History bites back – An Irishman’s Diary about David Cameron, home rule and teeth

A strange case of ‘brain fade’

I’m not sure which was David Cameron’s worse gaffe of last week – forgetting whether it was Aston Villa or West Ham he supports, or suggesting that the Scots nationalists holding the balance of power after the British general election would be a situation without precedent.

In the case of the football clubs he mixed up, there was at least the excuse that they both wear claret and blue – confusing for a prime minister having a “brain fade”, as he put it. Besides, everyone knew he was only faking an interest in soccer, to appear less posh.

But we must assume he was sincere about the “frightening” prospect of Lady Macbeth (aka Nicola Sturgeon) putting Labour back in power – “the first time in our history that a group of nationalists from one part of the country would be involved in altering the direction of the government”.

Er, no, prime minister. It may have been a while ago now – 130 years – but there is the small precedent of the 1885 British general election, when Parnell’s Irish party won a whopping 86 seats, far more than the Scots can get now.


Not only did this give them the balance of power at Westminster. In a move that must have been “frightening” to their traditional allies, the Liberals, they then used that power to put the minority Conservatives in government.

This in turn converted Gladstone to home rule and, so doing, split the Liberals, introducing the term “unionism” into Anglo-Irish politics for the first time.

“Brain fade” hardly covers not remembering it. The suspicion is that, despite the best efforts of Eton and Oxford, the information wasn’t there to start with.

That indeed was the suggestion of a subsequent letter to the Daily Telegraph on the subject from a man with a very famous surname, Nikolai Tolstoy, who suggested the PM should "take time off from 'chillaxing' of an evening, and read some history".

Maybe Cameron did know about 1885 once, and just forgot, as the English are wont to do about Anglo-Irish traumas past. We have the opposite vice here – not being able to forget, even when we should.

As for Nikolai Tolstoy – a distant relative of the novelist – he is an actual historian. And although English-born, he was probably inoculated against the risk of historical amnesia during his time studying at Trinity College Dublin.

While we’re on the topic of Leo Tolstoy (almost) – and by extension, of his most famous subject – readers may recall that I was writing here recently about one of Dublin’s more eccentric tourist attractions, Napoleon’s toothbrush.

It’s on display at the Royal College of Physicians, having been brought back from St Helena by the exiled emperor’s doctor, Barry O’Meara.

And as I also mentioned, the same doctor owned an even greater treasure once – an actual Napoleonic gnasher, which O’Meara had removed from the imperial mouth and later used as a calling card when establishing a dental practice in London.

But as I learned at the weekend, during a guided history tour in my Kilmainham neighbourhood, Napoleon’s indirect contributions to dentistry didn’t end there.

The tour was of Bully’s Acre, which is said to be Dublin’s oldest cemetery – its residents including a son and grandson of Brian Boru, both killed at the Battle of Clontarf, as well as countless thousands of unnamed others.

It’s long closed to burials and now surrounded by walls. But it was for many centuries open, in every sense. So it was also once infamous for “resurrectionism” – a grim trade that provided not just the surgeons of Dublin with bodies to practise on, but also, after pickling the merchandise with alcohol, supplied an export market too.

In the most graphic part of the tour, our guide Paul O’Brien (paulobrienauthor.ie) showed how it was done, via a wooden shovel (for silence) with a hook on top for dragging bodies out. But, as he said, that was the heavy work. There was also a nimbler derivative trade, often carried on by women – the extraction of teeth for recycling. For 19th-century dentists, the use of dead people’s teeth was a big advance on ivory, apparently. And although it was soon overtaken by breakthroughs with other materials, its grisly heyday coincided with the final decades of Bully’s Acre.

That was a period when all such dentures became known by a nickname derived from one especially rich harvest, 200 years ago this June. The crop was young, plentiful, and in generally good condition. So after that, all products of human origin were called “Waterloo Teeth”.