A French Proclamation to the Irish People

Valerian Gribayedoff
Chapter III

A Proclamation to the Irish People—Astonishment of the Invaders at the Religious Zeal of their Irish Allies—Peculiar Position of the Irish Clergy—Their Intolerance rebuked by the French.


S the last rays of the setting sun illumined the town and bay of Killala on that memorable 22d of August, 1798, a French soldier climbed to the roof of the Episcopal palace and lowered the British colors that from time immemorial had floated there. The staff was not destined to remain long bare, for presently a green flag, with a harp embroidered in the centre, and bearing the motto, "Erin go Bragh," rose slowly from its base, greeted by a triple salvo and the cheers of a large concourse of people. The inhabitants of Killala had fully realized the significance of the situation, and the large majority being malcontents, the invading army had been surrounded by enthusiastic throngs, eager to offer help and coöperation.

To what extent the leaders of the insurgents were prepared for Humbert's coming may be gathered from the somewhat colored statement of a loyalist inhabitant, who declares that a number of them appeared from the start in uniforms provided by their "new friends." "Nothing," he continues, "could exceed the consternation which prevailed throughout the town—the loyalists every moment expecting to be butchered in cold blood. Men, women and children, drowned in tears, attempted to escape, but in vain. Every avenue leading from Killala was thronged by rebels making in to receive the fraternal embrace, whose eyes indicated the malignity of their hearts. No one was permitted to depart but on business which concerned the invaders."(14)

Humbert was not dilatory in arranging for the provisioning of his troops. His supplies had run short, owing to the hurry of his departure from La Rochelle, and he had no reason to expect any further help for the present from France.(15) So the very evening of his arrival he ordered the prisoners to be brought before him and questioned them closely as to the resources of the district. He assured the bishop, however, that while the necessities of war would compel him to requisition a certain number of horses and cattle, he intended eventually to compensate the owners, who would in the meanwhile receive vouchers for all such property, payable on the Irish Directory, shortly to be established in Connaught. Magistrate Kirkwood's answers to the different interrogatories, as interpreted by Teeling, were apparently so frank and truthful that Humbert took a fancy to him, and, placing him on parole, assured him that he would be entirely unmolested and allowed to attend to his private affairs, provided he remained within the town's limits. Unhappily for the magistrate, his invalid wife had meanwhile fled to the neighboring mountains, and his anxiety for her welfare resulted in his starting out in search of her the very next day. Of course this action was regarded as a flagrant breach of parole, and in retaliation the French helped themselves freely to everything they could find in his house. They also permitted the Irish revolutionists to ransack it from top to bottom, so that Kirkwood subsequently returned to find his home a ruin.

But if one excepts a little sally of ill-humor on Humbert's part when he discovered, the day after the landing, that the bishop had failed to comply with the orders for furnishing horses and cattle, the treatment of Kirkwood was the only approach to severity that can be laid at the door of the French during their entire stay in Ireland. If we are to believe the bishop himself—and he certainly could have no motive for exaggerating the virtues of the invaders of his country—the discipline maintained by Humbert's troops was excellent throughout. "With every temptation to plunder," he remarks, "which the time and the number of valuable articles within their reach presented to them in the bishop's palace, from a sideboard of plate and glasses, a hall filled with hats, whips, and great-coats, as well of the guests as of the family, not a single particular of private property was found to have been carried away when the owners, after the first fright was over, came to look for their effects, which was not for a day or two after the landing. Immediately upon entering the dining-room a French officer had called for the bishop's butler, and gathering up the spoons and glasses had desired him to take them to his pantry. Beside the entire use of other apartments during the stay of the French in Killala, the attic story, containing a library and three bed-chambers, continued sacred to the bishop and his family. And so scrupulous was the delicacy of the French not to disturb the female part of the house, that not one of them was ever seen to go higher than the middle floor, except on the evening of their success at Castlebar, when two officers begged leave to carry to the family the news of the battle, and seemed a little mortified that the intelligence was received with an air of dissatisfaction."

