Myles Byrne

From A Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878

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Byrne, Myles, Chef-de-Bataillon in the service of France, and officer of the Legion of Honour, was born at Monaseed, County of Wexford, 20th March 1780. But a youth, he entered with ardour into the hopes and plans of the United Irishmen. On 3rd June 1798 he joined the body of insurgents under Rev. John Murphy, encamped at Corrigrua, County of Wexford. Next morning this force, consisting of about 10,000 men, armed chiefly with pikes, without artillery, and with but few muskets, and little ammunition, marched on Gorey. Their passage was opposed by troops under Colonel Walpole. He was killed in a skirmish that ensued, his force routed, and his three pieces of artillery with ammunition were captured. Gorey was then occupied, and insurgent levies flocked in from all directions.

The 5th and 6th June were spent in drilling and reconnoitring. On the 7th Carnew was taken and burned, and a hill close by occupied as a camp. Next day Carnew was evacuated, and preparations made for an attack on Arklow. This town was garrisoned in force by the military, and was attacked by the insurgents on the 9th June. Byrne commanded a division of pikemen. The battle was hotly contested for some time, but eventually the insurgents had to withdraw, having suffered fearful losses.

The Rev. Michael Murphy, one of their bravest leaders, was killed in this engagement. Several days were spent in aimless marches, the want of an efficient commander-in-chief being greatly felt: provisions and ammunition began to grow scarce, and the insurgent army, attended by crowds of followers, was further encumbered by the numbers of wounded, whose sufferings they were unable properly to alleviate, and whom they dared not leave behind to the mercy of the soldiers and yeomanry.

An attack on Newtownbarry failed, and the southern division of the insurgents was defeated with terrible slaughter at New Ross. The scattered bands, weakened by death, disease, and exposure, gradually concentrated on Vinegar Hill, over Enniscorthy. There, on 21st June, they made their last stand, and in it Byrne took a distinguished part. Attacked at early dawn by overwhelming columns of troops under General Lake, they fought with the fury of despair, but were before long defeated, and broke down the hill, through an opening humanely left by their opponent in his columns. Byrne says: "I had been in many combats and battles, but I never before witnessed such a display of bravery and intrepidity as was shown all along our line."

Wexford was occupied by the military next day, and the work of execution, transportation, and reprisals commenced. Byrne kept command of a small force. Marching over the old battle-ground of Foulkesmill, they turned north through Killan. On the 23rd they attacked Goresbridge, and were joined by a party of colliers from Castlecomer. Here he had to deplore the murder of several prisoners in cold blood, and other atrocities, committed by his men in revenge for the picketing, pitch-caps, and executions to which the peasantry had been exposed before the hostilities commenced. Castlecomer was unsuccessfully attacked; and about 26th June, the now diminished band of pikemen returned into Wexford through Scollagh Gap. With his wounded brother, he paid a furtive visit home to bid farewell to his mother and sister, and after being engaged in a few skirmishes with the troops, joined Michael Dwyer and General Holt in the glens of Wicklow.

On 10th November he managed to escape into Dublin, disguised as a car driver. He passed the next few years as clerk in a timber yard. In the winter of 1802-'3, he was introduced to Robert Emmet, and, following the example of most of the insurgent refugees in Dublin, entered with enthusiasm into his plans. Byrne made contracts for arms with gunsmiths, prepared pike handles, and other necessary materials of war. When the eventful 23rd July arrived, Byrne's part in the arrangements was to command a body of men in readiness at a rendezvous on the Coal (now Wellington) Quay. Like all Emmet's plans, this miscarried. Byrne was, according to his own account, ready with his contingent, but the first news that reached him was of the fracas in Thomas-street and Emmet's flight to Rathfarnham. Two days afterwards he had an interview with Emmet, when it was arranged that Byrne should go to Paris, and endeavour to procure assistance from the French government. In an American vessel, he managed to escape from Dublin to Bordeaux, whence he proceeded to Paris, and was quickly in communication with the refugees there. But all hopes of French intervention were over. Entering the French army, he served with distinction in Spain, the Low Countries, and Germany. He continued in the army after the Restoration, and in 1830 was appointed Chef-de-Bataillon.

His Memoirs, edited by his wife, though lacking in arrangement, are full of interesting particulars of the varied scenes he passed through, and abound with valuable biographical notices and personal details of the Irish exiles in France. He died in Paris on the 24th of January 1862 (aged nearly 82), in the arms of a beloved wife, and was interred at Montmartre. His widow writes of the last few days of his life: "He was [then] greatly grieved at the civil war between the States of the North and South; but he felt hopeful of the ultimate result, and had no fear of the Union being broken up; on the contrary, he expected it would probably be stronger than ever, and also be purified from the blot of slavery. His aspirations for the emancipation and regeneration of Italy were equally ardent. His love of freedom and the well-being of his fellow-creatures was confined to no country or race, and he was ever ready and active to do good and to serve others." To the last, his love of Ireland and interest in her affairs continued unabated. He is described by those who knew him in his latter days, as a singularly noble-looking old man — erect and soldierlike to the last; with all the polish of a perfect gentleman; genial in his manners, and full of anecdotes of various scenes through which he had passed. His widow was living in firm health in 1877.

Note from Addenda:

Byrne, Myles — There is a more correct account of the battle of Vinegar Hill in the notice of GENERAL LAKE, page 281.[233]

Sources

65. Byrne, Myles: Autobiography. 3 vols. Paris, 1863.

233. Manuscript and Special Information, and Current Periodicals.

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