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Hesitant Brothers: French and Irish Revolutionaries, 1795-98

For hundreds of years handfuls of Irish men and women have lived beneath the barren hills where the river Moy meets the Atlantic, on the harsh western coast of the province of Connacht. Local tradition states that in the year 442 A.D. Saint Patrick himself baptized a thousand people there, and installed a bishop in the village called Cill Allia, the “Church of Saint Allia.”[1] For the next thirteen centuries not much of great import happened in Cill Allia, now known by its anglicized name, Killala. Even the great Irish rebellion of 1642 had little impact in those far western reaches of Ireland, and the early days of the rising of 1798 found little activity in Connacht. Isolated, ignorant, and desperately poor, the vast majority of the Irish who lived around Killala saw little reason to concern themselves with the outside world.[2]

It was, instead, the world that came to Killala, on August 23rd, 1798, in the form of three French frigates. The warships carried a thousand French soldiers and hundreds of muskets meant for an Irish revolutionary army. The Irish Rebellion of 1798 had been stamped out in the east, only to flare up in the west, sparked by the French landing at St. Patrick’s own Killala. General de Division Joseph Amable Humbert, commanding the French expedition, issued a proclamation calling for “Union! Liberty! the Irish Republic!” and henceforth the year 1798 would be known in Killala as Bliain na bhFranach, “The Year of the French.”

The purpose of this paper is to discuss the unlikely set of circumstances that brought French troops to Killala. More importantly, it will examine the larger question of why the French Directory government would come to the aid of Irish revolutionaries, and how that aid was manifested. French and Irish reformers and radicals certainly shared the same revolutionary ideology, largely based on the Enlightenment ideas of authors such as Rousseau and Voltaire. But the French assistance to the Irish revolutionaries was not simply a question of ideology, General Humbert’s decrees notwithstanding. French assistance, and Irish receptiveness to that assistance, was also motivated and shaped by the complex realities of the period, including political, cultural, and military concerns. It will further be argued that the political philosophy of the French Directory government was remarkably similar to that of the United Irishmen. A study of these aspects of the relationship between the French and Irish should shed considerable light upon the inner workings of both the French Directory and the Irish revolutionary movement.

It is best to open the discussion with a brief historical background of both France and Ireland, highlighting key similarities and differences. Those histories will then be followed by a review of the three French expeditions to Ireland, which will in turn be followed by a discussion of the factors that prompted and shaped those expeditions. The last portion of this paper will explore the realities of the relationship between France and Ireland, examining in turn the political, cultural, and military factors that all played significant roles in the relationship between the French and Irish between 1795 and 1798.


Prior to the Revolution of 1789 France was, in theory at least, ruled by an absolute monarch. While Louis XVI had no constitutional constraints, his rule was severely restricted by the laws and customs accumulated through the long convoluted history of France. Those laws and customs were particularly restrictive to the king’s ability to raise money; extensive privileges largely protected the clergy and the aristocracy from taxation. The tax burden that correspondingly fell primarily on the bourgeois and peasantry was one of the practical motivations for the lower classes to revolt. The privilege that protected the clergy and aristocracy from taxation also served to protect them from competition from the rest of the population; commoners were barred from military rank as well as higher governmental and church offices. Further, the Catholic Church, as the state religion, was exempt from taxation despite massive land holdings across France. Again, it was the common people who were responsible for the support of the Church. Most of France was devoutly Catholic, but still the mandatory tithe system was resented by many who felt that the Church was abusing its power.

The commoners of France constituted the vast majority of the French population. From the wealthy merchants to the lowliest of peasants, anyone not a Catholic clergyman or of the noble class was consigned to the non-privileged class: the Third Estate. Since the Third Estate consisted of so many disparate elements, it is hazardous to made sweeping generalized statements regarding their mindsets. It may be best to simply state that the Third Estate was interested in financial and social reform, and the Enlightenment writers provided an ideological spark for their aspirations. Writers such as Rousseau, Montisque and Voltaire argued that rational thought and reason should be the foundations of society rather than the traditions of a medieval aristocracy and a church based on superstition.

The Revolution of 1789 brought France a quantum shift in its government, indeed in its entire society. Many early revolutionaries, especially the bourgeoisie, began the Revolution of 1789 with limited reform goals, most agreeing on a constitutional monarchy. But those moderate reformers were subsequently displaced by radical republicans backed by their sans-culottes allies, and France spun into the violence and turmoil of the Terror between 1792 and 1794.

