The Years of the French.

Posted by admin | March 10, 2008 0
Storming of the Bastille

Bastille Day 14th July 2007, was the 218th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille Prison in France, an event profoundly ignored here entre les Rosbifs.

It is hard to recall the French Revolution without thinking of the response of the Chinese Premier Chou En Lai, who when asked what he thought was its impact answered “It is too early to tell!”

On July 14, 1789, the storming of the Bastille in Paris immediately took on a greater historical dimension; it was proof that power no longer resided in the King as God’s representative, but in the people, in accordance with the theories developed by their philosophers of the eighteenth century. Within two days the Revolution could not be reversed. For all citizens of France, the storming of the Bastille came to symbolize liberty and democracy in the struggle against oppression.

People are often unaware of the unique Irish contribution to both sides of the events. The charge of the mob on the Bastille Prison was led by Robespierre’s Irish assistant and of the only seven prisoners they found inside one was an Irish lunatic who thought he was Julius Caesar!

This was to be only the beginning of the influence of French Republicanism on Ireland as Republicanism provided a model to Irish Nationalists opposed to English domination of Ireland. The republican revolutions in France and United States during the late 18th century greatly influenced radical Irish thinkers, who wanted democratic reforms, more independence from Britain and an end to discrimination, particularly against Catholics. The Irish leaders were mainly drawn from the professional educated middle classes and were inspired by the ideas of Tom Paine, Voltaire and Rousseau. What is not widely realised is that Irish Republicanism was founded by Ulster Protestants as the Penal Laws and The Act of Uniformity which decreed everybody had to belong to the Established Church of England also discriminated against the Presbyterians of Ulster. These (along with Quakers and Huguenots) were the Dissenters or non-conformists, labels which are in disuse today.

The original non-sectarian nature of Irish Republicanism, which was later debased by crypto fascists using the “Republican” label, can be seen from this extract from the Original Declaration of the United Irishmen.

“That no reform is practicable, efficacious, or just, which shall not include Irishmen of every religious persuasion. Satisfied, as we are, …………………………………And we do call on, and most earnestly exhort, our countrymen in general to follow our example, and to form similar societies in every quarter of the kingdom for the promotion of constitutional knowledge, the abolition of bigotry in religion and politics, and the equal distribution of the rights of men through all sects and denominations of Irishmen.”

The United Irishmen were the first group to advocate an independent Irish republic. With military aid from the republican government in France, they organised the failed Irish Rebellion of 1798. Whilst not sharing the virulent anti-clericalism of the French Revolutionaries there was a definite commitment to a secular Republic with a clear separation of Church and State. The United Irishmen looked to their fellow Republicans in France and the Directoire sent fraternal assistance on two occasions.

In 1796 French ships carrying 12,000 troops and the United Irish leader Wolfe Tone arrived unseen and unchallenged just outside Bantry Bay, a large naval base in Cork. This amazing success was outweighed by the fact that they could not land due to the unfavourable winds. After six days of waiting dangerous storms blew up and the attempt to land was abandoned. The fleet returned to France and Ireland had to wait a while longer for her revolution. There is endless and largely fruitless speculation ever since about how different the next 200 years might have been had Tone landed. This was the second time the French and Bantry Bay had met in Irish history for a French fleet had arrived there in 1689 to support James II against William of Orange in the campaign which resulted in James defeat at the Battle of the Boyne.

French Fleet Bantry Bay

In 1798, the Catholic peasants of Wexford, driven to desperation by savage landlordism, created a movement powerful enough to capture and hold Wexford town and many of its outlying areas. At one stage it seemed that the Wexford rebels would link up with their comrades from Carlow and Kilkenny and march on Dublin. In June mainly Protestant Ulster caught the revolutionary fever.

In August 1798, Nine years after the French Revolution, a fleet of ships carrying over 1.100 officers and men from revolutionary France and Irish patriots landed in County Mayo, in westernmost Ireland. They were supposed to be an advance guard, followed by other French ships with the leader of the rebellion, Wolfe Tone. Briefly they triumphed, raising hopes among the impoverished local peasantry and gathering a group of supporters. The hope and despair of the remarkable “Year of the French” is caught in the marvelous historical novel of the same name by Thomas Flanagan and by Thomas Pakenham in “The Year of Liberty.”

Battle of New Ross 1798

Following on the Irish Rebellion of 1798, a French invasion force landed near Killala in County Mayo on August 22, hoping to join forces with Irish rebels. After some initial successes, the French force of about 1000 men were confronted by overwhelmingly greater numbers of British troops at Ballinamuck and shortly surrendered. An Irish irregular force, including Irish deserters from the British army, continued to fight on and suffered heavy casualties. Whereas the French prisoners were treated honourably and repatriated, some 200 Irish including their General George Blake were hanged as traitors.

