THERE is some dispute about whether any Irishmen were involved in the storming of the Bastille in 1789. As the French equivalent of the GPO in 1916, the numbers claiming to have been there increased after the event, in line with its fame, writes FRANK MCNALLY
But it is an incontrovertible fact, defying the law of averages, that an Irishman numbered among the mere seven inmates who were actually in the infamous prison on the day of its overthrow.
He was a man known variously as Jacques François Xavier Whyte, Seigneur De Malleville, and by the name he had been born with in Dublin 60 years earlier, plain James Francis Xavier Whyte: as which, like many Catholics of his time, he had left Ireland to pursue a career in the French army.
He distinguished himself there for a while, becoming a captain in the Irish Brigade, before suffering a mental breakdown in 1781. Eight years later, unfortunately, the honour of a starring role in one of history’s most famous events would have been lost on him; although perhaps not completely.
He was by all accounts insane: declared as such by his family and imprisoned in line with 18th century standards of mental health treatment. His delusions of grandeur are said to have included a belief that he was either St Louis or Julius Caesar. So as he was paraded through the streets by his liberators, declaring himself majeur de limmensité, the events may have made at least some sense to his deranged mind.
One eye-witness described him as “a little feeble old man who exhibited an appearance of childishness and fatuity, tottering as he walked”. Another said he had “a beard almost a yard long”, and “the smile of an idiot”.
In any case, his liberation was short-lived. After looting the house of a sympathiser who gave him lodgings, he was packed off to the lunatic asylum at Charenton, where he renewed acquaintance with a more famous former prisoner of the Bastille (moved just before the revolution): the Marquis de Sade.
One of the Irishmen reputed to have played a key role in the attack on the prison was Wexford-born cobbler called Joseph Kavanagh. In the popular version, he even led a mob through the streets beforehand, shouting: “To the Bastille”.
His own later account of the events fails to mention this, however, although it is not otherwise notable for modesty. The case of a James Blackwell from Clare, said to have led a separate attack on the prison, is similarly unsupported.
Kavanagh was certainly involved in the events before July 14th and he played a big role in the bloody aftermath. As a leading member of the revolutionary police in Paris, he helped arrest Charlotte Corday after she murdered Marat in his bath.
He was also implicated in the September massacres of 1792, when many prisoners of the revolution were murdered in their cells. The barbarity of those events shocked foreign observers: although not apparently Wolfe Tone, who thought one aspect of the mob’s behaviour compared well with what his countrymen would have done in the circumstances.
“An Irish mob would have plundered but shed no blood,” he reflected in his diaries. “A Parisian mob murders but respects property; which is worse? I lean to the Frenchman: more manly. Our mob, very shabby fellows.”
The revolution’s bloodlust devoured many of its own over time. After Robespierre’s reign of terror, he too ended up on the guillotine in 1794, like thousands before him.
The former cobbler Kavanagh also disappeared from the history pages around this time, although his fate is unrecorded. If he didn’t lose his head, he seems to have kept it well down thereafter.
When Louis XVI was finally condemned to die in January 1793, he asked for an Irish priest: the Longford-born Henry Edgeworth, a relative of novelist Maria.
It was a dangerous job to accept: in the anti-clerical mood of the times, the abbé was not allowed to wear vestments. But as he wrote afterwards: “A King even in chains has a right to command.”
Edgeworth also mentions a small but chilling incident at the site of execution – now the Place de la Corcorde – when the doomed king interceded on his behalf with the revolutionary police. “I recommend this man to you,” he told them. “See that after my death, no harm comes to him.”
When the gendarmes first failed to reply, the king repeated his request, whereupon one of the men said brusquely: “Yes, yes. We’ll look after him. Leave it to us.” Edgeworth was not reassured by the tenor of the promise. After the execution, he is reported to have taken refuge in a nearby milliner’s shop, before escaping through a side door.
Curiously enough, the revolution did look after some priests, including one Thomas MacMahon from Galway, another Irishman who saw the inside of the Bastille. A prison chaplain, he celebrated one of the last masses in the building, although 70 at the time of the revolution. The National Assembly later granted him a pension.