The Directory government that took power after the Terror had been overthrown inherited a nation in chaos. Royalists and Jacobins wanted to pull the nation to the right and left, respectively. The French economy was in ruins, the assignat currency was quickly losing value, the Vendée region was in revolt, and France was at war with most of the great powers of Europe. The conscription that early revolutionary governments had instituted as part of the levée en masse was becoming increasingly unpopular with the people, especially in volatile regions such as the Vendée. Relations with the Catholic Church were strained over the confiscation of Church land and the National Assembly’s insistence on oaths of loyalty from clergymen. To quickly address these pressing issues and to prevent the rise of another dictatorial government the Directory was structured “to exclude the common people from politics,”[3] and instead put power into the hands of wealthy, experienced politicians.

Age and experience were requirements to serve in either the five-man executive Directory or in one of the two legislative houses. The Constitution of 1795 further excluded the common people by limiting the right to vote and hold office to the wealthiest citizens. The Directory government was very much a return to a bourgeois-dominated society; the majority of France desired nothing more than a return to normal life.

Ireland in the eighteenth century differed from France in many respects, but in a number of ways the two nations were remarkably similar. Like France, Irish society was fragmented into three distinct groups, but of different natures: the Protestant elites, the Dissenters, and the mass of the Catholic lower classes. The Protestant elites constituted perhaps five percent of the population, but controlled some ninety-five percent of the land.[4] The Protestants, particularly the new Protestant gentry, were beneficiaries of previous English victories over the native Irish, and “they recognized that their power rested on confiscations and on the suppression of the majority and they were convinced that the Catholics sought every opportunity to reverse the land settlement and massacre the Protestants.”[5]

The Dissenters, consisting of the Presbyterians and Methodists who were mostly concentrated in Ulster, occupied a unique place in Irish society. While both Presbyterianism and Methodism were both Protestant religions, only Anglicans were considered truly entitled members of the Anglo-Irish elite. The Dissenters were primarily transplants from Scotland and England, and were quite well acclimated into Irish culture. While most of the Protestant elites considered themselves “English,” the Dissenters considered themselves “Irish.” But as non-Catholics they were never entirely accepted by the native Catholics, and as non-Anglicans they were never fully trusted by the Protestant elites. They made up about twenty-five percent of the population, and were the backbone of the burgeoning Irish middle class, particularly in the growing linen industries that took root in Ulster.

The Catholic population of Ireland had been oppressed for many years, especially since the failed Rebellion of 1641. Penal laws were enacted though the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to suppress the religious and societal rights of the Catholics. The native Irish “were disenfranchised and debarred from all political or legal office, and they could not acquire or bequeath land or property.”[6] The Penal Laws essentially outlawed the Catholic religion, barred Catholics from owning weapons, and its detail carried far into everyday life; for example, any marriage between a “papist and any person who has been a protestant shall be absolutely null and void.”[7]

Tithes were as much an issue in Ireland as in France, but in Ireland the situation was somewhat different: the tithes were resented by Catholics who were forced to support the Anglican Church of Ireland.  Ireland also shared the French hatred of conscription.  While the British successfully used recruitment to swell the ranks of both the navy and the regular army with Irishmen, the Irish Militia, used only for service in Ireland, was raised by conscription. Many peasant families were left destitute when the head of the household was conscripted and shipped off to a distant barracks, since “county sheriffs frequently shifted the whole burden [of conscription] onto the Catholics.”[8] The militia further raised Catholic ire when the Catholic population was ordered to pay twice the normal share of the Militia Tax, due to their propensity for rebellion.[9]

Ireland was ruled by the Irish Parliament, which was a free-standing body prior to Ireland’s union with Britain in 1801. The Irish Parliament was a long-standing bastion of the Irish Protestant gentry, and the gentry’s suppression of the Catholics was a growing embarrassment to the parent British Parliament. Lord Camden, the English Viceroy, wrote that the “careless, not to say cruel, way they behaved to their inferiors had done much to bring Ireland to its present state.”[10] Marianne Elliott, in her landmark study of the growth of the republican movement in Ireland, argues that the gentry knew that their power was gained through conquest, and thus deeply feared a native Irish rising. The fear of the Catholics drove the gentry to seek closer ties, and increased support, from England. England quickly took the opportunity to take greater control of Irish affairs, particularly Irish trade. A faction of the gentry, in turn, resented this English interference, and sought reform of the Irish Parliament.[11] This reform movement, entitled the United Irishmen, was primarily composed of men from the Protestant and Dissenter middle class, such as Theobald Wolfe Tone, a Dublin barrister. There were a few Catholic members, again from the middle class, though the movement’s greatest claim to legitimacy came through the members drawn from the Protestant elite, such as Lord Edward Fitzgerald.

