Some reflections on November 1798, and why the French are right to hate Thierry Henry.
“Behold at last Frenchmen arrived among you! Brave Irishmen our cause is common. Union. Liberty, the Irish Republic. Let us march. Our hearts are devoted to you; our glory is in your happiness.”
On those words, from the declaration of an Irish Republic by General Humbert in 1798, were relations between France and Ireland predicated for over 200 years, and thus smarts the hurt that Henry has inflicted on his own nation by his sleight of hand.
The French love affair for Ireland is deep, as deep as their antipathy for our mutual foe. And – last week’s blip apart – we owe much of who we are to the French, although if they had been better sailors history might have been different.
But this musing is not about Bantry Bay. It starts with an actual French landing, in August 1798, and finishes on 19 November, the day of the death of the great Theobald Wolfe Tone. The same day, 211 years on when we had to come to terms with the death of our World Cup dreams through French treachery, as opposed to her valour.
Of course it’s not right to compare the gravity of the events, but the quote, by Tone’s own son, finds an echo in November 2009: "The next day was passed in a kind of stupor. A cloud or portentous awe seemed to hang over the city of Dublin.”
After many false dawns, the French landed in Killala under General Humbert (right). The village on the inlet was hardly the best place to launch an insurgency, but Humbert did remarkable things. To his disappointment, he was met, in Killala Bay by a few thousand-poorly equipped peasants with no prominent leaders. The French had been led to believe that the whole of Ireland would rise up and join the French once they had landed. (One supposes, given their previous inability to make landfall, we thought the day would never come). Nevertheless, the French-Irish collaboration had immediate successes.
Humbert decided that he must advertise his presence in Ireland and fan the flame of hope that the risings of 1798 had already ignited. He chose to engage the British. He had learned of a force of 3,500 British troops advancing on his position. He surmised that he could be successful if he engaged them at Castlebar, County Mayo. Defeating the British at Castlebar, especially since the commander of the British forces was General Lake who had defeated the Irish pikemen in Wexford, would be the kind of demonstration that the Irish people needed to show that they could, with French help, defeat the British.
With 700 French infantry cavalry and almost the same number of Irish rebels, Humbert conducted a twenty-five mile forced march through back roads to reach Castlebar. The strategy was brilliant. With only one cannon, the French overran the British and forced the British to run, leaving behind muskets, packs, cannons, flags, munitions, and even General Lake’s luggage. Known later as "The Races at Castlebar," (left) this defeat was one of the most ignominious defeats in British military history (pictured left, the Humbert Memorial, Humbert Street, Ballina, Co. Mayo, Ireland).
The French and the Irish established a provisional government in Castlebar. Then, a bit like last week, the Irish took their eye of the ball and, as we are wont to do, went on the lash. Humbert and his boys were wined and dined on a most lavish scale by the people of the Castlebar and environs. Those who did not sign up for active service came loaded with gifts of meat, butter, poultry, eggs, fish, etc., for the troops. One party came with a steer that had been cooked in a quarry near the town on heated slabs of limestone, a custom dating back to Hannibal's time. Gifts of clothing and footwear donated by merchants from Castlebar and the nearby towns also arrived.
Getting ready took time, and the British eventually encircled and defeated Humbert. Wolfe Tone’s brother Michael was hanged. At the time, Tone himself was on the way to Lough Swilly in Donegal with another French force which encountered a vastly superior English fleet.
Battle raged. Admiral Bombard nailed his colours to the mast, meaning he intended to go down fighting. The French officers urged Tone to escape in a frigate they had made ready. Remember that Tone was a VIP and more. He’d met with Napoleon several times, was a renowned writer and thinker, and at just 35 was poised to be one of the greatest Europeans of his day.
In the white heat of battle, facing defeat and almost certain death, what did Tone – a Protestant by the way - do? Take the easy way out? A metaphorical handball? Hardly. He asked “shall it be said that I fled when the French were fighting the battles of my country? No, I shall stand by the ship”.
Such – gallantry – there’s no other word for it, leaves a huge lump in the throat. Tone commanded a battery fighting “like a lion, exposing himself to every peril” according to a 19th century historian. “One of the most obstinate and desperate engagements which have ever been fought in the ocean,” reads an another account. “During six hours she sustained the fire of the whole fleet till her masts and rigging were swept away, her scuppers flowed with blood, her wounded filled the cockpit, her shattered ribs yawned at each new stroke and let in five feet of water…a dismantled wreck… in shreds”. (pictured, right, the memorial plaque that stands today on the spot where Tone was arrested).
Captured and towed to shore, the prisoners were marched to Letterkenny where Tone was recognised by an old college companion, an Orangeman. He was handed over to the police and bound in irons, prompting only the comment: “I feel prouder to wear these chains than if I was decorated with the star and garter of England”. He was sentenced, for his treason, to death by hanging, despite his plea to be shot like a soldier. The only slight consolation was that his skull was not to be piked in a public place.
Some mystery surrounds his death. There is a suggestion that a an assassination attempt was botched, and a bullet-wound it his neck was slashed by a blade to make the original trauma look like suicide. The generally accepted version is that Tone cut his own throat to make the hangman’s work impossible.
His wound was dressed by, of all people, a French doctor, who whispered to an attendant that any attempt by Tone to move or speak would result in instant death of the patient. Tone had written farewell to his wife and children, and making a slight movement said “I can find yet words to thank you sir. It is the most welcome news you can give me. What should I wish to live for?”
So perished Wolfe Tone. With honour and with pride. With him died the rebellion of 1798, and the name of Ireland as a nation.