News from Nelson: My Strange Birthday

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Nelsons HeadI often wonder if I’m a cat. I’m on my third life already with perhaps many more to come!  Let me explain – my name is Nelson’s Head, denizen of the Reading Room at Dublin City Library & Archive.  I’m a solid citizen – many people describe me as a lump of stone, which is true – but when this is Portland stone, fashioned by sculptor Thomas Kirk, well, I think I have something to boast about.

But let me start at the beginning.   My first life was both glamorous and dangerous.  I was Vice-Admiral Horatio Viscount Nelson, said (and not just by me) to be the greatest naval commander who ever lived. Always in the thick of battle, I managed to lose both an arm and an eye.  And yet I was the scourge of Napoleon, defeating him at the Battle of the Nile in 1798, at a time when the French were winning everything!

And so I faced his fleet again, the French combined with the Spanish fleet, at Cape Trafalgar on 21 October 1805.  I had 821 crew on my trusty ship, HMS Victory, and these included 87 Irishmen, the youngest being 14-year old Hugh Portfield and the oldest being 43-year-old Thomas Foley. In all, between 10% and 20% of the sailors in Nelson’s fleet, were Irish.  As is well known (especially by me) my men revered me, because I cared for their welfare and led from the front.  And this meant the end – for although I had an amazing success at Trafalgar, I was mortally wounded early in the battle while on deck, and died that evening with victory secured. 

Death of Nelson


On the advice of my Irish surgeon William Beatty, my body was placed curled up in a wooden cask and pickled with brandy and ethanol, to slow the process of decomposition on the journey back to London.  Not entirely successful though – the stuff got up my nose – I let off a mighty sneeze – and the cask nearly exploded with fright!  Anyway, I had a wonderful State Funeral in London, which I thoroughly enjoyed – everyone said how marvellous I was, while I nodded sagely in agreement.  I could have settled into peaceful retirement in my sarcophagus (originally made for Cardinal Wolsey) in the vaults of St. Paul’s Cathedral, but no!  It was dark, dull and boring – and I wanted a second life!  Time to be re-born!

There was actually a great deal of choice. No-one wanted to say ‘Farewell’ to Admiral Nelson and throughout Britain good-hearted committees got together to raise monuments to me – the best-known being Nelson’s Column in the aptly-named Trafalgar Square.  I could have stepped into any of these handsome statues of my good self – but somehow I was powerfully drawn to Ireland, a place I had never visited in my first life and now decided to make my home for my second life.  I always did relish adventure!   Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin was completed in 1809 and to my delight I was able to climb the stairs inside before stepping out onto the platform at the top – a boon to weary legs.  And what a view!  Always changing, as the mercurial Irish weather changed about every hour or so.  It took a while before I found out that not everyone loved me – every few years there was a fresh campaign to take me down and replace me with a nationalist Irish hero – but the sheer affection that the ‘Dubs’ had for me and my Pillar meant that these schemes went nowhere.  In 1916, I was a frightened observer of the Easter Rising, when the combatants actually tried to blow me up! an attempt which failed as the explosives were damp.  However, I was hit with bullets – you see, the rebels knew right well that I was alive! One bullet whipped off my nose – but as there were so many other bits of me missing, I was unconcerned. They didn’t kill me then – that came fifty years later, in the early hours of 8 March 1966.

A sudden KA-BOOM ripped through O’Connell Street and I was killed instantly, with only my Head intact.  I immediately decided that here was my third life, as I rolled myself into a ball to fit into the Head.

Pillar Remains

And this is my most exciting life by far (see my first blog, The Adventures of Admiral Nelson)  It’s more peaceful now that I’m living in Dublin City Library & Archive – groups come to visit me, some people come to talk to me, and best of all, I have met the man who blew me up – and I have forgiven him.  We have become friends!

So there it is – my strange birthday – which I really do celebrate each year on 8 March.  If you add up all of my three lives, well I’ve been around since 1758 so that amounts to 261 years young.  I’m good to go until I’ll be a thousand years old!  I’ll be seeing you then.

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