The French Invasion of Ireland

Extract from the Report of the Committee of Secrecy of the House of Commons


During the latter half of the 1790s the Directory of the French Republic made numerous plans to destabilize English government and society by sending landing parties to various parts of the British Isles with a view to inciting the local populace to rebellion. Most of these plans, including a raid into Cornwall under the command of General Jean Joseph Amable Humbert, were abandoned.

Finally, with the encouragement of Wolfe Tone and the Society of United Irishmen, the Directory agreed to an invasion of Ireland in order to facilitate and assist in a general uprising there. A fleet of 45 ships sailed from Brest on the 15th December 1796, carrying almost 15,000 troops under the command of General Lazare Hoche, bound for Bantry Bay in Cork.

The mission fell victim to poor communication and bad weather. The frigate ‘Fratenite’, carrying both Admiral Morard de Galles and commander-in-chief Hoche, got seperated from the main fleet on the first day. By the time it reached the southern coast of Ireland the French armada was reduced to 34 ships—one vessel had sunk and others had steered a different course.

At Bantry, the winds proved so strong and unfavourable that it was impossible for the remaining ships to land. The adverse weather conditions continued for days until eventually, and to Wolfe Tone's great dismay, the mission was completely abandoned on the 29th December.

Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen continued to press the French for another expedition, but the Directory had other priorities throughout 1797, although a Dutch invasion force (allies of the French) almost became a reality in that year.

Then, in May 1798, a much delayed Rebellion finally broke out in Ireland without foreign assistance. It was sparked off in Dublin, then spread to Kildare, Wexford, Wicklow, and ultimately to Ulster; but by late summer the uprising had almost completely been suppressed by the English and their adherents in Ireland. Lack of co-ordination and old religious animosities between the rebels were major contributing factors to the failure of the rebellion.

So when General Humbert finally landed at Killala in County Mayo on 22nd May 1798 with a small force of approximately 1000 men, it really was a case of too little, too late. Humbert did manage to rally several thousand of the Irish to his cause and had some success in routing the English and the local militias in a number of engagements, but the odds were too heavily stacked against him and he finally surrendered to the English at Ballinamuck in County Longford on the 8th September 1798.

Throughout this period the English were only too aware of the connection between the Society of United Irishmen and the French Directory. A network of spies and informers kept them well-informed of the Society's business and the French plans to launch an invasion. The following text is an extract from Appendix 28 of the ‘Report of the Committee of Secrecy of the House of Commons’, published in 1799. The heading for the Appendix reads Translation of INSTRUCTIONS to Brigadier General HUMBERT, commanding the Secret Expedition entrusted to the Legion “des Francs.” This particular expedition, which included a raid on Cornwall, did not materialize in the end.



I have just imparted to you the intentions of the French nation. I have also expressed to you my private sentiments, with the frankness of a soldier, who feels his glory connected with the success of our common enterprize. Bear in mind that all Europe, the eyes of which are now upon you, will judge whether you deserve that your chains should be broken. Nothing is more easy, if you engage in it with determined courage. Rise at once in a mass at every point of your island. My brave brethren in arms and myself, will be the centre for you to rally round. A force so considerable insures to you, without striking a blow, a speedy and complete victory; and in the same manner as the vivifying rays of the Sun purify the earth from pestilential vapours, and destroy the insects which they nourished, so from the ardour of your patriotism shall issue that splendour which will banish tyranny, and annihilate its Satellites amidst the unanimous shouts of the Irish and the French, exclaiming Liberty and Equality for ever!


After having discussed the subject with those Deputies of the Central Committee of Insurrection of Ireland, who have been recommended to him by the Executive Directory of France, the Commander in Chief of the French Army, desirous to shew in a manner still more particular the intentions of his Government with regard to the Irish People, considers it his duty, as well in order to facilitate the Revolution, as to maintain order during the political crisis which must necessarily arise from the overthrow of despotism, to publish the following articles, inviting at the same time all good citizens to comply therewith, until such time as the representatives of the people shall assemble.

Art. 1st. We, the faithful organ of the Executive Directory of France, recognize and proclaim in the face of Heaven the Liberty and Independence of the People of Ireland. We swear to maintain them with our whole power, and to make no peace with the oppressors of Ireland but in concert with the new Government which she shall adopt.

Art. 2d. We invite the Members of the Central Committee of Insurrection, immediately to assemble in order to execute the functions of the Provisional Government; we prohibit the agents of the English Government to continue to exercise their duties; and we prohibit likewise, every individual, citizen or soldier, to obey their orders.