The United Irishmen were to serve as the ideological leaders of the drive for change in Ireland in the late eighteenth century, but the Catholic Defender movement was to supply the muscle. The Defenders, it seems, are hard to quantify. Traditionally viewed as agrarian in focus, some scholars argue that they were strongest in towns and cities; the Irish sans-culottes.[12] In either case, scholars agree that the Defenders, badly organized and lacking any driving ideological focus, represented the mass of majority of the Catholic interests: seething discontent, and a growing willingness to rise in rebellion.

Expeditions to Ireland

Contacts between the United Irishmen and the French Directory government led to three expeditions to Ireland. The first, in December of 1796, headed for the southwest of Ireland, at Bantry Bay. The second, in August of 1798, landed at Killala in the west, while the third, in October of 1798, sailed for Ulster, and the north.

The first expedition was commanded by General Lazare Hoche, who had been instrumental in crushing the Royalist revolt in the Vendée, and who was in many circles more popular than the other rising star, Napoleon Bonaparte. The expedition consisted of thirty-five ships with 12,000 troops aboard, and sailed from Brest. To avoid a blockading British squadron the French ships attempted a difficult passage through a narrow channel. Though one ship was lost on the rocks with heavy loss, the French successfully eluded the Royal Navy and headed for Ireland.[13] En route, winter storms separated the French ships, and though most of the squadron reached Bantry Bay, the flagship bearing Hoche was blown far out to sea. Command devolved onto General Emmanuel Grouchy, who would later serve as a Marshal of the Empire under Napoleon. The same indecisiveness that would plague Grouchy at Waterloo manifested itself at Bantry Bay. Poor weather, a lack of any sign of a United Irish presence ashore, and the absence of Hoche made Grouchy hesitate, then break for home.

The Royal Navy snapped up a few stragglers, but most of the French returned to Brest intact. Upon his return to France, a livid Hoche demanded a court martial for Grouchy and the naval officers, under accusation of cowardice. Director Paul Barras declared that the “Irish expedition was an admirable, grand, and just conception. It failed through the want of skill of the navy and the weakness of the military commander.”[14] Wolfe Tone, the Irish barrister, United Irish leader, and now Chef-de-Battalion aboard a French ship in Bantry Bay, would write in his memoirs that “England has not had such an escape since the Spanish Armada.”[15]

Both the Irish revolutionaries and the Crown forces realized that had the French managed to land twelve thousand men at Bantry Bay the Crown might well have lost all of Ireland. Both the Irish and British parliaments took immediate steps to reinforce their position in Ireland. In addition, massive arrests amongst the United Irish leadership quickly brought the organization to its knees. Despite this, great numbers of the common Irish people took hope in the French attempt, and the ranks of the Defenders swelled. Acts of rebellion multiplied, and harsh repression by the Crown forces sparked cycles of brutal reprisals across much of Ireland.

Anxious to strike again before their organization was completely dismantled, the United Irishmen called for a general rising on May 24th, 1798. The Rebellion of 1798 was a disaster for both the rebels and the loyalists. Disorganization, poor leadership, and excessive violence marked the conduct of both sides. The rebels had gained control of large parts of Ulster and Wexford, but by mid summer the loyalists, reinforced from England, had crushed the rebel forces. By August it seemed that the worst was over; the Crown forces busied themselves with a bloody suppression of the remaining rebels. Then the French came again.

The second French expedition to Ireland came in August of 1798. Three fast French frigates sailed en flute: their gun ports were empty, as the guns were stripped to allow a thousand infantrymen to fill their decks. The French again managed to evade the Royal Navy squadron blockading Brest, and headed for the west of Ireland. Fearing pursuit by the Royal Navy, the French under General Joseph Humbert were anxious to land at the first available port. Favorable winds brought the French to Connacht, and the French came ashore at Killala.

Connacht had thus far been remarkably quiet during the Rebellion of 1798: the United Irishmen were virtually nonexistent this far from the cities of the east, and the Defender movement had been effectively suppressed by local authorities. Yet the arrival of the French sparked a rising of the common people that astonished the local gentry.[16] But a thousand Frenchmen, no matter how skilled, and five thousand Irish peasants, no matter how enthusiastic, were no match for the Crown forces under General Lord Cornwallis, late of the American Revolutionary War. Humbert led a masterful, if brief, campaign through Connacht before being cornered by Cornwallis. The French surrendered, and their Irish allies either fled or faced the vengeance of the Loyalists.[17]

The defeat of the Rebellion of 1798 brought scant consolation to the Crown forces. The Loyalists had anticipated the lack of organization of the Rebels, but were astonished by the scope and ferocity of the rising. The greatest recriminations were reserved for the Royal Navy, whose vaunted defense of the British Isles had twice been foiled by French forces.

