The Events leading up to a French Invasion of Ireland

Valerian Gribayedoff
Chapter I

The Events leading up to a French Invasion of Ireland—Several Preliminary Attempts at an Invasion—Intrigues of the League of United Irishmen—Outbreak of the Insurrection.


HE echoes of America's glorious revolution shook the old monarchies of Europe almost to their foundations. That of France soon succumbed to its effects. The year 1789 saw the abolition of the ancient régime, with its manifold abuses, and of a new independence that promised great things for the Old World. To what extent these prospects were marred by the excesses of demagogues and the mad infatuation of the multitude, history has sufficiently informed us; but there is no exaggeration in saying that with all the follies and crimes that marked its progress, that was the grandest epoch in France's history as a nation when five hundred thousand of her sons, ill-clad, half-starved and poorly drilled, faced the coalition of monarchical Europe in defence of their mother country and the republican idea. The watchword, "la patrie en danger," and the strains of Rouget de Lisle's inspiring battle hymn, made heroes out of the commonest clay. Men who had never smelled powder in their lives marched with light heart and steady tread against the well-disciplined foe. On the northern frontier it was the English and Austrians, on the western the Prussians, on the southern the Spaniards, who heard their ringing battle-cry and felt the prick of their cold steel. These ragged, unkempt Sans-culottes, not satisfied with hurling the enemy back over the frontiers, followed him into his own country. They overran the Rhine province and Belgium, and in the depth of winter crossed the frozen Dutch canals, driving the British before them like chaff; and, for the first time in the history of the world, a troop of cavalry captured a large fleet of powerful men-of-war, caught fast in the ice.

But notwithstanding her numerous successes on the field of battle, the odds continued to be enormously against the young republic. England's maritime power was making itself felt in an alarming degree. A cordon of British men-of-war, extending from Dunkirk to La Rochelle, and also the entire length of the Mediterranean seaboard, kept up an effectual blockade of every large port and deprived the French of their only means of replenishing a well-nigh exhausted exchequer. Every attempt to break the cordon, or even run the blockade, met with disaster, for, with all their bravery and devotion, the sailors of the republic were no match for the "tars of Old England." Inferior seamanship and lack of discipline, in fact, had resulted in an almost complete annihilation of the French navy.

In this dilemma the attention of the French Directory was turned toward Ireland as a potential ally. The story of Ireland's wrongs is a hackneyed theme nowadays, especially in America, and for that reason it has ceased to interest the majority of people. The writer must therefore be pardoned for indulging in a little sentiment anent the condition of that unhappy island, a prey alike to the exactions of the oppressor and the conflicting passions of the oppressed. Whatever may be said in extenuation of British methods in Ireland at the present time, testimony is not lacking to show that at the conclusion of the last century her grievances were numerous enough to justify the spirit of discontent which France found it to her interest to foster. The elective franchise was denied to all Catholics, and in consequence the major portion of the population were rendered indifferent to supporting laws in whose making they had no participation, and which neither benefited nor protected them. Protestations on the part of the disfranchised, accompanied too often by acts of lawlessness, only elicited the most stringent coercive measures; and at last there reigned a period of terror throughout the country which almost recalled the martyrdom of the Spanish Netherlands under Alva's bloody régime. The people in whole districts were required to remain within their houses from sunset to sunrise, and, to insure their doing so, visits were paid them during the hours of darkness. Woe betide the unfortunate man who had absented himself. He often returned to find his home in ashes. Nay, more—cases are known of persons merely suspected of treasonable offences being dragged from their beds, and, without the formalities of a trial or an effort to secure proof, being shot in cold blood or doomed to a lingering death amid the pestilential horrors of the prison ships. The infamous Insurrection Act provided the death penalty for all who even affiliated with secret societies; but, far from crushing the spirit of the patriots, who had organized themselves into the formidable "Order of United Irishmen," it served to bring them to a full realization of their desperate straits, and to brace their nerves for a final effort to throw off the galling yoke.(2)

As a natural result, the overtures of the French Directory for an alliance were eagerly accepted by the Executive Council of the Order, but with the express stipulation that no French invading army should exceed ten thousand men, and that Ireland, after her liberation, should be left free to enact her own laws and adopt her own form of government without foreign interference. The Directory having pledged its faith to these conditions, an armament was soon after equipped from the port of Brest under the command of General Lazare Hoche, the hero of Weissenberg and Quiberon, and without contradiction one of the most promising leaders of the republican armies. Not yet thirty years of age, a man of keen insight, cool deliberation and iron will, ardently attached to democratic institutions, but withal averse to the acts of savagery that had attended their introduction into his own country, he seemed moulded by destiny for a great and glorious career. The liberation of Ireland, it should be added, had been his dream; he had urged it on the members of the Directory; he had dilated on it to his companions-in-arms. He based his argument on sentimental as well as political grounds. Ireland, he averred, that had supplied so many brave regiments to the armies of France, should be allowed to reap the benefits of the new republican era. The French armament, consisting of a fleet of 43 sail, carrying an army of 15,000 men and 40,000 stands of arms, also a formidable train of field artillery and heavy cannon, started from Brest in the month of December, 1796, and made for Bantry Bay, in the south of Ireland. Had this imposing force effected a landing, the result may be easily conjectured. How inadequate were England's preparations for her defence is evident from what occurred when the French did land eighteen months later. Suffice it to say that the special providence which, for good or for evil, has guarded England's shores since the day that the Spanish Armada went to pieces amid the waves of the English Channel, once more interposed, and after encountering one storm after the other, and failing entirely in the attempt to approach the Irish shore, the French fleet, somewhat battered, but without any material loss, returned to its moorings in the harbor of Brest.

