Britons were terrified at the prospect of being overrun by Napoleon and his invincible army. Would he arrive in an armada of hot air balloons or tunnel under the English channel? Worse, might the canny Corsican launch an invasion of Ireland? Entering Britain via the back door!
The Irish certainly hoped so. From the 1790s, they conducted secret negotiations in Paris. Surely the new revolutionary government would come to their rescue and help to create an Irish republic? Trouble was – Napoleon wasn’t entirely sure what to make of his new Irish friends.
Ireland and revolutionary France – a love affair
In 1789, France exploded into revolution. The ancien regime – the old approach to governing the country – was abolished. Away went the hierarchy of peasants at the bottom, nobility and church in between, and an absolute monarch at the top. For three years, the country operated as a constitutional monarchy until the radicals pushed France to become a republic and dispensed with King Louis XVI on the guillotine in January 1793.
Ireland was enthralled by events in France. If the French could get rid of their monarch, maybe they would help the Irish remove King George III as their sovereign? The dream of an independent Ireland seemed to be that much closer. Both Protestant and Catholic Irish banded together to form the Society of United Irishmen and begged France to invade and throw out the British Empire. The revolutionaries now ruling in Paris were more than happy to oblige.
In 1796, a French Republican fleet with 15,000 soldiers sailed for Ireland. This was a terrifying moment for Britain. Ireland falling to the French would be a disaster. Especially at a time when the loss of the American colonies was still keenly felt.
But then, in what must have seemed like divine intervention to the British, the sea whipped up violent storms, the likes of which had not seen for decades. The invading fleet was smashed up and sailed back to France. Truly God was an Englishman! With minimal effort, Britain took some captives but otherwise observed the French arrive, fail to dock, and then depart.
This was a significant setback for the new French republic – but undaunted, the Irish were back in Paris the following year to meet an ambitious Corsican by the name of Napoleon Bonaparte. He seemed like the kind of courageous military man who would overrun Ireland in no time.
The United Irishmen pay Napoleon a visit
In his final exile on the remote isle of Saint Helena in the south Atlantic, Napoleon remembered the Irish delegation visiting him in 1797 and 1798 before he became absolute ruler. France at this time was governed by a committee of five politicians known as The Directory – which Napoleon would soon overthrow to take supreme power.
He politely received the United Irishmen – but there was little warmth. Instead, the Irish felt that Napoleon was bit of a cold fish. The United Irishmen’s leader, Wolfe Tone, couldn’t figure him out at all. For his part, Napoleon thought the Irish had no strategic plan, were divided between themselves, and a bit untrustworthy. At Saint Helena years later, he mused that if a more honest group of Irishmen had arrived, he’d have given them full support.
Two months after meeting the United Irishmen, Napoleon inspected a military force assembled to invade Ireland and wasn’t impressed. He advised the Directory to strike at the British Empire through Egypt. This went down very badly with the Irish rebels. But they were not to be deterred for long.
1798 – Ireland explodes into rebellion
Things in Ireland reached boiling point.
Britain had lost its American colonies and watched in horror as France beheaded its monarchs and a great swathe of its aristocracy. If the Irish thought they were going to follow that path, then they had to be disabused. No dissent would be tolerated. The United Irishmen, now driven underground, made new, more radical friends among sectarian Catholics keen on a more bloodthirsty approach to the British and Irish Protestant settlers.
With hostility at fever pitch, Ireland entered a state of all-out rebellion. Despite Napoleon’s Gallic hauteur towards the United Irishmen, the French came good. General Jean-Joseph-Amable Humbert landed at Killala in County Mayo with over a thousand troops. At the Battle of Castlebar on August 27, he pulled off a surprise victory against a British-led force three times the size. But this would be the high point of the 1798 uprising.
By September, Humbert surrendered to the British having abandoned plans to march on Dublin. The British treated the French general with respect given his rank and the discipline enforced on his own troops, shooting looters and discouraging sectarian attacks on Protestants. He was allowed to return to France with honour. But his Irish-born officers were hanged to his dismay.
Napoleon sets up an Irish Legion
Although Napoleon hadn’t warmed to the United Irishmen, he periodically entertained the idea of invading Britain through the Irish back door. On August 31, 1803, he set up the Irish Legion. This was made up of Irish heritage soldiers to ensure that once they arrived on Irish soil, they would be regarded as liberators and not invaders.
The legion was placed under adjutant-general Bernard MacSheehy. Though born in Dublin, he was the fourth generation in his family to have fought in the French army. He was educated at the Irish College in Paris and took part in the abortive 1796 attempt to land the French fleet in Ireland. By all accounts, the United Irishmen leader Wolfe Tone regarded him as a fool.
However, Napoleon did not share the same view, initially. And Wolfe Tone was not around to object having cut his throat in prison (or been murdered) after the failed 1798 rebellion. MacSheehy accompanied Napoleon to Egypt and came to be regarded as something of an expert on Irish affairs.
But, Tone proved to be right.
A year later, the Irish general had managed to fall out with everybody around him and was removed from command of the legion. After Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Trafalgar, the emperor put all talk of invading Ireland on the back burner. MacSheehy died after being hit by a cannonball at the Battle of Eylau fighting the Russians in 1807.
Napoleon tended to in exile by an Irishman
Though an invasion of Ireland never happened – Napoleon and the Irish seemed feted to be in close proximity to the end. The defeated emperor’s doctor during his final exile on the island of Saint Helena was an Irish surgeon, Edward Barry O’Meara. He would write an explosive memoir, Napoleon in Exile, or A Voice From St. Helena, alleging British mistreatment of his patient and fuelled the long running conspiracy theory that the ex-emperor’s death was due to foul play.
O’Meara and Napoleon clearly formed a strong bond. The two discussed what would have happened if the French had carried out an invasion of Ireland. Napoleon said he would have ensured that the country became a republic and hoped it would inspire the rest of the British Isles to follow suit. 1798 had been a tragic missed opportunity but Napoleon had ensured that Wolfe Tone’s widow received a pension. And he secured the release of Tone’s accomplice Napper Tandy who was facing execution by hanging.
In 1818, O’Meara was ordered to leave Saint Helena after alleging that he was being forced to administer poison to Napoleon to murder him. In contemporary newspapers, it’s interesting to note that opinions were divided back in Britain. Some inferring that O’Meara was an unqualified surgeon and muckraking Irishman. Others that the authorities at Saint Helena had overstepped the mark. They had no right to dismiss Napoleon’s own personal physician.
Napoleon died on May 5, 1821.
Irish cheer on France in the Franco-Prussian War
The Irish love affair with France did not diminish after the demise of Napoleon.
In 1870, war broke out between France, led by Napoleon III (nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte) and the new emerging European superpower: Germany, led by Kaiser Wilhelm and his able Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck. In July of that year, a hundred thousand people filled the streets of the Irish capital, Dublin, protesting in favour of France. French flags were everywhere intertwined with the green flag of Irish Republicans.
Ireland was still very much under British rule and would remain so for another fifty years. Those Irish yearning to be rid of Britain and to proclaim a republic, still looked to France for salvation. Even though France was an empire every bit as colonial and imperialist as the British Empire – its single redeeming feature was….it wasn’t the British Empire!