The French made one last attempt at Ireland in October of 1798. A desperate gambler’s throw, this last expedition was intercepted at sea by an alerted Royal Navy. All but three of the ten French ships were captured by the British after an extended battle off the north coast of Ireland. All twenty-five hundred men of the French invasion force were captured, including the ubiquitous Wolfe Tone.[18]

There would be no further French expeditions to aid the Irish revolutionaries. The revolutionary ideology that had brought the French and Irish revolutionaries together was insufficient to overcome the difficulties of politics, culture, and military power. Now that we understand the overt facts of the French aid to the Irish rebels, the key aspects of the relationship between the French and Irish can be examined.


The effects of ideology on men’s behaviors can be maddeningly difficult to quantify. The only quantifiable element of ideology is in its communication: how and where we see it, and how it is transmitted, and how frequently. We will see that the nature of ideology differed sharply between France and Ireland.

Most historians trumpet the role of ideology in the French Revolution. The contributions of the great Enlightenment writers such as Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Rousseau all contributed to the growing consciousness of the population of France. These great philosophes “applied the critical and rational approach of the Enlightenment to the full range of human knowledge and to every aspect of society.”[19] But some recent scholars downplay the decisive role of ideology in France during the revolution. Timothy Tackett has done a quantitative study of the biographies and writings of deputies to the Estates General and the Constituent Assembly, and finds that they “referred more often to history and to God than to reason or the general will or Rousseau and Voltaire.”[20]

Whatever the degree to which the lofty ideals of the philosophes effected the thoughts of French society, one cannot deny the wide-spread dissemination of revolutionary ideals. Books, newspapers, pamphlets, artwork are all empirical evidence of a culture in transition. Further, even songs and festivals are useful in tracking the spread and evolution of revolutionary thought. Even if the details of Enlightenment genius were missing, the basic tenets of Liberté, Egalité, and Fraternité percolated down to every level of French society.[21]

Ideology is very evident in the writings of those Frenchmen involved in the effort to support the Irish revolutionaries. Director Paul Barras, in writing that “the Irish called upon Heaven to move us to deliver them from the yoke of their tyrants,”[22] may make a rather non-revolutionary reference to religion, but his hatred of tyranny is perfectly in line with the concepts of the philosophes. The fact that even the common soldiers were motivated by ideology is seen in the memoirs of a French junior officer who sailed to Ireland “to bring them freedom.”[23] This indoctrination of the rank and file of the revolutionary armies was no accident; John Lynn in his landmark study of the Armée du Nord tells us entire units “came together to fraternize, hearing public addresses and swearing allegiance and fraternity to one another, sometimes before an altar of liberty.”[24]

It is also critical to note that the French Declaration of Rights claimed to legislate for all people of all nations, not just for the citizens of France. France, the birthplace of many of the Enlightenment authors and the furnace that forged the tools of revolution, was now willing to export revolution. All of Europe, indeed all the world, was now subject to the fervor of revolution. This willingness to export revolution was to find an equivalent Irish willingness to receive it.[25]

Ideology had much more restricted role in Ireland in the late eighteenth century. Due to the strict controls of the Protestant gentry, very little Enlightenment ideology filtered down to Ireland’s illiterate peasantry. Only the elites and the small middle class population had access to the new ideology, but that exposure to French culture was surprisingly thorough. Many of the elites and middle class spoke French, and French books were readily available to the literate. Further, Rousseau and Voltaire were widely published in Irish journals.[26]

The exposure to Enlightenment ideology was key to the founding of the United Irishmen. The Enlightenment “provided the ideological means of mobilizing the colonized majority against the imperial nation of England which was now oppressing the colonizers themselves.”[27] But the United Irishmen eventually came to the realization that they would have to enlist the aid of the whole of Irish society if true reform, let alone revolution, was to be seen in Ireland. When Wolfe Tone wrote to a French official in 1795, he spelled out numerous factors that would be key to a successful French landing. Only with French promises of freedom of religion, abolition of all unjust distinctions, protection of property, and freedom from “an ancient tyranny” could Tone “ensure the support of seven eighths of the people.”[28]

Enlightenment ideology was not a part of the psyche of most of the Irish Catholic peasantry. The most direct medium of communication with the peasantry was the Church, but the Church was no friend of the Enlightenment. The rationalist arguments against religion were anathema to all organized religions, but especially to the Catholic bastion of Ireland. The Catholic hierarchy had seen what revolutionary ideals did in France, and they made every effort to halt the spread of those ideals in Ireland.[29]

Thus, the Defender movement that rose to represent Catholic frustration had little ideological impetus. Instead, the Defender ideology was grounded only in a long-repressed sense of having been wronged.[30] Only memory and song perpetuated the Irish sense of indignation: “Mo Ghile Mear”, “Ar Bruach na Laoi” and “Eamonn an Chnuic” are old Irish tunes that lament lost heroes and lost glory.[31] Music is hard to suppress, and the Gaelic lyrics kept the true meaning of the songs from insulting English ears.

