One of the most extraordinary episodes in Irish history saw a French naval flotilla sail to the Northern coast of Mayo in 1798 to help Ireland in its long fight to break with Britain.
The 1789 French Revolution had been a huge source of inspiration for Irish nationalists and in the wake of the second annual celebrations of the fall of the Bastille in 1791, The United Irishmen were formed by a group of merchants and intellectuals who sought an end to British interference, parliamentary reform and Catholic emancipation. Its leader, Theobald Wolfe Tone, went to seek French support.
By 1793, Britain and France were at war, and when Britain heard that the United Irishmen were negotiating for aid from Napoleon, it sent 40,000 soldiers to wipe them out. Urgent messages were sent to France for immediate aid and finally in December 1796, a large fleet of 12,000 French troops arrived in Bantry Bay, Co Cork, but was unable to land.
Twenty months later, in August 1798, a far smaller French fleet landed in Killala Bay, Co Mayo with 1,060 soldiers under the command of General Humbert. He landed his troops with three cannons and a supply of arms and occupied the town of Killala. The United Irishmen urged locals to join them.
A thousand peasant farmers come forward to be drilled and armed. 5,500 muskets were handed out to other farmers, while many more armed themselves with pikes.
Bishop Stock of Killala wrote:
"The uncombed, ragged peasant, who had never before known the luxury of shoes and stockings, now washed, powdered, and full dressed, was metamorphosed into another being.”
Humbert's army, with 1,500 Irish auxiliaries, marched against Castlebar and after a heroic fight routed General Lake's troops, a far better equipped government force nearly twice its strength. It was a spectacular victory which saw much blood spilt, and became known as The Races of Castlebar because of the speed with which the English militia turned and fled.
The historian, Thomas Pakenham described it in The Year of Liberty as
"one of the most ignominious defeats in British military history."
Humbert and his rebels went on to take Westport and Newport, inspiring rebel groups in Westmeath and Longford to take up arms. In the euphoria that followed Humbert declared an Irish Republic, appointing John Moore of Moore Hall as President of the Provisional Government of Connacht [LINK TO Republic of Connaught Page].
Alas, Humbert’s progress could not be sustained. The British were determined to reassert their control, and Lord Cornwallis sent 13,000 reinforcements, forcing Humbert to retreat to Foxford while the English planned a final pincer movement.
Humbert simply did not have enough Irish recruits or arms to combat the British might. His raggle-taggle army of eager, but badly-equipped peasantry, began to march towards Leinster to support the rebels there, but were intercepted in Ballinamuck, Co Longford on 8th September.
After just 30 minutes of fighting the French surrendered and were made prisoners of war. But the Irish who had accompanied them were slaughtered mercilessly, and a wave of ruthless repression in Mayo ensued, with anyone suspected of involvement being hunted down.
The terrifying aftermath of the fight was long remembered with horror and became known as Bliain na bhFrancach (The Year of the French), The sheriff of Mayo, Denis Browne MP, brother of Lord Altamont, became known as Donnchadh an Rópa (Denis of the Rope) because of the number of people he hanged on the scaffold.
The 1798 Rebellion was the most widespread of all the Irish uprisings. Eleven counties in Ulster, Leinster and Connacht rose against English rule over six months in 1798, leaving 30,000 dead – but it was undoubtedly Mayo that suffered the most.
In Humbert's Footsteps celebrates and re-enacts the French landing, their encounters with Irish Volunteers and the first fateful battles at Killala and Ballina each August
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