French troops in Co Mayo,Ireland

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One of the most extraordinary episodes in Irish history saw a French naval flotilla sail to the Northern coast of Mayo in 1798 to help Ireland in its long fight to break with Britain.

The 1789 French Revolution had been a huge source of inspiration for Irish nationalists and in the wake of the second annual celebrations of the fall of the Bastille in 1791, The United Irishmen were formed by a group of merchants and intellectuals who sought an end to British interference, parliamentary reform and Catholic emancipation. Its leader, Theobald Wolfe Tone, went to seek French support.

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On 22 August, about 1,000 French soldiers under General Humbert landed in the north-west of the country, at Kilcummin in County Mayo.

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Joined by up to 5,000 local rebels, they had some initial success, inflicting a humiliating defeat on the British in Castlebar (also known as the Castlebar races to commemorate the speed of the retreat) and setting up a short-lived “Irish Republic” with John Moore as president of one of its provinces, Connacht. This sparked some supportive risings in Longford and Westmeath which were quickly defeated, and the main force was defeated at the battle of Ballinamuck, in County Longford, on 8 September 1798. The Irish Republic had only lasted twelve days from its declaration of independence to its collapse. The French troops who surrendered were repatriated to France in exchange for British prisoners of war, but hundreds of the captured Irish rebels were executed. This episode of the 1798 Rebellion became a major event in the heritage and collective memory of the West of Ireland and was commonly known in Irish as Bliain na bhFrancach and in English as “The Year of the French”.[

On 12 October 1798, a larger French force consisting of 3,000 men, and including Wolfe Tone himself, attempted to land in County Donegal near Lough Swilly. They were intercepted by a larger Royal Navy squadron, and finally surrendered after a three-hour battle without ever landing in Ireland.

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Wolfe Tone was tried by court-martial in Dublin and found guilty. He asked for death by firing squad, but when this was refused, Wolfe Tone cheated the hangman by slitting his own throat in prison on 12 November, and died a week later

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