On the morning of the 23d the French commander issued a proclamation that had been carefully prepared by himself and the Irish officers accompanying the expedition. It was couched in the florid language of the day, and, translated into the Irish tongue, was well calculated to stir the fervid Celtic nature to action. It read as follows:



You have not forgotten Bantry Bay—you know what efforts France has made to assist you. Her affections for you, her desire for avenging your wrongs and insuring your independence, can never be impaired.

After several unsuccessful attempts, behold Frenchmen arrived amongst you.

They come to support your courage, to share your dangers, to join their arms and to mix their blood with yours in the sacred cause of liberty! They are the forerunners of other Frenchmen, whom you shall soon enfold in your arms.

Brave Irishmen, our cause is common; like you, we abhor the avaricious and bloodthirsty policy of an oppressive government; like you, we hold as indefensible the right of all nations to liberty; like you, we are persuaded that the peace of the world shall ever be troubled as long as the British Ministry is suffered to make with impunity a traffic of the industry, labor and blood of the people.

But exclusive of the same interests which unite us, we have powerful motives to love and defend you.

Have we not been the pretext of the cruelty exercised against you by the Cabinet of St. James? The heartfelt interest you have shown in the grand events of our revolution—has it not been imputed to you as a crime? Are not tortures and death continually hanging over such of you as are barely suspected of being our friends? Let us unite, then, and march to glory.

We swear the most inviolable respect for your properties, your laws, and all your religious opinions. Be free! be masters in your own country. We look for no other conquest than that of your liberty—no other success than yours.

The moment of breaking your chains has arrived; our triumphant troops are now flying to the extremities of the earth to tear up the roots of the wealth and tyranny of our enemies. That frightened Colossus is mouldering away in every part. Can there be any Irishman base enough to separate himself at such a happy conjuncture from the grand interests of his country? If such there be, brave friends, let him be chased from the country he betrays, and let his property become the reward of those generous men who know how to fight and die!

Irishmen, recollect the late defeats which your enemies have experienced from the French; recollect the claims of Honscoote, Toulon, Quiberon, and Ostend; recollect America, free from the moment she wished to be so.

The contest between you and your oppressors cannot be long.

Union! Liberty! the Irish Republic! such is our shout. Let us march. Our hearts are devoted to you; our glory is in your happiness.


The forenoon of the 23d was occupied in transporting the munition and military stores from the ships to the town of Killala. Having attended to this and placed his prisoners in charge of Savary, Humbert next bethought himself of the enemy. He sent Sarrazin—promoted to the rank of general of brigade for his spirited conduct of the preceding day—with a small force in the direction of Ballina to reconnoitre the country. Ballina, a fishing town on the River Moy, was in the hands of several troops of carabineers and yeomanry infantry under the command of Colonel Sir Thomas Chapman and Major Kerr, the greater part of which had come up during the night by forced marches from Foxford—another point still further to the south—on the first alarm of Humbert's arrival. Sarrazin's movements were so rapid and unexpected that he fell upon a party of the enemy engaged in feeding their horses, and almost succeeded in surrounding them. A sharp engagement followed, ending in the flight of the British. After pursuing them two leagues, Sarrazin, considering his mission accomplished, returned in the afternoon to Killala.

Here the preparations for an active campaign were being pushed with great energy. Humbert's programme being to organize a regular army composed of Irishmen, he assembled all the leading agitators of the vicinity, to obtain their aid and counsel. It was at this period, already, that he discovered the great gulf which separated the French Republican and Freethinker from the Irish patriot and Catholic. Humbert, a soldier of the nation that had driven the pope from Italy, found himself, to his surprise, the would-be deliverer of a race to whom the pontiff was but one remove from the Deity itself. The situation was as startling as it was unexpected, not to him alone but to every one of his followers—sons of the great revolution, worshippers at the shrine of "Liberty" and "Reason," to whom the old religions, one and all, were part and parcel of a system for the enslaving of the human mind and body. From the neck of every one of the sturdy peasants who by hundreds gathered in front of the castle, clamoring for arms and the opportunity to march against the common foe, hung a square piece of brown cloth with the letters I. H. S.(16) inscribed on it. These were scapulars intended to arm them with fresh courage and protect them from danger in the hour of trial. Some carried banners decorated with the embroidered counterfeit of the Virgin Mary and infant Jesus; some held up crucifixes for their companions to adore. All greeted the French as defenders of the true religion, and asked for the confiscation of all Protestant property; and the more bloodthirsty even demanded that the entire extirpation of the heretics be commenced without delay.

