The Year of the French

Killala, County Mayo

 Map of Battle of Ballinamuck 1798 from National Library of Ireland

 O! the French are in the bay,
They’ll be here without delay,
And the Orange will decay,
Says the sean bhean bhocht.

— The Sean Bhean Bhocht (Poor Old Woman), traditional song

When General Jean Joseph Humbert sailed into Killala Bay in County Mayo in August 1798, it was his second time to see the Irish coast but it would be his first time to land. Two years before, bad weather and the British Navy had prevented his fleet from landing at Bantry Bay in County Cork, but today the fickle weather was on his side and the British were nowhere to be seen.

At the end of the 18th century, revolution was in the air, bringing independence to the American colonies and upheaval to Humbert’s native France. Now revolution was arriving in a most unlikely location, far removed from any center of civilization. The people of North Mayo were rural and poor, disenfranchised by law and religious discrimination, speaking a language that few outsiders understood. The United Irishmen Rebellion had swept across the east and south of the country throughout the spring and summer of 1798, but the west remained in its usual languor. Until now.

But, hark! a voice like thunder spake,
The West’s awake! the West’s awake!

— The West’s Awake, Thomas Davis (1914-1845)

General Humbert must have seemed a strange sight, with his tri-cornered hat and his buttoned blue coat. He disembarked with a thousand French soldiers; they were met by local United Irishmen and paraded through the streets of Killala. The Mayomen were promised that more French troops would follow, and so they answered the revolutionary call. Peasant farmers stepped forward to receive arms and training. With not enough guns to go around, many lifted their pikes in the air as they roared the battle cry.

Few could have expected success from such a mob, but they routed the British militia of Castlebar; indeed, their enemies ran away so fast the event became known as “The Castlebar Races”. Captain John Moore, a merchant’s son, was proclaimed “President of the Government of the Province of Connacht”.

The army went on to further success at Westport and Newport, but both Irish and French were to have their expectations shattered. The promised reinforcements never arrived from France, and the Irish troops had neither the combat experience nor the artillery for a prolonged fight. They marched together towards the midlands in an attempt to join with other United Irishmen, grumbling in their own languages about the folly of the other.

At Ballinamuck in County Longford, they were surrounded by British troops. General Humbert surrendered after just half an hour, knowing that as prisoners of war his French troops would be well treated. The Mayomen were shown no such leniency; they were slaughtered where they stood. Any Irish leaders were tried for treason and hanged. Captain Moore died in captivity.

Humbert returned to France where he had a successful military career and, it is rumoured, an affair with Napoleon’s sister Pauline. His failed rebellion became known in local history as Bliain na bhFrancach, the Year of the French. Humbert Street in Ballina is named after him and contains a monument in his honour. The Mayomen who followed him to be slaughtered at Ballinamuck might wonder at that.