The 12 days that shook the west: remembering the 1798 rebellion
Vive la République (de Connacht): Frank McNally joins French tourists on a very special re-enactment
Re-enacting support for the 1798 rebellion: The group includes French ambassador, Stéphane Crouzat. Photograph: Henry Wills
History repeated itself – but in the opposite direction – at the weekend, when a small French invading force landed in Ireland intent on linking up with rebels in the west.
This time, the group touched down at Dublin Airport, and their first stop was Ballinamuck, Co Longford, where the thing they were commemorating ended 220 years ago. After that, they swept across the Shannon into Co Mayo, via Ballina and Killala. And by Saturday morning, they were in Kilcummin Harbour, where General Humbert and his men first stepped on to Irish soil in 1798.
As on that occasion, the French were getting here a bit later in the season than ideal. Back then, they arrived on August 22nd, two months after the main uprising had been crushed. So maybe it was apt that the commemorative weekend was happening in October.
On the other hand, Humbert’s force was intended only as an advance party, ahead of a greater invasion. And regardless of when the commemorators arrived, the local tourism industry now has similar hopes that they may be just the start of something bigger.
The weekend’s visitors included military re-enactors, wearing uniforms of the revolutionary period. They know all about Humbert & Co, having walked in their boots before.
But the group also featured a modern-day officer corps: the mayors of three French communes in Humbert’s native Vosges – Remiremont, St Nabord, and Plombières-les-Bains – where the general’s heroics are not well known. The mayors were reciprocating a Bastille weekend visit from Irish re-enactors, who made quite a stir in an area not much touristed even by the French.
Re-enactors in period military dress are, in general, not easily ignored. Although expensively authentic – often to the tune of several thousand euro each – their uniforms are colourful even by Halloween standards.
Going out with a bang
Thanks to revolutionary-era muskets, re-enactors also tend to go out with a bang everywhere, not to mention flashes and a lot of smoke. When they fired a volley off the balcony of the Ballina Manor Hotel on Saturday, for example, it looked like a broadside from a Napoleonic ship.
It’s hoped such events will increase visitor interest in both directions. And whether they’re in August or October, Franco-Irish initiatives are all well-timed of late. As that country’s ambassador Stéphane Crouzat reminded us, invoking the dreaded B-word (not “Ballinamuck”), France is about to become “Ireland’s nearest neighbour in the EU”.
The phrase “Year of the French”, immortalised by Thomas Flanagan’s 1979 novel and the lavish four-part TV serial that followed, is a bit of a misnomer. The French part of the uprising lasted less than two months, from the first landing in Co Mayo to a battle off Donegal on October 12th, where the second, larger wave of invaders was prevented reaching a shore.
At its height, the Mayo uprising numbered no more than Humbert’s 1,000 troops and about 5,000 locals. By way of perspective, back in 2016, I saw that many Irish on the street outside a pub in Montmartre, Paris, over several nights of the European football championships.
Those carousers probably made more noise than the ’98 army. Among the dead they threatened to wake in the famous cemetery nearby was Miles Byrne (1780 - 1862), who fought in the Wexford branch of the rebellion, survived to become a leader in Napoleon’s Irish Legion, and ended his days in Paris.
But modest as it was, Humbert’s force nevertheless routed the British at Castlebar and established a short-lived Republic of Connacht, before running out of road in Longford. If it wasn’t 10 days that shook the world, it was 12 days that shook the west.
Alas for many of the Irish participants, the violence didn’t end in Ballinamuck. Humbert and the other French survivors were treated with the courtesies of war and repatriated. The locals were not so lucky.
The trail of state vengeance led grimly back to Killala, where the last rebels were hunted down in late September. Among the many executed, meanwhile, was Humbert’s fearless comrade officer Bartholomew Teeling, who welcomed the hangman’s noose as an unintended honour.
Teeling’s latter-day descendants are probably best known for their part in the ongoing Irish whiskey revival. So it was apt that the weekend’s tour involved a distillery, even if it wasn’t one of theirs. The Connacht Whiskey Company is a small, independent outfit near Ballina. And to mark a visit there, the re-enactors fired yet another volley of shots. The visitors encountered incoming shots too on this occasion, but these were only of the house poitín, and there were no injuries.