To Humbert the situation was embarrassing in the extreme. On the one hand, by rejecting the demands of the insurgents he risked losing their much-needed assistance; on the other, by acceding to them he would be violating the rules of war and exposing himself and his men to the vengeance of the enemy in case of defeat. He called to mind Moreau's refusal to execute the Directory's bloodthirsty decree, ordering the killing of English and Hanoverian prisoners of war, and decided to adopt a similar course. The insurgents were therefore told in unmistakable terms that all attempts to harm any loyalist would be met with summary punishment of the offender.

In a grandiloquent manner suited to the necessities of the case, Humbert addressed his hearers, through the medium of an interpreter, somewhat as follows: "Citizens and brethren: understand that we are soldiers, not highway robbers. We have landed here to fight the armies of the King of England and save your unfortunate country—not to wage war on private citizens. We in France acknowledge no religion that preaches intolerance toward another. We believe as little in your Pope as in your Established Church—Catholics and Protestants are the same to us. We believe only in justice and charity to all mankind."

This harangue, short and decisive, produced for the time being the desired result. Murmurs were audible for a moment, but the wiser counsel prevailed and the recruiting proceeded without further hindrance. Strange to say, most active, in a certain sense, in promoting the interests of the French were the priests themselves, whose mission Humbert had inferentially deprecated. Not so much that they placed patriotism above religious prejudice. To them the bearing of the invaders could never have been a disappointment, for were they not fully cognizant of the republic's treatment of the clergy? In their hearts these servants of Rome detested the Freethinker as cordially as they abominated their Protestant fellow-citizen; but, imbued with the Machiavellian spirit of the Church, they seized with avidity the opportunity of annihilating one foe through the instrumentality of another. From beginning to end the influence of several of their number was insidiously directed toward encompassing the suppression if not the total destruction of the "Orangemen," a term indiscriminately applied to all non-Catholics, and but for the energetic interposition of the French the massacres of Scullabogue and Wexford (17) would in all probability have found their counterparts in the province of Connaught. That the parish priests especially were very assiduous at the start in swelling the ranks of the rebel forces cannot be denied, and their services were fully appreciated by the French commander, but he never considered them any the more entitled to the privilege of maltreating or plundering their unprotected enemies. To cite one example, a priest named Sweeney, who, with a body of his parishioners, had joined the invaders almost immediately after their arrival, approached Lieutenant-Colonel Charost with the request that Bishop Stock's library be made over to him, as he was very fond of books.

"The bishop's library," replied Charost in a tone of contempt, "is just as much his own now as it ever was."(18) Another worthy representative of the Church militant was Father Owen Cowley, of the parish of Castleconnor, Sligo, who, if the affidavits of his victims can be credited, spared no pains to bring about the wholesale slaughter of the English prisoners confined at Ballina. Though he failed in this pious design his treatment of them was cruel in the extreme.

But this phase of the campaign will receive further attention in another chapter. For the present it is only necessary to say that the incongruity of the various elements gathered together in Killala could only be compared to the unprecedented nature of the situation itself. For the first time, perhaps, in the world's history, the passions of warring religionists were restrained by the intervention of neutrals entirely devoid of all religious belief. Still more extraordinary was the fact that many of the latter had but two years before been engaged in deadly strife with an element very similar in most respects to the people they had now come to deliver from bondage. In the bloody struggle of La Vendée the republicans had been opposed to men of Celtic race and intense Catholicism—men abhorring every other form of government save that sanctified by the Holy Father and his servant, the king. Now the position was reversed. The scapular, the Church banner, the censer and the crucifix were to be paraded side by side with the tricolor of Atheism and Revolution. War and politics make strange bed-fellows, indeed!