Art. 3d. On the receipt of this the “Notables” (the principal inhabitants) will take care to assemble in order to appoint three Commissioners, who, meeting at the principal town of the district, shall compose the Provisional Administration, and in quality of Administrators shall conduct the business of the Committee. They will likewise be required to execute the orders which may be transmitted to them by the Central Committee, to which is entrusted the duty of convoking the Irish National Assembly, the office of which will be to make future laws and regulations.

Art. 4th. The notables of every country will likewise take care to appoint a military officer, and direct the Provisional Administration to organize an armed force ready to march to the defence of the country.

Art. 5th. This armed force shall consist of cavalry, infantry, and artillery; that is to say, that a class of men shall be formed, in which every individual shall be at liberty to enter into any one of those services, according to his own inclinations, and his own physical and pecuniary means. When the formation is completed, the military commander shall, without delay, conduct his troops either to join the French army, or to some point fixed upon by the Central Committee. When they reach the place of their destination, they shall there be completely equipped.

Art. 6th. The sums of money deposited in the public treasuries, the magazines, the stores, articles of commerce and merchandize, belonging to the English Government, to its agents or partizans, are and shall remain confiscated for the use of the Irish Government, and accordingly they shall be seized by the Administrators of the Committee, and placed in the hands of the Paymaster of the Army, who shall be responsible for the monies transmitted to him, and shall account for them to the new Government.

Art. 7th. The ships and vessels belonging to the King and his pretended subjects, shall likewise be confiscated for the benefit of the Irish Government. They must be expressly prohibited to quit the Ports of Ireland under any pretence whatever. In the name of the Central Committee, the exportation of grain, provisions, or merchandize belonging to Irishmen, must also be prohibited. The notables and Administrators of the Maritime Committees, shall be personally responsible for the execution of this article, unless they shall shew that any exportation that shall have taken place was effected by means of superior force.

Art. 8th. The supplies furnished for the use of the French army shall immediately be paid for, or at least with as little delay as possible. In the last case the Commissary General shall keep an exact account of the supplies so furnished, and deliver to the Proprietor an acknowledgement, specifying the price of the objects delivered, in order that in proper time the sums due may be punctually paid.

Art. 9th. The agents or friends of the English Government, who shall take arms against the Defenders of Liberty, shall impede the progress of the Revolution, or shall oppose the circulation or the execution of orders issued by the Central Committee, and particularly the present, shall be considered as traitors to their country, and punished accordingly.

Art. 10th. Such enemies of the Revolution as are pointed out in the preceding article, who shall be desirous to go to England, shall be at liberty to do so, upon making a declaration to the Central Administration of their district, which must permit them only to carry away such things as are absolutely necessary, leaving it always to the National Assembly to decide on the subject of the property belonging to emigrants.


Brave Friends,

THE Frenchmen whom you see in your country do not come to subjugate you, and to conquer Ireland. Armed in the cause of the equality of man, and the liberty of nation, they come to make you free; they come to give you their assistance in breaking the yoke of the infamous English Government; they come to assist you to re-conquer the property of your ancestors, of which you have been despoiled by odious and base usurpers. Far be from you the thought of opposing us in Battle! Be Irishmen! Be free! Come and join our Ranks! We will shew you the path of honour. In a word, you will learn how men love and serve their country. Come, and speedily our common enemy will be annihilated.

We know that you have long sighed for our arrival. A thousand times have you shewn yourselves free by your heroism, and by your virtues. Let us instantly unite, and let your tyrants disappear. You ought to recognize no masters but the laws, which, very soon, you will receive from your faithful representatives.

In order to remove doubts, and to make known the intentions of the Central Committee of Ireland, with the members of which I have conferred, I think it my duty to publish the following regulations:

Art. 1st. The soldiers who shall abandon the standard of George for the purpose of joining the French army, or the revolutionary army of Ireland, shall be admitted to share in the distribution of landed property which shall take place after the Revolution, and shall be immediately incorporated with the regiments raised for the defence of Liberty. The officers and non-commissioned officers, who shall embrace the common cause, shall continue to enjoy the same rank which they now hold.

Art. 2d. The sailors who shall abandon the service of England, shall likewise be admitted to share in the distribution of land, and to enter into the public service. They shall moreover be allowed the price of such English vessels as they shall bring into the ports of Ireland.

Art. 3d. Irish officers and soldiers fighting against the Defenders of Liberty, and taken with arms in their hands, shall be considered as traitors to the country, and punished accordingly.

To the ARMY destined to effect the REVOLUTION of IRELAND.


PROUD of having led you to victory on various occasions, I have now obtained from Government permission to conduct you to new success. To command you is to be sure of triumph.

