The Races of Castlebar a Highlight of 'The Year of the French'

On July 3, 1998, An Taoiseach Bertie Aherne, T.D., unveiled a plaque on The Kingsbridge Inn to commemorate the bicentenary of "The Races of Castlebar." This event, as well as the publication of Thomas Flanagan's “The Year of the French" in 1979 and the subsequent filming of this novel some years ago, have increased an awareness of the events that took place in Mayo after the arrival of General Humbert at Kilcummin on August 22, 1798, and their importance in the course of Irish history.

(Pictured: The Races of Castlebar 1798
Castlebar, County Mayo)


The French Revolution (1789-95) had a huge influence on most of Europe, including Ireland. In 1793, the National Assembly in Paris promised the assistance of France to all nations seeking freedom. Theobald Wolf Tone had gone to France to seek help for the Irish cause in 1796. This help was promised but, unfortunately, an expedition under General Hoche and 15,000 troops failed to reach Bantry Bay as the fleet was scattered by storm. After the rebellion of May 1798, Tone again sought help from France and, on July 19th, the French Directory agreed to send three expeditions to Ireland. The first of these expeditions, with an army of some 1,100 troops, sailed from La Rochelle on August 6th under the command of General Humbert (below). There were a number of Irish within Humbert's command. These included Matthew Tone, a brother of Wolf Tone; Bartholomew Teeling, and Father Henry O Kane. The fleet had originally planned to land in County Donegal, but due to storms and no doubt influenced by the presence of O Kane who was a native of Killala, the fleet sailed into Killala Bay.


On 22nd August, three frigates -- The Franchise, The Medee and The Concorde -- landed at Kilcummin flying the English colours. Edwin and Arthur Stock, sons of the Protestant Bishop of Killala, who had sailed out to meet them, greeted them. The two were captured, the English flag taken down, and the French flag hoisted. One of the first to disembark was Father O Kane, who spoke to the locals in Irish, which was the native tongue of most of the Irish then. Word soon filtered to native Irish throughout Mayo and Sligo. Bishop Stock also heard of the arrival, and he sent messages to the local gentry, among them the Jacksons, the Knoxs, Binghams, Palmers and Kirkwoods.

By about 7 p.m., the landing was complete. General Sarrazin and Father O Kane set out for Killala to survey the town. O Kane, commissioned a captain in the French force, was challenged by a yeoman from a side street, but was not hit. He went on to shoot the yeoman dead. Sarrazin and his men arrived in Killala, where they were met by a volley from the loyalists. Instead of replying, they attacked with bayonet charge and as they outnumbered the yeomen, they soon captured the town. Bishop Stock's palace was seized and became Humbert's headquarters. Several of the yeomen were taken prisoner, while others fled towards Ballina. A French soldier climbed to the top of the palace and removed the British flag, which was replaced by a green and gold flag bearing the inscription Erin Go Brach.

The arrival of the French at Killala and the rumour of other French landings caused panic among the English. The British military commander in Mayo sent a despatch to Lord Castlereagh in Dublin Castle seeking help. The local Irish leaders broadcast a call for help throughout Mayo and Sligo. Many Irish volunteers arrived to help them, including Hugh Maguire, Richard O Dowd, and Colonel Matthew Bellew, a retired Austrian officer and brother of the Catholic Bishop of Killala. Bellew was appointed leader of the insurgents. Many priests arrived with recruits, including Fathers Munnelly; Owen Cowley; David Kelly, of Ballycroy; and James Conroy, of Addergoole.

Having captured Killala, Humbert sent two groups, under Generals Sarrazin and Fontaine, to capture Ballina. That night, a fight took place between Sarrazin's troops and the British at Rosserk. The English eventually retreated in confusion. The next morning, the French / Irish troops captured Ballina under cover of darkness. The Irish peasants lit bundles of straw to show them their way. This approach road to Ballina has since been known as Bothair na Sop. They took Ballina with little resistance. They were shocked to see the body of Patrick Walshe of Crossmolina, who had been hanged publicly. He had been sent in advance to reconnoitre. The English for the most part fled towards Foxford, where they would have their forces waiting for the French advance on Castlebar.

On the 22nd, Sarrazin who had been joined by Humbert, left Ballina for Castlebar. They marched for a few miles towards Castlebar and on the advice of Father Conroy decided to turn west towards Crossmolina and approach Castlebar via Laherdane and Barnageehy. At Laherdane, the French rested and were fed by the locals before proceeding on the last leg of their journey through Barnageehy. The night was so treacherous with rain and wind that the heavy artillery had to be abandoned.

A yeoman farmer who had been tending to his cattle had spotted the French / Irish advance party. He immediately fled to Castlebar to warn the British commander of the imminent arrival of the French / Irish forces.

The English forces took up position at Sion Hill just outside the town. Humbert approached and took account of the English position. After a number of attacks in which they were hit by British cannon, Humbert decided to regroup and divided his troops, splitting them to the left and right so as to attack the English flanks. The Irish drove a herd of cattle ahead of them causing confusion in the English ranks. The French / Irish made an effective bayonet charge through the centre. The English retreated down Staball Hill. Another attack occurred at Main Steet Bridge. The English defended the bridge for some time, using forces from the Longford and Kilkenny militias and Fraziers Fencibles (a Scottish regiment). They were eventually routed, and most of the English fled toward Tuam and Athlone. The event has since become known as The Races of Castlebar. In all, the attack only lasted from 6 a.m. to noon and has been described by Thomas Pakenham in "The Year of Liberty" as one of the most ignominious defeats in British military history.

