Valerian Gribayedoff

The present volume is an effort to rescue from comparative oblivion one of the many extraordinary episodes of the great French revolutionary war. Cortez and Pizarro, and scores of minor conquerors—nay, even buccaneers like Morgan—have found their panegyrists, but on the subject of General Humbert's descent upon Ireland in 1798 history is almost silent. Scarcely more than two years ago an English general—if I mistake not, Lord Wolseley—in a public speech referred to the "glorious fact that the United Kingdom had not been insulted by the presence of an armed invader since the days of William the Conqueror." The speaker's ignorance was excusable, seeing that the majority of English histories barely mention Humbert's name. None of them do justice to the magnitude of his achievements, or recount, in a manner worthy of the subject, the exploits which carried his small army to the very heart of Ireland.

Maxwell, in his History of the Irish Rebellion, rendered famous by a set of Cruikshank's illustrations, devotes one and a half chapters to the story of the expedition; but his narrative, being exclusively based on the official reports and the extremely partial account of the Tory writer, Sir Richard Musgrave (Dublin, 1801), the result is anything but satisfactory from a strictly historical point of view. For a similar reason does Mr. Froude's version of Humbert's descent, as contained in his recently published History of Ireland, prove superficial and inaccurate. Nor has the hardy Frenchman received better treatment from his own countrymen. Thiers dismisses him with six lines, and Guizot with the words: "A French invasion under command of General Humbert for a time gained some successes, owing to the incapacity or connivance of the Irish militia, but it was soon repulsed."

Two years of research, involving an examination of musty records and archives that have lain untouched in the British Museum and the Bibliothèque de France for almost a century, have convinced me that I am dealing with a case of historical oversight. Had Humbert's expedition not taken place at a period when the attention of Europe was riveted by Bonaparte and his schemes of Oriental conquest, the episode would doubtless have figured in history side by side with the "Bridge of Arcola," the passage of the St. Bernhard, the "Charge of the Light Brigade," and other popular traditions.

For what, in brief, were the circumstances under which the French landed in Ireland? Their entire strength fell short of 1,100 men of all arms, and on the day of their arrival at Killala the country was occupied by 150,000 English troops, thoroughly prepared for every emergency. For three weeks the invader held his own in the face of every difficulty, defeated several forces in the field—one, at the lowest computation, being seven or eight times his superior in size—conquered an entire province, and only surrendered to overwhelming odds after out-manoeuvring the British commanders during an unremitting march of a week's duration. The French by that time had penetrated 150 miles into the interior of the country. As will be fully shown, Humbert's action was less quixotic than appears at first sight. An unfortunate delay of a few hours prevented his junction with a large body of Irish insurgents. Had he accomplished his purpose the road to Dublin would have been thrown open to him, and the history of Ireland might have been changed.

A word is perhaps apposite regarding several of the authorities I have consulted, a list of which will be found on pages 7 and 8. It is a habit of all chroniclers of the events of '98 who take the anti-English view to treat Sir Richard Musgrave's Memoirs as utterly unreliable. Musgrave, as a Tory member of the Irish Parliament and an opponent of Catholic emancipation, naturally allowed his partisan prejudices and religious convictions to color his writings. These teem with invective and denunciation against the rebels and the Catholic clergy. Nevertheless, a comparison of the Memoirs with other contemporaneous works on the rebellion—even those of pro-Irish writers—fails, in my opinion, to reveal any deliberate instance of mendacity or fabrication on his part. By reason of his connection with the government he had access to many channels of information closed to the ordinary citizen, and in his copious appendix will be found copies of the numerous sworn depositions upon which his charges against the rebels are based. Musgrave's principal sin is one of omission rather than commission, for he is ever careful to pass over in silence the cruelties committed in the name of the king and the constitution. All of which being the case, it is fair to assume that his narrative, shorn of its animadversions, deserves some consideration as an historical record. With all its faults, it helps to throw much light on the events of the day, and I have not hesitated to refer to it very frequently.

My most valuable authorities are a small work entitled, Jones' Narrative of the Insurrection in Connaught, of which a reprint was published in Carlisle, Pa., in 1805,(1) and Louis Octave Fontaine's Notice Historique de la Déscente des Français en Irlande (Paris, 1801). The first-named book contains the narrations of several participants—active and passive—in those stormy events. Their style is simple but eloquent, and often dramatically descriptive. The absence of all striving for effect and partisan motive seems to stamp them with the seal of truth. On the merits of Fontaine's account I will not dwell at this stage, as a reference to the author is introduced into the story. As far as my personal investigations go, neither of these works has been previously consulted by any writer on the rebellion, and, in fact, it is a question whether more than one or two copies of them are now in existence.

For picturesque quality the French invasion of Ireland will stand comparison with the conquest of Mexico by Cortez. To Americans, in particular, the interest in the event will be enhanced by the tact that the hero died an American citizen on American soil, after gallantly serving his adopted country during the war of 1812. But apart from these considerations the story of Humbert's adventure points a moral that, amidst republican institutions like ours, will not fail to receive appreciation. It shows, on the one hand, the elevating influence of newly acquired liberties on a race ground down by centuries of feudalism and monarchical oppression, and, on the other, the debasing effects of religious and political intolerance both on the tyrant and his victim. For this reason mainly have I ventured on a domain that properly belongs to the military writer.

The Author.

New York, April 15, 1890.