Anxious to restore to liberty a people worthy of it, and ripe for a Revolution, the Directory sends us to Ireland for the purpose of there facilitating the Revolution which excellent republicans have just undertaken there. It will be glorious for us, who have vanquished the satellites of Kings, armed against the Republic, to break the chains of a nation of friends, and to assist them to recover their rights, usurped by the odious English Government. You will never forget, brave and faithful companions, that the people whom we are now going to visit are the friends of our country; that we ought to treat them as such, and not as a conquered nation. When you arrive in Ireland you will meet with hospitality, with fraternity.

Soon will thousands of its inhabitants come to swell our ranks. Let us be careful then never to treat any of them as enemies. As well as us they have to avenge themselves on the perfidious English. The latter are the people on whom we have to inflict the most signal vengeance. Be assured that the Irish sigh no less ardently than we for the moment, when, in concert with us, they shall proceed to London to remind Pitt and his friends of the attempts which they have made against our liberty.

By friendship, by duty, for the honour of the French name, you are bound to respect persons and property in the country to which we are going. If by unremitted efforts I can provide for your wants, be assured that, anxious to preserve the reputation of the army which I have the honour to command, I will severely punish all those who shall transgress the duties which they owe their country. Laurels and glory shall be the reward of the Republican soldier; death shall be the punishment of robbery and pillage. You know me well enough to believe, that I will not now forfeit my word. It was my duty to give you warning. Be you careful to bear it in mind.


People of Ireland,

AT various periods you have manifested your horror of that slavery to which the ambition of England has reduced you; and not-withstanding your natural bravery, your efforts to shake off the yoke have been unsuccessful, and defeated by the arts and perfidy of the English Minister, who, employing all the means of corruption, has always spread division among your leaders, and succeeded, by their treachery and disunion, in preserving the chains by which you are fettered.

At present, when the glorious and ever memorable Revolution of France has rekindled the sacred flame of the love of liberty, which tyranny had in vain endeavoured to extinguish in your hearts, your Secret Central Revolutionary Committee justly thought itself bound to profit by the moment, when the arms of France, every where triumphant, enabled her to lend assistance to Ireland, in order to recover her ancient independence. In the hope of obtaining it, the Committee applied to the Executive Power of the French Republic, gave the most positive assurances of the disposition which an immense majority of the Irish felt again to become a free people. It at the same time communicated the measures long since taken in silence, and for the success of which nothing was wanting but the arrival of a French army, with arms and warlike stores and assurances that, immediately upon that event, all the patriots able to serve would flock to the French standard, and soon expel the English and their partizans from the Irish territories.

This affecting representation of your situation, and of your wishes, made by your Secret Committee; its petition for assistance, presented in the name of the whole nation, having excited in the minds of all French Republicans those sentiments of generosity and kindness, which they delight to bestow upon nations which are oppressed; the Executive Power resolved to afford you its aid, in a manner calculated to fulfil your most sanguine hopes. For this purpose I have landed upon your shores at the head of an army of Republicans, accustomed to victory under their Commander. We present ourselves as sincere and zealous friends of all those who shall espouse the cause of Liberty; and we are only ambitious of the glory of breaking your chains, and punishing your tyrants.

It is no longer the struggle between the Houses of Hanover and Stuart; the one to continue, the other to become again a despot. Free men fight only to maintain equality of rights, and detest even the very name of master. Convinced that you share with us these noble sentiments, we offer you our hands and our hearts for the re-establishment of your national dignity, by the free choice you shall make of a form of Government fitted to secure the duration of your independence, uncontrolled liberty to declare your opinion with respect to men and measures. We will guide your representatives in their labours to accomplish your views; the publicity which you will give to their deliberations will prevent error; the order and tranquillity which I will assist you to maintain, will guard you against the violence of enthusiasm, sometimes more dangerous than the attempts of disaffection.

The example of other nations, the experience obtained by their various attempts, every thing promises you a happiness which has been dearly purchased by your friends, and which they have the generosity to offer you, on the single condition that you will declare yourselves with the firmness suitable to, and worthy of, a nation consisting of four millions of people.

There is not certainly a single Irishman of information, who is not aware of the advantages to be derived from his geographical situation, from the population of his country, and the fertility of its soil; from the activity, strength, and courage of its inhabitants, and from the numbers, the excellence, and the happy situation of its Harbours.

His indignation must then be excited to the highest pitch, when he contemplates the dreadful wretchedness of the very great majority of his countrymen, and reflects that nature has lavished her benefits on him in vain, if he cannot control the mischiefs of the systematic tyranny of the English Government, seated in the heart of cruel Albion. It is indeed in consequence of this usurping spirit, that England has successively been able to paralize all the physical and moral resources of Ireland.