Memorial, Garden of Remembrance,
Ballinamuck. This stone stands in the
Garden of Remembrance which was
opened in 1998 on the site of the old court house to
commemorate the Battle of Ballinamuck

English rule in Ireland did indeed totter in 1798 — but it survived and the insurgency collapsed in the face of a brutal English counterattack. More than 30,000 Irish, overwhelmingly peasants, were slaughtered in the months of revolt. The immediate political legacy was one of repression, terror and communal division.

In the aftermath of the rebellion the British government decided to adopt a new and more drastic solution to the Irish question. They concluded that the self-government that had existed until this point had not only been ineffective but had contributed to the revolutionary mood. It would be replaced with an Act of Union which would ensure that Ireland would be governed from the Westminster parliament on the same terms as the rest of the United Kingdom. So in 1800, after an infamous campaign of bribery, corruption and intimidation the Act of Union was passed and my home town of Dublin lost it’s Parliament and a great deal of it’s wealth and influence.

The Parliament House, Dublin, by James Malton c. 1793.

This was however not the end to French support for Irish revolution. In 1802 France and Britain had made the uneasy peace of the treaty of Amiens. However, covertly driven by self-interest the French government promised a large military force to support a rising in Ireland. They also had made agreements with revolutionary movements in Scotland and England with the intention of encircling Britain.

In Ireland the United Irishmen gathered pledges from influential backers still opposed to the Act of Union to support a rising financially and morally. Thomas Addis Emmet returned to Ireland in the autumn of 1802 and during the winter of 1802 the first half of 1803 he organised and armed the United Irishmen. Although he was mainly confined to Dublin, he was in close contact with groups in Carlow, Wicklow and Wexford. Everything went as it should until 16 July 1803 when an explosion took place in a house on Patrick Street in Dublin. This house was in use as depot for arms and explosives and the explosion had not only blown up the house, but also the secrecy.

The discovery of the plans forced Thomas Emmet to fix an earlier date for the rising, and therefore a rising without French support. Because the signals from the rest of the country were positive he decided Saturday 23 July as the day of the rising. Despite the promises and intentions Thomas Emmet found out that only a fraction of the men expected had turned up. Groups outside Dublin failed to rise due to poor attendance. The rebellion was doomed before it started and with a signal rocket Thomas’ brother Robert Emmet ended the organised rising at 9pm. The soldiers retreated to barracks where they remained until the danger had passed. Thomas Addis Emmet fled to France but his brother Robert was captured and sentenced to death after a trial where he made his famous speech from the dock which includes, amongst others, this ringing passage:

Robert Emmet

“I am charged with being an emissary of France An emissary of France? And for what end? It is alleged that I wished to sell the independence of my country? And for what end? Was this the object of my ambition? And is this the mode by which a tribunal of justice reconciles contradictions? No, I am no emissary; and my ambition was to hold a place among the deliverers of my country–not in power, nor in profit, but in the glory of the achievement!…”

Emmet’s trial, at which a Castle spy represented him, is mainly remembered for this stirring speech and his stab at the ‘hanging judge’ that “Lord Norbury might easily drown in the blood of those he had sent to the gallows”. Norbury sentenced him to a traitor’s death. On 20 September 1803, Robert Emmet, was publicly hanged, drawn and Quartered outside St. Catherine’s Church in Thomas Street, Dublin. He was the last person to receive this barbaric sentence from a British court. Many years later I had the privilege of being at St. Catherine’s at the unveiling of a plaque to the 18 ordinary Dublin workingmen who were also executed in the same barbaric manner with Robert Emmet.

Execution of Robert Emmet

The truth is that Robert Emmet was an inept revolutionary but his idealism and courage cannot be doubted. His speech from the dock is still a clarion call of integrity, in the context in which it was delivered the courage required is beyond understanding. The image of this young member of the Protestant Ascendancy was further enhanced by two class mates from Trinity College who shared in the revulsion at his fate, Robert Curran whose sister Sarah he courted and Thomas Moore who composed several allegorical ballads in his memory including “The Minstrel Boy”.

When Thomas Emmet returned to France he found the revolution had taken another turn under Bonaparte and in 1815 another member of the Irish Protestant Ascendancy, Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, crushed its military power entirely at the Battle of Waterloo.

The Emmet rebellion brought to an end the 14 years of active French involvement in Irish Independence and my home town of Dublin went into a deep slumber in the 19th Century which made it a byword for poverty and paradoxically preserved much of its Georgian inheritance. A slumber which was to dramatically end with the cataclysmic awakening of the 1916 Rising.

The French Revolution may have happened 218 years ago but in Ireland it continues to influence and inform the body politic I can only echo the words of Chou En Lai when considering its impact and suggest “It is too early to tell!”

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