Wild Goose Chase – An Irishman’s Diary about the Battle of Fontenoy

An event that loomed large in the Irish psyche

Speaking of Belgium, as we were yesterday, it so happens that the “Dympna Days” festival is not the only event with an Irish sub-theme happening there this weekend. As the kingdom braces itself for next month’s bicentenary of Waterloo, it will first mark the 270th anniversary of another battle that used to be almost as famous.

The events of May 11th, 1745, are now largely forgotten, at least in this country. But that they once loomed very large in the Irish psyche explains a childhood address of James Joyce – Fontenoy Street in Dublin 7 – as well as the names of at least three GAA clubs – in Dublin, Down, and Monaghan.

Like Waterloo, the Battle of Fontenoy was a close-run thing. And just as the arrival of Gen Blücher’s Prussians would tilt the balance for the Duke of Wellington in 1815, it was the late charge of the Irish Brigade – shouting “Cuimhnigidh ar Luimneach agus feall na Sassonach” (“remember Limerick and Saxon perfidy”) – that, 70 years earlier, won the day for the Franco-Prussian alliance.

The man who led it, Count Löwendahl, described the turning point in a letter to his wife: “the battle was lost, everyone was in flight, [then] the good God inspired me to place myself at the head of the Irish Brigade [...] we took the enemy in the flank, overthrew them and threw them off the battlefield”.

In a forerunner of that social media phenomenon we call the “humblebrag”, Löwendahl added: “P.S. do not boast about what my duty made me do; wait until others say it.”

But just in case others didn’t oblige, he then handed the pen to his secretary who appended his own note: “Marshal Saxe [the overall commander] said out loud that the king owed this victory to Count Löwendahl and the Irish Brigade; these are his very words.”

The Battle of Fontenoy, which pitched the French and Prussians against a British, Dutch, and Austrian alliance, was part the War of the Austrian Succession.

And aside from being the crowning glory of Ireland’s Wild Geese, its longer-term significance may have been a more dubious one – to prolong the “ancien regime” in France for 30 years. That at least was the opinion of the man who inherited the regime’s eventual overthrow, Napoleon.

Also, now that we’re all friends again, it should be noted that the Saxons didn’t have a monopoly on perfidy. Consider the case of the unfortunate Thomas Arthur Comte de Lally, one of the Franco-Hibernians who fought with such “desperate valour” at Fontenoy.

The grandson of a Tuam man, he continued his rise in French political and military circles for another decade or so after the battle.

Then he made the mistake of accepting command of his country’s dwindling hold on India. It was a poisoned chalice anyway, but he added to his problems by being too arrogant (even for the French) and by a lack of sensitivity towards customs on the subcontinent.

In short, he lost India to the British, and although France would probably have lost it without him, he was disgraced. Back in Paris, his enemies plotted until he was sentenced to death.

His cause was later championed by no less a person than Voltaire, who worked for years to clear his name and succeeded in 1778.

Unfortunately, that was a bit late for poor Lally, who had had his head chopped off back in 1761. This was an aristocratic privilege, by the way – the more humble kind of convict was hanged.

Alas, Lally’s executioner was not a butcher of the best quality. Far from getting the job done quickly, he missed with the first blow of the axe and merely broke the condemned man’s jaw. And in general, the task was so grimly protracted that it may have influenced the introduction a generation later of a more efficient decapitation device, the guillotine.

There will be no talk of perfidy this Sunday when, as is normal these days, both the Irish and British ambassadors to Belgium attend a joint commemoration of the battle. That will be the climax of a four-day event which also includes a “Soirée Irlandaise” and the opening of an exhibition entitled “De Fontenoy à Waterloo”.

The Irish ambassador, Éamonn Mac Aodha, by the way, is the joint editor (with Aileen Murray) of a recent collection of essays, Ireland and Belgium – Past Connections and Continuing Ties. This of course includes a chapter on Fontenoy. And it also includes one on another Irish emigré who, as we mentioned yesterday, also lost her head in the line of duty – Saint Dympna.