The policy of England has constantly nurtured the seeds of animosity and distrust between the different religious sects whose fanaticism, excited and directed by the Court of London, prevented the force of Ireland from rallying against the common enemy.

From this disunion arose the facility of treating the Irish like slaves, by excluding them from all employments, civil, military, and ecclesiastic.

By this arrangement alone the nation soon becomes the prey of a handful of Protestant strangers; creatures devoted to the Machiavelism and to the rapine of the English Government.

These satellites of despotism, by means of plunder and injustice exercised upon your ancestors and yourselves, have become almost the only possessors of the landed property of your country, the rent of which being carried to England, consigns you to the most wretched indigence; and from a dread left your industrious activity should enable you to rise above this oppression, the act of navigation was employed to complete the pressure, and to deprive you of every means of forming a navy.

The absolute nullity of national representation in your Parliament, allows you no hope of a redress of your grievances. The prohibitions to acquire a property in land, and to grant leases of long duration (prohibitions which have but recently undergone some flight modifications) have compelled the greatest part of the farmers to become the day labourers and servants of the usurpers of their ancestors' estates. By the severity of the laws, by the want of the means, you are are deprived of the power of educating your children. In a word, barbarity has been carried to such a length that you are even prohibited to use the language of your fore-fathers.

To this sketch of the picture of your wretchedness, and the spectacle which presents itself to passengers in the streets of London, where crowds of Irishmen, descended from the most antient families of a formerly flourishing country, are compelled day and night to earn a subsistence by the meanest occupations, and are incessantly overwhelmed by the insolent populace of that inhospitable land with humiliations and reproaches.

Compare now with these melancholy truths the certain means which I bring you (if you have courage for the attempt) of obtaining to independent form of Government, calculated to promote your highest interests, without any limits to its authority but impossibility itself, or the wish of the people, restored to their sovereignty. A fraternal toleration of all religions, which laying aside those animosities which result from religious opinions, will preserve you from the perfidious machinations of England, of which you, Presbyterians and Catholics, have been alternately the sport. Consider in this new order of things, how much your union for your common happiness will supply means of every kind to enable you to resist those who should dare attempt to disturb your tranquillity. Endeavour to ascertain the resources which you may derive from a population abounding in men of genius and courage; from a soil fertile in all the necessaries of life; from an active and well directed industry; from the certain and various conveniences you possess for foreign commerce. What an increase of strength, will you derive from the many inhabitants which your liberty and your advantages will not only retain in your land, but will recall from the United States of America, to which they had retired through misery and oppression.

The abolition of all privileges and distinctions, by affording to every individual the hope of attaining, by his talents and his virtues, the principal dignities of the State, will diffuse through every prosession that salutary thirst of glory which multiplies great men. Your national representation will then consist of persons of the first merit. In a word, a Constitution freely chosen, which you will have, adapted in every respect to what your situation requires, will completely consolidate for ever your political existence, while it establishes your independence. Such and many more, O People of Ireland, are the advantages of the Liberty and Equality which the generosity of French Republicans offers you by me, and which the zeal and intrepidity of my companions in arms will insure to you.

The power with which I am invested, authorising me to make and issue such regulations as shall appear most useful for the success of this noble undertaking, I am going, by the first instance in which I exercise it, to destroy all possibility of uneasiness, which ill-disposed persons would endeavour to inspire into minds apprehensive of the conduct which the brave army I have the honour to command might pursue towards the inhabitants during the period they shall remain in the country.

I therefore solemnly declare, that every violation of liberty of person and property, all disrespect for the religion and authority legally constituted by the good people of Ireland, shall be punished with death, within four-and-twenty hours after the arrest of the offenders, whatever may be their quality or condition; and that order and discipline shall be inforced under the severest penalties.

Banish therefore, as you ought, all uneasiness respecting what might appear to you a subject of disquietude. I flatter myself that I shall meet with, on your parts, all the zeal and assistance which my operations will require. I am confident that all sincere friends of the happiness of Ireland, who may be able to bear arms for the defence of the cause, will flock to the Republican standard, where they shall immediately be furnished with arms, and that they will speedily co-operate with my exertions to compel the common enemy from your territory. Upon the celerity of this junction will essentially depend the effusion of blood, which you will on all occasions find me desirous to spare.

I will take care that exact registers shall be kept of the christian and surnames of persons, as well of the time of their arrival, with memoranda of the degree of zeal which they shall have displayed, in order that in the distribution of the property which shall be confiscated from the enemy, the strictest justice may regulate its partition, according to the merit of each individual.