The United Irish attempted to spread their ideology to the greater Irish populace through sympathetic newspapers, though The Press and The Northern Star were soon shut down by Government. Oaths of obedience were also published to spread the word as well as to bind the hesitant, and an ingenious oral catechism was devised to communicate with the people, a format that was very familiar to the Catholic faithful.

Enlightenment ideology was much more pervasive in France than in Ireland. Still, it was a binding force between the French government and the leadership of the Irish revolutionaries. How that ideology would fare in the harsh reality of politics, culture, and military power is key to our understanding.


Probably the greatest enemy of ideology is politics. Eighteenth Century Europe was no exception: despite their revolutionary jargon, both the French Directory and the United Irish leadership were both determined to bar the common people from both voting rights and participation in government. The Terror was fresh in the minds of both the French Directory government and the Irish representatives who had witnessed the horror. The Directory was founded on this fear: “sobered by what they saw as the consequences of unlimited democracy, the thermidorians openly worked to establish a political regime dominated by the wealthy and educated.”[32]

The United Irishmen, equally anxious to prevent excessive violence and protect their status, were very much in favor of a bourgeois-style government in the style of the Directory. Wolfe Tone, the principle United Irish representative in Paris, was a case in point: “whatever his republicanism, Tone was no democrat.”[33] Indeed, the very foundation of the United Irish movement was based on Protestant superiority, as “the contradiction between the fight for Irish rights and the exclusion of the majority of the Irish people from any participation in those rights was not immediately apparent to the protestant reformers.”[34] This exclusionary concept of how government, indeed all of society, should be structured, must be considered a key foundation of agreement between the Directory and the United Irishmen, but is curiously understated in the historiography of the subject.

While both the Directory and the United Irishmen were very leery of the common people, both revolutions were to be in great debt to the power of the lower classes. The peuple had been key in the success of the French Revolution; so too were the United Irishmen prepared to tap that resource if necessary. Tone felt twenty thousand French soldiers would be necessary if the United Irishmen would go for Dublin and seize power in a coup de main. If the French would send only five thousand, he would have to use “a revolutionary plan I fear – that is to say to reckon only on the sans culottes.”[35]

Tone’s negotiations for a massive French effort are a fascinating study of politics and circumstance. Tone’s memoirs depict a very dull, frustrating life in Paris, punctuated with thrilling audiences with Directory officials, while the memoirs of Director Barras mention the Irish representative’s pleas as just another piece of business on a busy docket.[36] The fact that Tone was only one representative of a disorganized and factious United Irish organization did not help his cause. The arrival of the self-serving Napper Tandy caused considerable inter-Irish squabbling that “lowered the Irish nation in the esteem of the French Government.”[37]

Tone was eventually to find that the “division of power at the center of the Directory encouraged divisive unilateralism,”[38] and concentrated his efforts on just one powerful Director and his following. Director Lazare Carnot came to be the champion of the Irish cause, and when Carnot enlisted the co-operation of Barras the Irish cause was quickly propelled to the top of the French agenda. Furthering Tone’s efforts was General Lazare Hoche, a close protégé of Barras. The young Hoche held a burning hatred for the British after their attempts to foment the Vendée revolt, and their landing of a French émigré army at Quiberon Bay. Hoche and Tone were soon fast friends, and their relationship did much to forward the Irish cause.

Hoche’s hatred for the British prompted him to propose actions that horrified Tone: if the French could not mount a full invasion, Hoche urged an Irish chouannerie. That type of bloody insurrectionist war had been fueled by Britain in the Vendée, and in revenge Hoche wanted a chouannerie sparked by a landing of deserters and convicts.[39] The plan for Ireland was eventually forgotten when Tone argued that only Ireland, and not England, would suffer from such a plan, but the Directory did mount one small such expedition against England. A force of fourteen hundred chouans, all convicts, deserters, and reprobates, was landed in Wales in February of 1797. They were quickly rounded up by the British and, interestingly, returned to France.[40]

If the Irish found it difficult to rouse the French government to action, it seems that the French public was even less interested in matters of state. After the horrors of the Terror, most French citizens desired nothing more than peace and quiet. Tone noted the apathy of the French public, writing that “it is very lucky the new [Directory] government was in function before this absolute decadence of public spirit in France.”[41] But internal French politics kept the Irish option alive. Jacobins, still a strong force in French politics, continued to push for aggressive wars to spread the doctrine of Liberté, while the French military was a powerful force in supporting the Directory.[42]

The military first came to support the Directory in October of 1795 in suppressing a republican revolt: a very significant act, as it marked the first time since the revolution that regular army troops had been employed against the people in support of an unpopular Revolutionary government.[43] The Directory “in time became the prisoner of the military, on which it depended for the many coups designed to restore the political balance.”[44] If the military, especially the popular General Hoche, was interested in an expedition to Ireland, the Directors, ever anxious to keep their power, were very willing to support it as well.

