("The Storming of the Bastille," by Jean-Pierre Houël, 1735-1813.)
By the mid-1780s, the revolutionary spirit that France had helped bring to full flame in the New World was smoldering in Paris and around Europe. As the catechism of the United Irishman would say later:
Where did it first grow?
Where did it bud?
Where are you going to plant it?
In the crown of Great Britain.
Although that bud would never bloom in Britain, it would fully flower in the crown of France with disastrous results for many beyond King Louis XVI and his queen. As the dispute between the Royalists and the National Assembly built to a head through the late 1780s, everyone in France was forced to take sides.
For most of the men of the Irish Brigade, it was clear that their loyalty was where it had always been -- to the French monarch. Their fathers and grandfathers before them had sworn their very lives to the cause of the kings of France, and most of them could not turn their backs on that tradition. And for some who wavered in that, the strong anti-Catholic strain that developed within the Revolution further alienated the strongly Catholic Irish.
Marie Antoinette in her coronation robes by Jean-Baptiste Gautier Dagoty, 1775.
The foreign regiments of the French army -- the Germans, Swiss and Swedish along with the Irish -- were the most loyal to the crown. Though Marie Antoinette urged the King to use these faithful troops to impose his will on both the mobs in the street and the Assembly, he refused to do so.
By the summer of 1791, the influence of the King had been reduced to the point where he could not protect his foreign troops from the dictates of the Assembly. The Assembly, fearing these soldiers' fidelity to the King, decided they must disband. Arthur Dillon, whose family had given a hundred years of service to France, made an impassioned plea before the Assembly to exclude the Irish Brigade if the resolution was passed. His plea fell on deaf ears. In July, the Assembly eliminated all foreign regiments, dispersing their battalions into French regiments.
In 100 years of fierce combat, on battlefields throughout Europe, the enemies of France had never been able to destroy the Irish Brigade. Now the French themselves accomplished that feat.
'These gentlemen ask only for a sword and the privilege of dying at the foot of the throne.'
Many of the brigade were unwilling to remain in French service under these conditions. Some marched to Coblentz to serve with an army forming under the Duke of Brunswick to fight against the revolutionary government. Others left to join an Irish brigade forming in the army of their ancient enemies, the British. Some did remain in service to the new French government. When the Reign of Terror began in 1793, some of the ex-members of the Irish Brigade who had stayed paid for that decision with their lives.
Theobald Dillon, who was commanding his family's regiment when it was disbanded, remained in service and was made a general. He commanded French troops against the Austrians in April 1792, when the European monarchies began their efforts to squash the French Revolution. Though he tried to rally his men, he and the other officers were accused of betraying the French army and he was wounded by his own undisciplined troops. Shortly after that he was then shot and killed by a mob of civilians in Lille. His body was then trampled in the street.
|General Arthur Dillion, painting by Jean-Hilaire Belloc, 1834. Click on image for a larger view.|
Arthur Dillon, who became the colonel of his family's regiment at 17, had been wounded twice fighting the British in the New World. In spite of his failed plea in support of the Irish Brigade, he also remained in the service of the Revolutionary army. He served them well, helping them win the Battle of Valmy in September 1792. But Dillon had enemies in the Assembly and could not survive "The Reign of Terror."
As Dillon waited his turn to kneel at the guillotine, it was said that a woman in line before him asked if he would go first, which he agreed to do declaring "Anything to oblige a lady." At the top of the stairs, he turned to the crowd that was screaming for his blood and cried out "Vive le Roi!" Years later, France honored his service by having his name inscribed on the Arc de Triumph alongside other French military heroes.
Thus did two members of this noble family meet their fate at the hands of the country their family had served so long and so honorably. Still their families did not abandon France. One of Arthur's daughters married a general in Napoleon's army, and one of Theobald's sons served in the Irish Legion of Napoleon's army and continued on in the French army, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel.
'Gentlemen, we acknowledge the inappreciable services that France has received from the Irish Brigade, in the course of the last 100 years.'
Perhaps the strangest aspect of the sad end of the Irish Brigade of France was the short-lived attempt to reconstitute them as an Irish Brigade in the army of their ancient enemy, Great Britain. In 1793, a contingent of former officers of the brigade traveled to England to offer to form a brigade of six regiments in the British army. It took a year before the British agreed to the idea, and then with the provision that none of these regiments would ever serve in Great Britain or Ireland. Recruiting in Ireland to fill out the ranks of the regiments, whose officers would be mainly from the old Brigade, did not go well.
In the end, only three regiments could be raised -- Berwick's (commanded by Fitzjames), Dillon's and Walsh's -- and it took until 1796 to get them into service. Their desire was to return to the continent to join the fight to return the royal family in France, but it was not to be. They were shipped off to Canada and the West Indies. In 1798, with the Irish once again in rebellion against the Crown at home, these regiments were all disbanded. Thus ended the final remnant of the Irish Brigade.
After the monarchy was reinstated in France in 1814, a group of aging former officers were given an audience with King Louis XVIII and offered to once again raise Irish troops for the French. "These gentlemen ask only for a sword and the privilege of dying at the foot of the throne," he was told. But it had been the support of the British that had returned him to the throne, and they had let him know they would not tolerate it. The request was denied.
It is likely that the King denied their request reluctantly, for in 1792, as the Irish Brigade was being disbanded, he had personally expressed to them the thanks of the French nation. Presenting them with a white banner adorned with a harp and embroidered shamrocks, he told them:
"Gentlemen, we acknowledge the inappreciable services that France has received from the Irish Brigade in the course of the last 100 years, services that we shall never forget, though under an impossibility of requiting them. Receive this standard, as a pledge of our remembrance, a monument of our admiration, and of our respect; and in future, generous Irishmen, this shall be the motto of your spotless flag: 1692 1792 Semper et Ubique Fidelis."
To the kings of France, and to the people of their homeland, who had so desperately needed the inspiration they provided during that desolate century, the Irish Brigade of France had truly been "Always and Everywhere Faithful."
She said, "Not mine, not mine that fame;
Far over sea, far over land,
Cast forth like rubbish from my shores,
They won it yonder, sword in hand."
She said, "God knows they owe me nought,
I tossed them to the foaming sea,
I tossed them to the howling waste,
Yet still their love comes home to me."
—"After Aughrim," Emily Lawless.
This feature was edited by Liam Murphy and Gerry Regan.
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