Contact Us

O’Connell’s last bequest

30 November, 1999

Henry Peel OP describes the death and funeral of Daniel O’Connell. After an extraordinary life working for justice and freedom, O’Connell died on his way to Rome in May, 1847.

The tall round tower marking the last resting place of Daniel O’Connell overshadows every other funeral monument in Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin. Daniel O’Connell died at Genoa, in Italy, at 9.35 p.m. on the evening of May 15th, 1847, on his way to Rome.

On May 15, 1847, Father Miley, O’Connell’s companion on his last journey, wrote from Genoa: “The Liberator is not better. He is worse – ill as ill can be. At two o’clock this morning I found it necessary to send for the Viaticum and the holy oil. Though it was the dead of night, the cardinal archbishop (he is eighty-eight years old), attended by his clerics and several of the faithful, carried the Viaticum with the solemnities customary in Catholic countries, and reposed it in the tabernacle which we had prepared in the chamber of the illustrious sufferer. Though prostrate to the last degree, he was perfectly in possession of his mind whilst receiving the last rites. The adorable name of Jesus, which he had been in the habit of invoking was constantly on his lips with trembling fervour, His thoughts have been entirely absorbed by religion since his illness commenced. For the last forty hours he will not open his lips to speak of anything else. The doctors still say they have hope. I have none. All Genoa is praying for him. I have written to Rome. Be not surprised if I am totally silent as to our own feelings. It is poor Daniel who is to be pitied more than all.”

Commemoration service
Pope Pius IX gave instructions that a commemoration service for O’Connell should be held in Rome. Two days were given over for the event in the Church of Sant’ Andrea Della Valle. An inscription in the Church gives a sense of the occasion: “For Daniel O’Connell, immortal through great deeds, the safeguard and protector of the kingdom of lreland; 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.”

A funeral oration for O’Connell was preached at the commemoration service. It was in two parts, corresponding to the two days of the commemoration. The preacher was Father Ventura of the Theatine Order, the most outstanding of Italian preachers. He shared O’Connell’s outlook on the separation of Church and State, on religious freedom and political principles. His oration was subsequently printed and circulated in the major European languages.

Body to Ireland, heart to Rome
Father Ventura concluded his oration with a brief commentary on O’Connell’s last bequest: “My body to Ireland – my heart to Rome – my soul to heaven”: “What bequests what legacies are these! What can be imagined at the same time more sublime and more pious than such a testament as this! Ireland is his country – Rome is the church – heaven is God. God, the Church and his country – or, in other words, the glory of God, the liberty of the Church, the happiness of his country are the great ends of all his actions – such the noble objects, the only objects of his charity! He loves his country and therefore he leaves to it his body; he loves still more the Church and hence he bequeaths to it his heart; and still more he loves God, and therefore confides to Him his soul! Let us profit then, of this great lesson afforded by a man so great – a man who has done such good service to the Church, to his country, and to humanity.”

First Catholic cemeteries
Acquiring land for Catholic burials had been one of the first issues raised by Daniel O’Connell after he had founded the Catholic Association in May 1823. Proposing that land should be purchased for this purpose O’Connell said that “He did not wish to make it exclusively Catholic; for as the Catholics were desirous not to be separated in this life from their brothers of other persuasions neither did they desire to be separated from them in the passage from this to another world.”

The burial of Catholics in the old Dublin graveyards had continued long after they had become the property of the established Church of Ireland. Some unpleasant incidents when Catholic priests had been prevented from saying prayers at the graveside occasioned the idea of acquiring separate graveyards. The first was Goldenbridge in Inchicore, which was opened for burials in October 1829. Glasnevin cemetery, originally called Prospect cemetery, was opened in February 1832. It was never exclusively Catholic. The great rock of Wicklow granite marking Parnell’s grave is sufficient indication of Glasnevin’s national character.

Oration for O’Connell
On May 14, 1869, the body of Daniel O’Connell was moved from its original resting place to a newly constructed vault under the monumental round tower. Cardinal Cullen presided over an assembly of ecclesiastical and civil dignitaries and an estimated fifty thousand people. Solemn Mass was sung and an oration given by the most outstanding of Irish preachers, the Dominican Father Tom Burke. To set it in context the Fenian Rising had occurred in 1867 and 1869 was the year when the Act disestablishing the Church of Ireland was passed. Here is a brief extract from the oration: “If we cannot have the blessing of religious unity so as ‘to be all of one mind’ we shall have ‘the next dearest blessing that heaven can give,’ the peace that comes from perfect religious liberty and equality, All this do we owe to the memory of the man we recall today and to the principles he taught us.”


This article first appeared in St Martin de Porres Magazine, a publication of the Irish Dominicans.