Saturday, December 09, 2017


Wellington Barracks
Click on any image for a larger version

I spent last evening in Wellington Barracks on Dublin's South Circular Road. You might think I was detained but I was there on the same terms as got me locked into a police cell overnight in Longford town many moons ago.

I had wangled my way into one of the monthly lectures of the Military History Society of Ireland, or as it said on the screen Société d'Histoire Militaire d'Irlande.

I did know the time of day, it was heading for eight o'clock pm, but in case I was in any doubt about the date, the screen informed me that it was 17 Frimaire 225 which made it very hard to figure out how many days were left for last Christmas posting. But I suppose if you were actually going by that calendar you wouldn't be paying any attention to Christmas in the first place.

Enough of the light stuff and down to business. The subject of the night was 1798: The French in Mayo, a case study in military occupation and the speaker was Dr Sylvie Kleinman.

Sylvie was the ideal speaker for this talk. She specialises in Irish-French interactions in this period and her command of the French language has enabled her to intensively and extensively interrogate French sources, including vast military archives, along with usual English language sources.

On the night, she was bringing the results of this research to bear on the structure and logistics of what we might broadly refer to as the civilian side of the occupation, or the occupation as it impacted on the civilian population.

General Humbert

The parameters were set by General Humbert, or rather by the orders under which he was operating. These enjoined him to give good example to the population by strictly abiding by the rules of war, such as those dealing with the taking of prisoners and their treatment, the provisioning of the army by appropriating only such food and livestock as was absolutely necessary, and avoiding uncontrolled and wanton killing of the local population. It was apparently made clear to the soldiery that anyone violating these rules would simply be shot out of hand.

You might think that all of that should go without saying, but the outcome of the French occupation was in starkly benign contrast to the subsequent retribution by British forces after the ultimate defeat of the French at Ballinamuck.

Implementation of these rules in Killala fell to Col (Capt ?) Charost, whom Humbert left in command there, and who turned out to be a decent skin, unlike his counterpart, Truck, in Ballina.

Humbert actually declared an Irish Republic and installed a civilian president, John Moore, of its Connaught Province.

French Military Archives, Vincennes

Sylvie relied heavily on the reports/memoirs of the Anglican Bishop Stock who became interpreter for the French and their liaison with the local population. The Bishop was in an invidious position, acting in some ways as a champion of the people and at the same time facilitator of the occupation. Fortunately Charost and Stock developed a mutually respectful relationship which facilitated a relatively smooth occupation, at least as far as Killala was concerned.

Bishop Stock's writings are known and published but Sylvie also accessed original manuscript sources from a range of participants some of which gave less restrained accounts than published versions where these latter existed.

It was a most interesting evening, but I must confess to not being able to assess what was new material or conclusions as most of the stuff was new to me.

My personal interest, and what bought me to the talk was twofold.

My father was from Ballyhaunis in Co. Mayo and I have relatives living in the county, including in Castlebar.

I have an interest in the period and particularly in attempted French invasions arising from my work on the defence of Killiney Bay in the Napoleonic period.

In fact, in looking at Sylvie's work generally, it struck me that she would have been the ideal person to have taken part with me in the Café Historique at the Alliance Française in 2015. I was dealing with the British government's efforts to defend the kingdom(s) and defeat the French régime with the help of disaffected royalists. Sylvie deals with French efforts to defeat the British with the help of the Irish revolutionaries. Perfect mirror images.

But it was not to be and I am still only partly along the way to understanding why.

And, finally, I should admit that Wellington Barracks is no more. It is now Griffith College.

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