Paris Disagreement – Frank McNally on the fall of the Paris Commune, 150 years ago this week

An Irishman’s Diary

Two Bloody Sundays book-ended the fall of the Paris Commune of 1871, but neither is known by that name. Instead, the period is remembered collectively as the “Semaine sanglante” (“Bloody week”).

It began on Sunday, May 21st, when the French army entered the city at an undefended point of the western wall. It ended on the 28th, 150 years ago today (Friday), with the capture of the last communard positions in the east, at Belville.

In between, under Gen Patrice de MacMahon – a descendant of exiles who fled Ireland after the Williamite wars – the army made short but brutal work of the barricades that had defended the city's two-month experiment in socialist government.

Troops were helped by the newly-widened streets and boulevards of Baron Haussmann, designed partly to thwart the revolutionary tendencies that the old Paris encouraged. Communard strongholds could now be quickly isolated and, in both the fighting and the executions that followed it, the defenders died in their thousands.


One of their last stands, aptly, was at the cemetery of Père Lachaise, a walled citadel of the dead located on high ground near Belville. After ending resistance there, the army marched prisoners to what is now known as the Communards' Wall and machine-gunned them to death. Their later neighbours in that part of the graveyard would include Oscar Wilde.

Among vivid accounts of the grim period was that of Charles Ouin-la-Croix, administrator of the Irish College, a haven of uneasy calm throughout the fighting. There had been a been a barrier there too, on the rue des Irlandais, near which Ouin-la-Croix saw one young man pleading for his life from soldiers, in vain.

When the fighting was over, he summed up the state of the city: “Ruin everywhere! The Palais des Tuileries burnt, the Palais Royal burnt, the Hotel de Ville burnt […] Death everywhere! Heaps of bodies covering the streets, the footpaths, the avenues; blood flowing in streams; innocent and guilty falling on either side of the ramparts or barricades.”

The painter Auguste Renoir, who had himself almost become a victim of the communards (he was painting the Seine one day in April when the Commune-supporting National Guard formed the suspicion that he was sketching river defences for the enemy besieging the city), later paid a back-handed tribute to their courage: "They were madmen, but they had in them that little flame which never dies."

At least in the short-term, however, traumatised by the horror and the military humiliation by Prussia that had preceded it, France in general preferred to forget. An old war hero, MacMahon was not personally blamed for either the Franco-Prussian disaster or the Paris slaughter.

The country instead made him president in 1873, although his government ruled from the safe distance of Versailles until 1879, only then risking a return to Paris. In the meantime, one of those broad streets had been renamed in his honour. Thus, the 12 spokes that radiate from the great circle around the Arc de Triomphe now include an Avenue MacMahon.

Of those who fought for the Commune and lived to tell the tale, meanwhile, nobody told it better than one Hippolyte-Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray. Like many other survivors, he fled to England and there enjoyed the support of Karl Marx, a great admirer of what had been attempted.

When Lissagaray wrote the classic history of the Commune, it was with the help of Marx’s youngest daughter Eleanor, who also translated it into English, and with whom he was by then romantically involved (much to her father’s disapproval).

Horrified as a child by the fate of the Manchester Martyrs, Eleanor grew up to be a supporter of Ireland's Fenians. And not the least interesting thing about Lissagaray's book is the envying contrast he draws between the financial support Fenian prisoners and bereaved families received from the Irish at home and abroad and the relative neglect of their French counterparts.

In Ireland alone, he noted, donations exceeded £5,000 while America added £4,000 and even “the poorest of the poor Irish, the emigrants of New Zealand” £240. The vastly more populous France raised less. And yet, Lissagaray noted: “The Irish victims number only a few hundreds; those of Versailles must be counted by thousands.”

If the French did not care to dwell on the Commune then, others did. Like Marx, Lenin was a big admirer. So was James Connolly, an enthusiastic student of street warfare strategy. Even critics of the 1916 Rising recognised a Parisian influence. Many commentators drew parallels, however contemptuously, with events in France 45 years previously. These included the Cork Examiner which in an editorial expressed relief at that city's calm during Easter Week "while Dublin was reproducing its squalid version of the Paris Commune".