The Year of the French
In Irish history the year of the French is 1798, when the French after several failures succeeded in landing soldiers on the northwest coast of Ireland. On August 22 a force of 1,099 French officers and men landed at Kilcummin strand, five miles west of Killala in Mayo. These men were supposed to be the first troops of a major French invasion. If the winds had been favorable and the French as fully committed to an Irish invasion as the Irish were led to believe, thousands of French soldiers would have joined with Irish rebels and driven the English into the sea.
This did not happen. The rebels were untrained and unarmed. The French under General Humbert knew that they were outnumbered by the English under Lord Cornwallis and General Lake. Still, the English were routed at the first battle in Castlebar. There were skirmishes at Killala, Ballina, Tobercurry, Collooney, and Granard. Lake defeated Humbert at Ballinamuck, and the Irish, led by Ferdy O’Donnell, were broken at Ballina. By September 23 it was all over. The French who surrendered were sent home, but many of the Irish rebels, guilty of treason, were imprisoned and executed. The year of the French was only a month.
Thomas Flanagan’s novel tells the story of that month, so far as it affected the lives of the people of Mayo. But it also recites its events as they bear upon Irish history. The narrative really begins in 1791 when a Dublin barrister, Theobald Wolfe Tone, mindful of American success in revolution and glowing with the fervor of the revolution in France, founded the United Irishmen to free Ireland from England by force of arms.
In 1793, England was at war with France. On December 21, 1796, Tone’s attempts to persuade the French to invade Ireland seemed successful: on that day, a French fleet of thirty-five ships and 1,200 men reached Bantry Bay. But a storm prevented the ships from landing, and they were driven back to France. On May 24, 1798, Irish rebels started their own rising in Dublin, Wicklow, and Kildare. Within a few days the fight spread to Carlow and Wexford: by the first week of June, it had broken out in the north, where Tone’s colleague Henry Joy McCracken led his men in Antrim and Down. By July, the rising in the South had ended in defeat at Vinegar Hill, and the northern rebels were beaten at Ballynahinch.
When the French landed at Kilcummin, they were joined by Irishmen of two kinds: United Irishmen and Whiteboys. The Whiteboys were not interested in revolution or current events in France, they wanted to destroy the landlords who had evicted their tenants and driven them from reclaimed land. The United Irishmen were true revolutionaries, animated by a vision at once Irish and European. The Whiteboys have been discussed in prose, but the United Irishmen have dominated the popular poetry of Ireland. Nineteenth-century Irish poetry is pervaded by the vision …
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