Murdered by the sword of justice

An Irishman’s Diary about a posthumous pardon

Voltaire: died happy knowing that in this case justice had triumphed

Voltaire: died happy knowing that in this case justice had triumphed


As Voltaire lay on his deathbed in 1778 he received two letters, one of which pleased him and one of which did not. The latter was from Abbé Gaultier, urging him to confess and become reconciled to the Church. The former was from a man of Irish descent named Trophime Lally.

Following upon the abbé’s letter two priests, threatening to refuse Votaire Christian burial, attended his bedside. When one of them asked the question “Monsieur, do you recognise the divinity of Jesus Christ?” Voltaire shoved him away saying: “Let me die in peace” and turned his back.

Thomas Arthur, Comte de Lally, Baron de Tollendal was a French general of Irish background. He was born in France, the son of Sir Gerald Lally, an Irish Jacobite from Tuam, Co Galway, who married a woman of the French nobility from whom Thomas inherited his titles.

He entered the French army and served in the war of 1734 against Austria. In 1745 he commanded his own regiment in the famous Irish Brigade at Fontenoy, and was made a brigadier on the field by Louis XV. In the same year he accompanied Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) to Scotland, serving as his aide de camp at the battle of Falkirk. After the failure of the Jacobite rising in Scotland Lally escaped to France.

When war broke out with England in 1756 he was sent to India to defend French interests against the British. He was a courageous man and an able general but his arrogance meant that he was not popular with his officers and was hated by his men. He despised native Indians and readily violated their customs and traditions. Initially he had some minor military successes, but his manner and demeanour were against him. He was defeated by, and finally surrendered to a British force commanded by Sir Eyre Coote, an Irishman born in Kilmallock, Co Limerick.

He was taken prisoner of war and transported to England. While there he learned that his military failure had led to him being accused of treason in France. Somehow he managed to secure his freedom to return home to face trial. He was kept in prison for two years before being brought to trial. This was not uncommon. As Voltaire wrote at the time: “In France we always like to start by putting a man in prison for three or four years, and then we try him.” Voltaire had met Lally when his friends the Argenson brothers (as foreign minister and minister of war) were about to send him on the Scottish expedition, and referred to him as une diable de tête irlandaise , a mad Irishman.

Lally was found guilty of abusing his position and of betraying French interests in India, which amounted to treason. He immediately applied for royal pardon. He was informed three days later that pardon was refused and that he would be beheaded that day. He tried to take his own life but failed. He was taken to Place de Grève and on a hastily erected block was beheaded at the second attempt.

One writer has remarked: “Lally’s colourful, rather high-handed character had created many enemies, several of whom had testified against him. But being hateful was not a capital offence.”

Four years later, Lally’s son, Trophime, wrote to Voltaire to tell him that he intended to set in train procedures to have the guilty verdict reversed. He was unable to petition the king, but if he succeeded in clearing his father’s name he would secure the right to use his titles.

Later still Lally’s son again wrote to Voltaire expressly asking him for help. Some years previously the writer had famously and successfully led a campaign to have the name of an executed Toulouse merchant cleared. Although Voltaire was now in poor health he began a pamphlet campaign and petitioned the authorities.

In Candide , Voltaire’s allegory of life and living, there is an account of the execution of a British naval officer convicted of not killing enough of the enemy, based on the case of an Admiral Byng who was shot on such a charge. It seems that Voltaire had a particular abhorrence for the practice of execution for military failure.

The second letter Voltaire received on his deathbed was from Trophime Lally to tell him that the royal council had thrown out the sentence on his father handed down by the Paris parl ement (court) though of course somewhat belatedly.

Though barely alive, Voltaire dictated to his secretary a short letter to Trophime: “The dying man revives on hearing this great news: he embraces M. Lally most tenderly; he sees that the King is a defender of justice: he will die happy.” Voltaire did in fact die four days later.

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