Miscarriage of St Just – An Irishman’s Diary about camping (and the Revolution) in France
Antoine de Saint-Just: sent many former comrades to the guillotine
I am writing this from a campsite in St-Just-Luzac, a commune on the French west coast, south of La Rochelle. It’s not yet clear to me which of many historical St Justs the local town is called after: there were at least half a dozen such saints scattered across Europe, none of them from around here.
But it’s a suitably mild name for this most hospitable part of France, where the beaches are all child-friendly, the countryside merciful to cyclists, and the climate and politics both temperate. Like most of the French west, this is Macron country.
The area’s mildness extends to architecture. All the nearby towns are beige: at least in their stone parts. Uniformity is abandoned only in the colours of doors and window shutters, where you can pick anything on the spectrum between green or blue.
In fact, even extremes of green and blue are avoided. If there’s a dominant colour, it’s aquamarine.
In the decade or more, on and off, that we’ve been holidaying in these places, the typical French campsite hasn’t changed much either. The biggest shock, after a few years of absence, was realising that an entire new generation of European toddlers has been born since we first came here with ours.
The second biggest shock – at least for the former toddler who did her Leaving Cert this year and then somehow allowed herself to be talked into coming with us – is the lack of teenagers. Broadly speaking, there are still two types of people who go on French camping holidays: (1) families with small children and (2) retired empty-nesters who can’t kick the habit.
The other thing we’ve noticed here is fewer English people than in previous years.
There are still plenty, but nothing like before. The first campsite we ever stayed in had so many from Manchester, in particular, you had to remind yourself it was France and not the set of Coronation Street.
It wasn’t unusual back then to see the odd flag of St George flying from a camper van, as if to claim this corner of a foreign land – Pitch No 115, or whatever – for England. But I don’t see any flags this year either.
Maybe the new patriotism among Brexiters means staying at home. Or maybe the reduction in English visitors is purely economic, the work of a weakened pound.
Whichever of the aforementioned saints it was named for, I’m fairly sure our commune has no connection with Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, the French revolutionary born 250 years ago today. He was from way east of here, for one thing. And he could hardly be popular in these parts, because even by the standards of his time, there was nothing mild about him.
Nicknamed “the Angel of Death” for his role in the Reign of Terror, when he sent many former comrades to the guillotine, he made his friend and hero Robespierre look like a moderate.
It was a speech by Saint-Just that had helped sealed the fate of Louis XVI too.
At a time when the National Convention was inclined to mercy, St Just – the youngest deputy elected in 1792 – argued fiercely against.
A monarch like Louis could only “reign or die”, he said. There was no middle ground.
Another of Saint-Just’s more quotable opinions was that “the vessel of the Revolution can arrive in port only on a sea reddened with torrents of blood”.
But even he had had enough blood-letting by April 1794 when, beheading another batch of unfortunates, he declared it a “final cleansing”.
Alas for him, this was premature. In the Thermidor Reaction three months later, it was his turn. Calm and proud on the scaffold, he died aged 26.
No doubt somewhere in France today, people are commemorating his turbulent life.
But as an event back in Dublin next week suggests, there must have been something in the European air during that last week of August 250 years ago.
Only six days after St Just, on August 31st, 1767, a certain Henry Joy McCracken was born in Belfast.
His life was to be heavily influenced by events in France.
As a result, he too was not fated for old age. His legacy is somewhat less controversial than Saint-Just’s, however.
So among the places commemorating his anniversary is Kilmainham Gaol, where next Thursday night the Kilmainham & Inchicore Heritage Group oversees the unveiling of a sculpture. Robert Ballagh will do the actual unveiling; Yoram Drori did the sculpture. The event will be followed by a night of songs and poems on the theme of 1798.