Bonaparte – Denis Fahey on Napoleon’s Irish connections

An Irishman’s Diary

Shortly before his death on May 5th, 1821, Napoleon Bonaparte, in exile on St Helena, wrote a codicil to his will, bequeathing 10,000 francs (about £500) to a former sub-lieutenant in the army, Marie André Cantillon, in recognition of his attempt to assassinate the Duke of Wellington.

In February 1818, the soldier, a distant relative of Richard Cantillon, the famous economist and, like him, a descendant of the Cantillons of Ballyheigue, Co Kerry, had taken a pot shot at the Duke while the victor of Waterloo was riding through Paris. Happily for Wellington, the bullet missed its mark and happily for his would-be assassin a sympathetic jury acquitted him of attempted murder because the bullet hadn't been found and, therefore, there was no proof that it had been fired.

The codicil caused outrage in England, not least because Wellington had forbidden his troops to kill Napoleon at Waterloo. Accounts about the payment of the bequest are contradictory but Cantillon probably received some of it eventually and he later became a grocer in Brussels.

During his career, Napoleon had many connections with people born in Ireland but a story that when he was younger an Irish priest had saved his life is almost certainly untrue. In June 1812, Fr Edward Redmond, the parish priest of Ferns, told John Trotter, a writer visiting Wexford, that it happened one summer when they were sharing an apartment in Bas Poitou in west-central France.


He claimed that once, when they were out shooting, Napoleon fell into a deep brook and would have drowned if he hadn’t pulled him out. He didn’t give the year of the occurrence and it wasn’t corroborated elsewhere .He was 29 years older than Bonaparte and, in all probability, he was simply mistaken about the identity of his companion.

Early in 1798, Napoleon met some United Irishmen, including Wolfe Tone, while he was considering the possibility of invading England on behalf of the Directory, as the French government was called.

Instead, he recommended an invasion of the Levant because their Channel fleet couldn't match the British navy and he sailed for Egypt in May just as an insurrection was beginning in Ireland.

Almost two decades later, reminiscing with his doctor, the Irish-born surgeon, Barry O'Meara, he expressed regret about his decision. He was aware of the storm- tossed expedition led by Lazare Hoche that reached Bantry Bay in December 1796 and he believed that had Hoche landed, Ireland was lost to England but by some imbecility his frigate didn't reach the coast and de Grouchy, the second-in-command, didn't know what to do. If he had invaded England instead of Egypt, he would have abolished the monarchy and the House of Peers, Catholics would have been emancipated, there would have been a distribution of property and the Irish would have been "excited" to form a republic.

The possibility of invading the United Kingdom resurfaced in 1804 and he met some Irish exiles in Paris, including Thomas Addis Emmet and Arthur O'Connor, but he was less than impressed by them. They fought among themselves and he thought that they were dishonest. Still, in preparation, he formed an Irish legion but the victory of the British navy at Cape Trafalgar in 1805 made the venture impractical. The legion fought in a number of engagements during the Peninsular War from 1809 to 1814 when it was dissolved.

Despite his misgivings about his Irish visitors, he was responsible for some kindnesses to Irish people. He gave a pension to Martha Witherington, Tone's widow, and an army commission to their son Thomas, and he saved Napper Tandy from execution by threatening to cancel peace talks with England in 1802 if he was hanged.

Later, he became friendly with O'Meara and with his successor James Verling from Cove (Cobh), after O'Meara was dismissed, but he disliked his jailer, the unsympathetic governor of the island, Hudson Lowe from Galway.

There were also more intimate connections between Irish people and the Bonapartes. Julia Clary, the daughter of an Irish silk merchant, married his brother Joseph and became queen of Naples and Spain while her sister Desirée was briefly engaged to Napoleon before marrying one of his marshals, Jean Bernadotte, and becoming queen of Sweden. His niece Letitia married Thomas Wyse, an Irish merchant, and their grandson, Andrew Bonaparte Wyse, became one of only two Catholic permanent secretaries in the Northern Ireland civil service during the Stormont era.

Between 1792 and 1815, more than 240,000 Irish men fought in the British army and navy and unknown numbers were killed or injured, yet there was little hostility to Napoleon among ordinary people and “Boney” became the subject of adulatory ballads.

The government took the threat of invasion in 1804 seriously and erected 50 watch towers around the coast. Ironically, they were called Martellos after a tower on Cape Mortella in Corsica, 150 kilometres from Napoleon's birth place, and some remain, in various states of preservation, monuments to what might have been.