The Year of the French

When the little French expeditionary force under General Humbert landed at Kilcummin, near Killala, North Mayo on 22 August 1798, they were received with open arms by the local people who looked on their coming as a wholehearted attempt by Napoleon to free Ireland from English domination. They would not have dreamed of regarding it as an operation to divert a sizeable amount of England’s land and sea forces from theatres of war on the Continent.

The ensuing campaign, resulting in the capture of Ballina and then Castlebar and the clearing of County Mayo of all enemy forces by the Franco- Irish force, was a brilliant opening to the short-lived insurrection in the west.  The fatal delay of almost two weeks in Castlebar unfortunately gave the enemy time to regroup and plan counter attacks and encircling movements unhindered.

During the French stay there, they were wined and dined on a most lavish scale by the people of the town and the surrounding countryside. The victory of the Franco-Irish forces at Castlebar and the proclamation of the Republic of Connacht under President John Moore now infused new spirit into the people of Castlebar and the whole country as well.

Those who did not come to join for active service came loaded with gifts of meat, butter, poultry, eggs, fish, etc., for the troops. One party came with a steer that had been cooked in a quarry near the town on heated slabs of limestone, a custom dating back to Hannibal’s time. Gifts of clothing and footwear donated by merchants from Castlebar and the nearby towns also arrived. Drilling the raw recruits and getting them accustomed to the French muskets, swords and small arms took up some valuable time.

Despite all this, it has been stated that the Irish recruits who stuck to or reverted to their traditional weapon the pike gave a better account of themselves and inspired more fear among the Redcoats at Carricknagat and Ballinamuck, as well as in the capture of Castlebar.

A large contingent came from the Newport-Ballycroy area. A company from Ballycroy and Erris had previously marched to Ballina to join.  A body of insurgents from Westport and Louisburgh included two Augustinian Friars, Fr. Myles Prendergast and Fr. Michael Gannon. This force was led by Johnny Gibbons, locally nicknamed Johnny the Outlaw

.From the Knock-Aughamore district came two strong companies under Captain Seamas O’Malley and Richard Jordan. A company of recruits came from Killedan and Bohola parishes under Henry Valentine Jordan of Rosslevin.

A large company from the glens around Nephin Mountain who joined on the route from Ballina to Castlebar was led by Captain Peadar Jordan of Coolnabinna. Jordan escaped to Achill Island after the collapse of the rising and died suddenly while on the run there. He composed the poem, “Cúl na Binn,” one of the finest poems of the ‘98 period.

It may be mentioned that one of the martyred priests of the Penal Days in East Mayo was Fr. Fulgentius Jordan, so the Jordans should hold an honoured place in the turbulent history of Mayo.

Another local leader who joined the Franco-Irish force just before the fight for Castlebar with a strong body of pikemen was Captain Willie Mangan of Sion Hill. The first rout of any of the Redcoat regiments guarding the approaches to the town took place at Sion Hill, according to local tradition.

This, coupled with a flanking attack from the west side of the town by about three hundred pikemen, is believed to be the main factor in the complete rout of England’s regular soldiers and the hated Irish militia. Four years previously, the people of Castlebar and the neighbourhood had flocked into Main Street to watch two wine-soaked rackrenting landlords fight or attempt to fight a sword duel. Caesar French of Oughterard and the local bully boy, George Robert (or as he was nicknamed “Fighting”) Fitzgerald of Turlough House were the contestants.

During the scuffle, Fitzgerald’s spurs got entangled in his greatcoat and he fell to the ground. Immediately, French placed his foot on Fitzgerald’s chest and pointed his sword at his throat with the familiar duellist’s demand to surrender or die.

Then the crowd surged forward to save their local oppressor with the result that French had to flee for his life. He wisely had his attendant waiting with two saddled horses at the top of the town and lost no time in fleeing for his life towards Oughterard.

One of the few landlords who led a company of United recruits to Castlebar was John Moore of Ballintaffy (midway between Claremorris and Kiltimagh).  Four years previously, John Moore with his landlord neighbours, John Joyce of Oxford House and Thomas Ormsby of Ballinamore, sat on the jury that found “Fighting” Fitzgerald guilty of the murder of another landlord, Randal McDonnell of Windsor House, Castlebar.

Browne saw in Fitzgerald (an influential landlord and nephew of  Thomas Hervey, the Earl of Bristol and bishop of Derry) an enemy to be eliminated at all costs, and he did not hide his happiness when Fitzgerald was executed.

Seeing one of his hand-picked jurors side with the rebels caused him to have a secret tunnel constructed from his house (now the Convent of Mercy, Claremorris) to a grove of trees some distance away as an escape hatch in case of a rebel victory.

On their march from Castlebar to Ballinamuck, the French and Irish force marched through Bohola direct to Swinford. The Castlebar- Swinford main road at that time joined the Swinford-Kiltimagh main road at Carrabawn, a mile from Swinford and it was over this road that Humbert entered Swinford.

When a historian, Dr Hayes, travelled to Castlebar, Swinford, and over Humbert’s march to Longford in general nearly fifty years ago he was wrongly informed on this point. He was told in Swinford that Humbert marched to Foxford and then to Swinford.

Such a route would involve a detour of fifteen or sixteen miles, two unnecessary crossings of the River Moy and a march through mountains foothills which would be ideal ambush terrain for enemy units. This to seasoned campaigners like Humbert, or Blake the Irish commander, would have been unthinkable. General Humbert and his aides, Sarrazin and Charcot, dined in Anthony Corley’s Hotel, now O’Hare’s, on the square in Swinford.

The French leader first called a halt and, after sentries were posted and scouting parties sent out, ordered the troops into a large field, part of which is now the vocational school grounds.

Two steers donated by Brabazon the local landlord and two more donated or taken from the Bohola landlord McManus were hastily prepared and roasted. Four large iron gates belonging to Brabazon were used for roasting grids over large turf fires. Having eaten, the troops marched on to Bellaghy. There, one of their flanking parties, sent out the day before leaving Castlebar, rode up with the news that large enemy forces lay directly between them and the River Shannon.

This decided Humbert to change course in the hope of outflanking his enemies and getting into the central plain and hopefully on to Dublin via the upper reaches of the Shannon.

Left to fight on their own, their stubborn resistence earned tributes from some of their enemies. The French force at  Ballinamuck has been estimated at about nine hundred men. There are no definite figures of the Irish casualties at Ballinamuck. It is believed that three hundred dead, four hundred taken prisoners and another four hundred escaped would be a reasonable figure.  With martial law and unauthorised killings by the victors being a regular pattern of life in Ireland for three years or more after the rising, it is of course impossible to place a figure on the casualties connected with that Continental invasion of Ireland.

It must also be remembered that records were scanty and unreliable, especially in relation to Tone’s ‘men of no property’ who were not fully regarded as human beings by the victorious army of occupation.

Folktales From County Mayo

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