When the French did act, they did so with their own agenda. Each of the three expeditionary commanders carried secret instructions on how to establish provisional governments upon arrival in Ireland. A French-style government was to be established, under French control. Further, “the Irish must recognize that they owed their independence to France, and repay the debt by an alliance against England and grant a favoured-nation status in commerce.”[45] All ideology aside, the French expected substantial benefit from their alliance with the Irish rebels. That alliance would be further tested by the cultural and military climate of the day.


There was comparatively little cultural division between the members of the French government and the urbane United Irish emissaries. As previously discussed, the United Irishmen and the Directory had similar political motivation, and the Irish quickly attempted to fit into Paris society. Wolfe Tone, for instance, was a regular at Paris theaters and restaurants, and came to speak at least passable French.[46]

The great clash of French and Irish culture came when French troops first came ashore at Killala. The differences in religion and language were suddenly very clear, and indeed the way the impoverished Irish lived came as a shock to the French.

The truest form of the ideology of the French Revolution would have put an end to organized religion. But many of the Irish peasants around Killala saw the French as having come to right all of their grievances with their oppressors, including the reinstatement of Catholicism in Ireland. “God help these Simpletons,” said one French officer, “if they knew how little we care for the Pope or his religion, they would not be so hot in expecting help from us.”[47] The French views toward religion were also noted by the Anglican Bishop Stock of Killala, as the French “shewed no desire to join in worship with any people (a circumstance frightful to all, and astonishing to the Roman Catholics) yet respected the devotions of their neighbors.”[48] Still, religion had a place in the hearts of at least some of the Frenchmen: a French officer who led his men in a dangerous attack saw that his “young grenadiers started to cross themselves.”[49]

Religion was a cultural difference that could be quietly ignored, at least in the short term. Language, however, was an immediate problem. None of the French who landed at Killala spoke English, and Bishop Stock, as the only local who spoke French, was quickly pressed into service as a translator. Stock could not, however, speak Irish, the language of the great majority of the peasantry, so more natives were required to translate English to Irish.

While the issues of language doubtless caused great delay and frustration for both the French and Irish in Connacht, there was another aspect of the language difference that may have raised French ire. Many of the Frenchmen who were landed in Connacht had served in the Vendée; there they had fought a vicious war against the “savage inhabitants” of Brittany, devout Catholics who spoke Gaelic. Doubtless there was considerable shock amongst the ranks of the French upon learning that their new friends in Ireland were also devout Catholics, who spoke a Gaelic very similar to the Bretons.[50]

While the French grognards who marched into Ireland had seen a lot during their years serving the Republic, it seems that they were not prepared for what they found in Ireland: the poverty of the peasantry shocked the French. The French had brought arms, uniforms, and rations for their Irish allies, while many of the Irish had never seen such luxuries as shoes and beef. The French were also frustrated by the lack of discipline in their Irish allies; one French officer commented, “do you know what I would do with those Irish Devils, if I had a body to form out of them? I would pick out one third of them, and by the Lord I would shoot the rest.”[51]

After their capture by the Crown forces, the disillusioned French were anxious to leave a land where there was “neither wine nor discipline,” and the people lived on “roots, whiskey, and lying.”[52] The lofty tenets of ideology were tested by culture as well as by politics. Religion, language and culture shock all influenced the relationship between the French and Irish. The impact of the realities of military power is next to be examined.

Military Power

The largest physical obstacles to the relationship between the French government and the Irish revolutionaries were military in nature. The French were masters of European land war; the British dominated the world’s oceans. That dichotomy made the French a deadly threat if they landed a force strong enough to aid the Irish rebels, but largely prevented them from being able to so.

If the obstacles to the bonds between the French and Irish were in the realm of military strength, so too here were the greatest benefits to be found. The Irish, of course, needed French military leadership, men, and material to gain their independence. Conversely, the French believed that a rebellion in Ireland would divert British military strength away from French initiatives on the continent, and, further, that an independent Ireland would deprive Britain of “an annual ₤1,500,000 in rents and the British armed forces would have lost a valuable recruiting ground.”[53] The French army that dominated Europe had emerged from the Revolutionary wars as an instrument that heralded a new age in military history. From the ruins of the ancien regime came an army of the people, highly motivated, politically indoctrinated, very experienced, and of a potentially enormous size due to the introduction of the levée en masee.[54] An examination of Humbert’s force can give us a glimpse into the makeup of the French army of 1798:
General de Division Humbert, commanding



