Why exactly did a French naval flotilla sail to the Northern coast of Mayo in 1798 to help Ireland in its long fight with Britain?
First, you need to realise that the 1789 French Revolution was a huge source of inspiration for Irish nationalists who were themselves hoping to rise up against their oppressors.
In the wake of the second annual celebrations of the fall of the Bastille, The United Irishmen were formed in 1791 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, they sent 40,000 soldiers to wipe them out. Urgent messages were sent to France for immediate aid and finally in Dec 1796, a large fleet of 12,000 French troops arrived in Bantry Bay, Co. Cork, but they were unable to land.
It was 20 months later in August 1798, that a far smaller French fleet landed in Killala Bay, County 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 then issued proclamations urging locals to join as recruits. 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 against a far better equipped government force nearly twice its strength they routed General Lake's troops. It was a spectacular victory with fearsome fighting and much bloodshed, 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 – see below for more on this.
Alas, Humbert’s sensational progress could not be sustained. The British were determined to reassert their control, and Lord Cornwallis sent 13,000 re-enforcements, forcing Humbert to retreat to Foxford while the English planned their final pincher 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 Leinsteir to support the rebels there, but were intercepted in Ballinamuck, Co. Longford on 8th September.
After a paltry 30 minutes of fighting, the French surrendered and were made prisoners of war. The Irish who had accompanied them were slaughtered mercilessly, and a wave of ruthless repression in Mayo ensued, with anyone suspected of being involved hunted down like wild beasts. 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, M.P., brother of Lord Altamont, became known as 'Donnchadh an Rópa' (Denis of the Rope) for the amount of people he hanged on the scaffold at that time.
The 1798 Rebellion was the most widespread of all the Irish Rebellions. Eleven counties in Ulster, Leinster and Connacht rose against English rule over six months in 1798, leaving 30,000 dead, but it was definitely Mayo that suffered the most.