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The man in the gap – An Irishman’s Diary about the Clones native who saved the day at Waterloo

‘The bravest of the brave’

James Graham: went down in history as the man who bolted the gates shut. National Gallery of Ireland

If the Duke of Wellington is to be believed, the Battle of Waterloo – that “day of unrelenting slaughter” as one historian called it – was decided by the closing of a gate. The gate in question was the entry to a farmyard at Chateau d’Hougoumont, a strategically important site on the west of the battlefield. And the man who closed it was from Clones, Co Monaghan.

You’ve probably never heard of James Graham before. Nor had I, until this week. But he was famous in his lifetime and for many years afterwards. His actions at Waterloo earned him a promotion to sergeant, a medal, and also a pension, when an English clergyman offered £10 a year to a hero of the battle and Wellington nominated Graham.

He was known in later life as “the man who closed the gates at Hougoumont”. He was the subject of a portrait, now in the National Gallery. More than 60 years after he died, in 1906, a plaque was unveiled in his honour at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham (RHK), where he spent his retirement.

But the plaque was later moved to a church in Clones. And as the tide went out on British rule in southern Ireland, so it did on Graham’s memory.

He slipped back into obscurity again at some point, at least until this week, when a new and more prominent plaque appeared in the RHK.

Now passersby, including the thousands attending this weekend’s Forbidden Fruit music festival at the same venue, will be reminded of the Duke of Wellington’s opinion that Graham was “the bravest of the brave”.

It’s a measure of the mayhem at Waterloo, and all such battles, that historians can still argue about the significance of key events. By some accounts, Chateau d’Hougoumont was always seen by both sides as a key target. In other versions, it was a mere diversionary tactic by Napoleon that backfired – intending to force the British to commit troops there, he ended up having to throw 14,000 of his own men into a conflict that dragged on all day.

Even the time of the supposedly pivotal incident is unclear, ranging from mid-morning until almost noon. Where there is agreement is that it began when a French sous-lieutenant called Legros hacked his way through the gates with an axe, allowing about 30 troops to follow him into the British-held farmyard.

Amid vicious hand-to-hand fighting, the commanding officer, Scotsman James MacDonnell, led the effort to stop further incursions, for which he too was decorated. In fact, in a 1903 painting The Closing of the Gates at Hougoumont by Robert Gibb (himself a Scot) has MacDonnell as the focus of the chaotic scene.

But Graham went down in history as the man who bolted the gates shut. During the same skirmish, he saved the life of an officer.

Later in the afternoon, he also rescued his own brother, who was lying wounded in a now-burning barn (and soon to die anyway).

As for the unfortunate French who were cut off inside the farmyard, they were all killed, with the exception of a drummer boy.

The French assault on Hougoumont was only the start of a battle that went on all day and remained in the balance until, in the late afternoon, Gen Blücher’s Prussian cavalry came over the horizon and, as historian Norman Davies put it, “swept the French from the field”.

But had the farmhouse gates not been shut, Wellington’s “damned nice thing” (often misquoted now as “damned close-run thing”, lest readers misunderstand his meaning of “nice”) might have been decided earlier and for Napoleon. That was his opinion, anyway.

Hougoumont should have been enough drama for any rank-and-file soldier’s life, but in fact Graham went on to have at least one more moment of fame, via the Cato Street Conspiracy of 1820. In this shadowy event, a group of fanatical idealists plotted to assassinate the entire British cabinet. But the plot was rumbled and Graham – then stationed in London – numbered among a company of Coldstream Guards sent to oversee the arrests. Violence ensued, whereupon Graham was credited with having saved the life of his commanding officer, one Frederick FitzClarence, illegitimate son of King William IV.

Another decade later, the Clones man was finally discharged from the army on the partial grounds of a chest injury. He was also said to be “worn out”, as well he might be. The last 15 years of his life were spent at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, where he died in 1845, and where he continues to rest in peace, except perhaps during rock festivals.

@FrankmcnallyIT