Etat-major (officers intended to command Irish insurgents)


2nd battalion, 70th Regiment de Ligne



Attached grenadier company



Detachment, 11th Artillery company, 12th Division



Detachment, 3rd Chasseurs a Cheval



Detachment, 12th Hussars (Humbert’s escort)


Humbert, his officers, and his men were all veterans of the revolutionary wars that had plagued France since 1789. The 2/70th had seen battle against the British at Bergen-op-Zoom, and had also served in the counter-revolutionary horrors in the Vendee, while the 3rd Chasseurs a Cheval had seen action against the Austrians.[55] Bishop Stock was very impressed with the French soldiers’ behavior, if not their appearance; “Intelligence, activity, temperance, patience, to a surprising degree appeared to be combined in the soldiery that came over with Humbert, together with the exactest obedience to discipline. Yet, if you except their grenadiers, they had nothing to catch the eye. The stature for the most part was low, the complexions pale and sallow, their clothes the worse for wear.”[56] Wolfe Tone had a similar impression of the French army: men, equipment, and horses slovenly but extremely capable. Tone, like Stock, admired the grenadiers, who, interestingly, were “fond of ornamenting themselves, particularly with flowers.”[57]

The Irish rebels who would join the French expeditions would be of the most amateur nature. Arrests, suppression, and weapons confiscations had decimated what little military strength the United Irishmen had built up. Defender organization in the east of Ireland, particularly in Wexford, had proved at least moderately effective in early 1798, but in the west the organization was close to non-existent.

There is little doubt that the United Irishmen misled the French regarding the size and capability of the Irish rebels awaiting the French expeditions. In his “First Memorial” to the Directory government Tone grossly overstated the strength and organization of both the United Irishmen and the Defenders. Further, he declared that the Irish militia, “as fine troops as any in Europe,” would defect en masse to the rebel cause.[58] In reality the militia remained largely loyal to the Crown, and were notorious for their cowardice, brutality, rapine, and plunder.[59]

Tone’s Memorial, did, however, paint an essentially accurate portrait of the numerical strengths and locations of the Crown forces. But here again exaggeration was an issue, as Tone stated that the Crown forces consisted of “the ruins of the British army from Flanders, new levied and several regiments of Scotch fencibles” who were “in a most wretched state as to appearance and discipline.”[60] Reality showed that when properly led the regular Crown forces were a formidable foe.

The French navy is another piece of the military balance that needs to be considered. Whereas the French army is routinely praised in both memoirs and histories, the navy is condemned with equal regularity. A chronic lack of funding, leadership, and experience all contributed to a French navy in a state of ruin. Indeed, before Humbert’s expedition set sail for Ireland the sailors refused to sail unless their back pay was corrected; a near-mutiny was not an auspicious start to such an expedition. The fact that three French squadrons escaped the Royal Navy’s blockade of Brest can only be attributed to luck, the leadership of a few capable officers, and storm winds that blew the British ships far off station.[61]


Ideology is a key element of revolution. It binds together men and women in a way that practical reality never can. It inspires the common man to think that he is contributing to a noble cause; it gives even the most violent acts an air of legitimacy, so long as they were performed in the name of revolution.

The ideology of Liberté, Egalité, and Fraternité was the tool utilized by both the French Directory government and their United Irish allies to motivate their soldiers, citizens, and followers. But the strength of that ideology was challenged on many levels. The exclusionary political philosophy of both the Directory and the United Irishmen betrayed the tenets of participatory government. Cultural barriers interfered with the relationship of the fledgling union between the Irish and the Frenchmen sent to support them. Military obstacles of great magnitude severely limited the ability of both France and the Irish rebels to fulfill their commitments to one another. Ideology could not overcome such constraint and betrayal.

The final question to ponder is how an Ireland under the French would have fared. And we should not mistake, that Ireland freed by French troops would have been under French control: neither the United Irishmen nor the Defenders had any organization capable of challenging French hegemony. Had Hoche landed in 1796 Ireland may well have fallen to French control, and another French satellite republic would have been founded. That point at least, cannot be argued; in 1798 Humbert established the “Republic of Connacht” only days after his arrival at Killala.

But a French satellite state could not have stood long in the very shadow of Britain. An alerted Royal Navy would have choked off reinforcement and resupply from France. A roused British army would doubtless have managed a campaign of re-conquest. It is likely that the French would have negotiated a withdrawal from Ireland for a British withdrawal from the continent. The French had a history of bartering away conquered territories in spite of the wishes of the inhabitants; in the cession of Venice, for instance, the revolutionary government proved it had no greater scruples that the ancien regime.[62] By trading away Ireland the French goal of diverting British attention away from the continent would have been achieved, and the British would have retained the economic and human wealth of Ireland. And weak, divided Ireland would have suffered, as was their destiny for another hundred years and more.


