Famous Fontenoy – Frank McNally on an overshadowed anniversary of the Irish Brigade’s finest hour

A stamp jointly issued in 1995 by Ireland and Belgium to commemorate the Battle of Fontenoy on May 11th, 1745

A stamp jointly issued in 1995 by Ireland and Belgium to commemorate the Battle of Fontenoy on May 11th, 1745

 

One of the latest non-events in this year of things not happening has been a commemoration of the 275th anniversary of the Battle of Fontenoy.

The date fell on Monday last and a ceremony planned for Sunday should have brought visitors from Ireland, Britain, and France to the Belgian village where the fighting happened on May 11th, 1745, during the multinational War of the Austrian Succession.

Alas, another global conflict has intervened to spoil the plans. Like most such gatherings in 2020, the commemorations were called off.

Might you, were it not for interest in this country, the battle might now be completely forgotten in Europe. It has aged badly in France, for example, despite have been a great French victory. The problem is that it was somewhat on the wrong side of history. Napoleon would later complain it had prolonged the “ancien régime” for 30 years.

As for the British, who led the opposing side – a rainbow coalition of armies including the Dutch and the Holy Roman Empire – well, it was a defeat, and nothing to shout about.  There is little if any commemoration in Fontenoy of their involvement.

But for Ireland, it was personal. As at the Battle of Waterloo, the result had been in doubt until late on. Then the Irish Brigade, many of them descendants of the Wild Geese, made a decisive intervention and turned a French defeat into victory.  

As historian Stephen McGarry explains, this was at a time when the Penal Laws forbade Catholics in Ireland to bear arms or serve in the military. Thus, the result was a cause of “ferocious pride back home” and would loom large in the Irish psyche long afterwards.

We know how large it loomed once because, today, there are still at least three GAA clubs named after the battle. 

It is also commemorated by a street in North Dublin. Not a big street, reflecting the fact of who was writing the official history of the city at the time, but interesting for literary reasons too. 

It was home once, like quite a few Dublin streets, to a young James Joyce. The very modesty of the accommodation suggests it was among the family’s later addresses, as the rent-avoiding midnight flits by his increasingly impoverished father accelerated.

Yet another measure of the 1745 battle’s former fame is the pregnant brevity of one of its mentions in Joyce’s work. He namechecks it during the episode of Ulysses set in Barney Kiernan’s pub, as the nationalists gathered around “The Citizen” review Ireland’s service to our gallant allies in Europe with apparent regret.

“– Ah, says John Wyse […] We gave our best blood to France and Spain, the Wild Geese. Fontenoy, eh? […] But what did we ever get for it?” – The French! Says the citizen. Set of dancing masters. Do you know what it is? They were never worth a roasted fart to Ireland. Aren’t they trying to make an entente cordiale now […] with perfidious Albion?”

Despite such cynicism in 1904, the old alliance of Fontenoy was about to be celebrated with renewed fervour. A year later, in June 1905, some 300 Irish political pilgrims including Maj John McBride and the veteran Fenian John O’Leary, made a trip to the Belgian village, where they were feted by the Bourgmestre of Tournai.

Following that, it was decided to erect a monument at the scene of the Irish Brigade’s glory. And in 1907, amid great ceremony, the Mayor of Dublin Joseph Nannetti unveiled the five-foot-high Celtic cross. The cross was Kilkenny granite on a plinth of Limerick marble. The inscription, carved in French and Irish on relief of the 1691 Treaty Stone, was all Limerick: “On this stone was signed the treaty by which England should have granted religious freedom to the Irish people. It broke that treaty and the Irish, driven from their homelands, enrolled in the French armies and won fame on the battlefields of Europe.”

At the “Banquet Commémoratif des Irlandais” in 1907, McGarry writes, a “sumptuous meal was washed down with crates of fine French wines and by locally brewed, strong trappist beers”. No doubt there would have been some of those involved this week too had the latest commemoration not been thwarted. 

But we must keep the world’s latest calamity in perspective. The Celtic cross was lucky to survive the bombardment of the Great War that began soon afterwards, with Fontenoy near ground zero.  

And of course, the bicentenary of the battle was also a non-event, occurring as it did in the same week as VE Day.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.