The failure of the Bantry Bay expedition, while it proved a damper on the immediate hopes of the United Irishmen, in no manner discouraged them. Their emissaries in France continued to urge a renewal of the attempt, and pointed out the growing strength and cohesion of the brotherhood, with its ramifications extending to the remotest village in the land. Their efforts were partially successful, for in the following June the Batavian Republic, at the instance of the French Government, undertook to equip an armament for the purpose of carrying out General Hoche's project. Despite the reduced condition of her exchequer and the disorder in her military and naval departments, Holland was soon able to collect at the Texel sixteen sail of the line and a number of frigates, under the command of Admiral De Winter, with a landing force of thirteen thousand men, led by the intrepid Daendels, Commander-in-chief of the Batavian Army. This force practically constituted the entire disposable strength of the nation, and the willingness of the latter to devote it to the liberation of a suffering sister has been cited by enthusiasts as a case of national self-sacrifice, unprecedented in modern history. Expectations in Ireland ran high, and many longing eyes were directed toward the coast. But the patriots were doomed to fresh disappointment. Weeks and months passed and the sail of the deliverer appeared not. Again had the elements interposed themselves in England's favor. All attempts to leave the Texel had been frustrated by contrary winds, and after lying inactive for two months the troops were disembarked, owing to a scarcity of provisions, and the entire project was abandoned.(3)

Almost simultaneously with the failure of the Batavian expedition came the news to the Irish Union of the death of General Hoche, their staunch friend, and the expulsion of Carnot, the able organizer of the Bantry Bay expedition, from the French Directory—and the realization of the United Irishmen's dream seemed further off than ever! At this juncture, however, their hopes were again revived by the sudden conclusion of peace between France and Austria, and the private assurance of the Directory to the Union's emissaries that a fresh effort in the direction of securing Ireland's independence would shortly be made. This information, while giving confidence to the mass of the brotherhood, was also the means of restraining their impetuosity, which, had it taken the form of a premature outbreak, would have worked lasting injury to the cause. The spring of 1798 was the time set for the fulfilment of the Directory's promise, and to Bonaparte, the savior of Toulon and conqueror of Italy, was to be given the command of the new expeditionary army.

For the third time the British Government was filled with alarm, and the United Irishmen rejoiced. Every Briton capable of bearing arms was called upon by his sovereign to aid in the country's defence. The arsenals and ship-yards bustled with a feverish activity, and the well-fed shopkeepers and landed proprietors trembled for their homes and money-bags. But for a third time Fate was kind to Great Britain. Bonaparte was thinking of nothing so prosaic as a campaign amidst Irish bogs. His vivid Latin imagination had conjured up dreams of Oriental splendor. The entire East with its fascinating associations—in the foreground Egypt with her pyramids and sphinxes, then Palestine and Syria with their ancient ruins, and beyond that Hindustan with her untold wealth—these were the realms that seduced his fancy, and thither he sailed with the finest armament France had equipped in many a year!

The wail of disappointment and desperation that went up from Irish throats as the French fleet started for Egypt could scarcely fail to impress the British rulers, and to prepare them for coming events. Another circumstance tended to still further open their eyes. Through the medium of its spies the British Government discovered that emissaries of the Irish Union had deliberately thwarted the negotiations for peace opened at Lille by Lord Malmesbury, the English ambassador. These men were found to be in intimate association with the chiefs of the French Army, including Bernadotte, Dessaix and Kilmaine, whose influence they used to effect the rejection of all British overtures. The presentation of the above facts in the Irish House of Peers by the Lord Chancellor himself only tended to accentuate the crisis. The policy of coercion was followed up with redoubled vigor, the object of the ministry—as has been charged—being to drive the nation into armed rebellion, which would serve as a pretext for depriving it of its last vestige of independence. The plan, if such an one was intended, succeeded only too well. Goaded on by the arbitrary acts of the military leaders, who, without the slightest authority of law, took it upon themselves to supersede the ordinary tribunals of justice and to try by court-martial citizens accused of mere civil offences, the members of the League at last threw off all restraint, and in the month of May, 1798, broke out in open rebellion, first in the neighborhood of Dublin, then in Kildare, Wexford and Wicklow, and finally in Ulster.

It is not my purpose to dilate on the horrors that followed. Each side vied with the other in barbarity and disregard of all human rights. But common justice requires that this distinction be made: whereas the rebels were, for the greater part, ignorant and fanatic peasants, conscious only of the grievous wrongs they had suffered, and therefore in a certain degree excusable for their acts, no such excuse can be offered for the disciplined troops of his Majesty, and, above all, for the Protestant Anglo-Irish militia, who richly deserve the reprobation of all ages for a degree of bloodthirstiness unparalleled in the history of modern warfare. For months the revolted provinces remained a prey to the conqueror, and scenes of devastation and rapine were of daily occurrence. The League of United Irishmen was practically a thing of the past, and the iron hand of the despot seemed to hold the stricken land tighter than ever in its deadly grasp. It was at this supreme hour of misery that the electrifying news sped through hill and dale, through town and hamlet, that a French army had landed at Killala, in the province of Connaught, and was on the march to deliver Ireland from the oppressor!