his home, 16 Cambridge Terrace, off the Edgeware Road, London, on 10 June 1836. His obituary in The Medico-Chirurgical Review, and Journal of Practical Medicine (Vol. 25, 1836, p. 286) explained how he had spent his latter years ‘in the enjoyment of the Society of choice spirits … He had a very large circle of acquaintance in the various clubs of the West End and, being rather an epicure, he wound up the frame of his constitution much too tight – and the consequence was that it gave way at the first onset of a formidable disease.’ At just 53, he was the same age as Napoleon when he died.
Popular opinion had always sided with O’Meara; he was eulogised by Byron in Age of Bronze. However, the publication of Mr. Forsyth’s History of the Captivity of Napoleon in St. Helena in 1853 was a thorough study of original documents and did much to both exonerate Lowe and reduce the verity of Dr. O’Meara’s testament. Nonetheless, others hold that O’Meara was bang on the button with his verdict that British incompetence brought about the Emperor’s premature demise.
In 1856, Appleton’s Cyclopædia of Biography, edited by Elihu Rich and Francis Lister Hawks, noted that a sale of his effects took place in July 1836. ‘It is surprising what competition there is for such articles as had been the property of the emperor – a few lines in his handwriting sold for 11 guineas, a lock of his hair £2 10s, one of his teeth, 7 guineas and a half, and the instrument used by O’Meara in extracting it, 3 guineas.’
One theory, since debunked, is that Barry O’Meara was a grandfather of both the Carlow-born artist Frank O’Meara (1853-1888) and of the author and novelist Katherine O’Meara (1839-1888) who wrote under the pseudonym of ‘Grace Ramsay’. Frank was the son of Thomas O’Meara, M.B., J.P., Carlow, born 16th September 1816.
With thanks to Kieran Owens, Drew Bannerjee, Nicola Morris, Mary Stratton Ryan, Audrey Groome, Joe Walsh (Tipperary), Simon Blundell (Reform Club), Fabian Richter and others.
- The Emperor and the Irishman, Hubert O’Connor (A&A Farmar, 2008)
- Winning Without Thinking – The Definitive Guide to Horse Race Betting Systems, by Nick Mordin, p.56.
- The O’Mearas of Lissinisky By John O’Meara, Tipperary Historical Journal 1996, 117-35 via here.