[1] Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume VIII, s.v. “Killala.”

[2] See Pakenham, 301-310.

[3] Jeremy Popkin, A Short History of the French Revolution (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2002), 101.

[4] Marianne Elliott, Partners in Revolution: The United Irishmen and France (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982), 8.

[5] Elliott, Partners in Revolution, 7.

[6] Irish Statutes, The Statutes at Large passed in the Parliaments held in Ireland  (Dublin: George Grierson, 1786-1801.Vols. III – VII) 19 Geo II c.13 (1745) <>

[7] Irish Statutes, Statutes at Large, 19 Geo II c.13 (1745)

[8] Elliott, Partners in Revolution, 44.

[9] Irish Statutes, Statutes at Large, 2 Geo I c.9 (1715)

[10] Pakenham, 34.

[11] Elliott, Partners in Revolution, 14.

[12] For the agrarian view, see Pakenham, The Year of Liberty, 35.; for the sans-culottes view, see Elliott, Partners in Revolution, xvi-xvii

[13] See Alexandre Moreau de Jonnès, Adventures in the Revolution (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1970), 97-102.

[14] Paul François Jean Nicholas Barras, Memoirs of Barras, trans. C. E. Roche (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1895), 304.

[15] Theobold Wolfe Tone, The Writings of Theobold Wolfe Tone (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 432.

[16] See Joseph Stock, Narrative of What Passed at Killala During the French Invasion of 1798 (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1998), 17.

[17] The best history of the 1798 rising can be found in Pakenham

[18] Marianne Elliott, Wolfe Tone: Prophet of Irish Independence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 386.

[19] Popkin, 17.

[20] Timothy Tackett, “Most Deputies Practical, Tolerant, and Experienced Politicians” in The French Revolution: Conflicting Interpretations, ed. Frank Kafker, James M. Laux and Darlene Gay Levy (Malabar, Florida: Krieger Publishing Company, 2002), 100.

[21] See Lynn Hunt, “Engravings”, Michel Vovelle, “Festivals”, and Laura Mason, “Music and Revolutionary Political Culture in General” in Kafker, Laux and Levy

[22] Barras, 300.

[23] Jonnès, 104.

[24] John A. Lynn, The Bayonets of the Republic (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1984), 120.

[25] Richard Kearney, “The Irish Heritage of the French Revolution”, in Ireland and France, a Beautiful Friendship, ed. Barbara Hayley and Christopher Murray (Savage, Maryland: Barnes & Noble Books, 1992), 30.

[26] see Graham Gargett and Geraldine Sheridan, ed., Ireland and the French Enlightenment1700-1800 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999)

[27] Hayley, 37.

[28] Tone, 4.

[29] Richard Kearney in Hayley, 33-36.

[30] see Pakenham, 35.

[31] see The Chieftains, The Long Black Veil, RCA Victor 1995, and Liam O’Flynn, Out to Another Side, Tara Records 1993

[32] Popkin, 97.

[33] Elliott, Wolfe Tone, 286.

[34] Elliott, Partners in Revolution, 14.

[35] Tone, 71.

[36] For example, see Tone, 185-189, and Barras, 174

[37] Pakenham, 303.

[38] Elliott, Wolfe Tone, 287.

[39] Elliott, Wolfe Tone, 292

[40] Elliott, Wolfe Tone, 333

[41] Tone, 188.

[42] Popkin, 106-107

[43] Georges Lefebvre, The Thermidorians and the Directory (New York: Random House, 1964), 202-208.

[44] Elliott, Wolfe Tone, 281.

[45] Elliott, Wolfe Tone, 304.

[46] Tone, 48, 75.

[47] Pakenham, 306-307.

[48] Stock, 46.

[49] Jonnès, 89.

[50] see Jonnès, 96, and Digby Smith, Napoleon’s Regiments (London; Greenhill Books, 2000), 127-129, 263-264.

[51] Pakenham, 307.

[52] A French officer quoted in Pakenham, 328.

[53] Steven Ross, Quest for Victory (London: Greenhill Books, 2000), 77.

[54] See Lynn, 21-40.

[55] Smith, 127-129, 263-264.

[56] Stock, 23.

[57] Tone, 208.

[58] Tone, 69.

[59] Stock, 105.

[60] Tone, 4.

[61] Alfred Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power upon the French Revolution and Empire (New York: Greenwood Press, 1969), 345-368.

[62] Martin Lyons, France under the Directory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), 203.


Placed on the Napoleon Series: August 2014

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