After the battle, Humbert set his headquarters at Geevy's Hotel (now known as The Humbert Inn). A Provisional Government of Connaught was declared, with John Moore of Moore Hall, selected as its president. A victory ball was held in the Linen Hall (now Town Hall), which was well attended. A small party under Teeling (pictured) pursued the British rearguard under Lord Roden. Their flag of truce was ignored and five French troopers were brutally murdered. The place where they fell is still known as French Hill.

Two locals, James Daly and Patrick Nally, from Balla, erected a monument to their memory in 1876. The monument bears the inscription In grateful remembrance of the gallant French soldiers who died fighting for the freedom of Ireland on 27th August, 1798. They shall be remembered forever. The links with that era still remain -- a 1798 memorial on The Mall, The Linenhall, The Humbert Inn, John Moore's grave, French Hill monument, the gravestone of Fraziers Fencibles inside the gate of the local Church of Ireland. There also exists a wealth of place names associated with the period, for example, French Hill, French Field, and Humbert Inn. As well, there are several sites reputed to be Frenchmen's graves and, indeed, a vast amount of folklore pertaining to the era. There is no doubt that the memories of this period will go on for a long time.

On the 3rd of September, Humbert and his forces marched out of Castlebar under cover of darkness toward Sligo on hearing that Lord Cornwallis and his troops were within a day's march of Castlebar. They covered 58 miles in 36 hours, passing through Swinford, Belaghy, Tubbercurry and on to Collooney. The next morning while Humbert's troops were having breakfast, they were attacked by Colonel Vereker and his men. Humbert managed to outmanoeuvre the English, and they retreated to Sligo and Ballyshannon. Humbert changed direction and headed toward Dromahair. On the evening of the 6th, the Franco-Irish forces reached Drumkeeran, where an envoy from Cornwallis offered terms of surrender but Sarrazin rejected them.

On the 7th of September, they crossed the Shannon at Ballintra, much to the annoyance of Cornwallis. Col. Crawford’s cavalry soon overtook Humbert, and a fierce engagement took place. Crawford retreated after losing several casualties. Humbert proceeded to Ballinamuck, County Longford. Cornwallis had managed to get ahead and had the road ahead blocked. Meanwhile, General Lake's army attacked from the rear. After a battle of about 30 minutes, the French surrendered, realising they were surrounded on all sides. The French were treated as prisoners of war. Over 500 Irish were killed and several others were hanged at Longford. Among those hanged were Captain O Malley, from Burrishoole; Colonel O Dowd from Bonniconlon; General Blake and gunman James Magee. Matthew Tone and Bartholomew Teeling were tried and hanged within a week at Arbor Hill in Dublin.

(Pictured: Monument commemorating Father Conroy in Addergoole)

There were reprisals also in County Mayo. General Portarlington and his men who had come to Ballina from Sligo slaughtered and plundered before them, burning several farmhouses on their way. General Trench took Killala on Sept. 23rd, and several individuals he encountered were killed on sight, while several more were drowned in the Owenmore River. As they fled towards Palmerstown, they plunged into the river, which was swollen by a high tide, and perished. There were several public hangings, especially in Castlebar. The most notable of these was of Father Conroy, who was hung on the Mall in Castlebar and that of Father Manus Sweeney, who was executed in Newport.

Article by Brían Hoban, Tour Guide

Views: 2051

Tags: 1798 Rising, Battlefields, Irish Freedom Struggle

Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on December 3, 2015 at 6:23am

One of these days when i come home to Ireland ; I am promising myself that I will do the tour of Castlebar 

Comment by DJ Kelly on December 14, 2015 at 12:42am

The French must have been disheartened to see how few Irishmen joined their invasion party. My own Mayo ancestors had the wisdom to realise the French weren't there to give the Irish their 'freedom' but to expand their own empire.

Comment by michael dunne on December 20, 2015 at 10:27am

Whatever reasons the French had for coming to Ireland one must acknowledge the more significant numbers of French soldiers sent in 1796. Only a hurricane prevented that invasion. had it taken place it might have been more decisive and a successful outcome for Irish and French people. The 15000 disciplined and well armed invasion force would contend with a poorly armed and less fed English occupation force of about 10,000 scattered around Ireland. The effects of the Anti Popery Laws (The Penal Laws) were still in place in these turbulent anti Catholic times in Ireland. Emancipation came with a cost and was reluctantly conceded by Wellington and others. One of the compromises was the building of Maynooth which gave the British control of the official Catholic clergy as they had to be registered and approved by the British establishment. Amazingly the Vatican agreed to this as it was always opposed to Irish or Celtic Christianity and Jesuit priests who were allegedly teaching those vocations being taught in Europe rebellious ways!?

The National Museum of Ireland in its excellent "Soldiers & Chiefs" exhibition has the acclaimed 'Bantry Boat' of 1796 and is the only significant French marine artifact for that period. It can be seen there as well as Arbour Hill prison the burial place of Matthew Tone and later the burial place of those 1916 leaders executed in the name of the Crown.Theobald Wolfe Tone, Irelands first Republican, was also incarcerated in Collins Barracks and while awaiting the British death sentence of hanged drawn and quartered, attempted to end his own life by cutting his throat.  One of Ireland,s sad and recurrent problems was the 'Backslider' or informer. This despite the atrocities perpetrated on the Irish Catholics immediately after 1798 even though this Rebellion was headed up by Protestants, many of whom done so purely for mercantile grievance. Next year would be a great year to visit Ireland and the National Museum and the adjoining Arbour Hill. Both are Free!

Comment by Mark Bois on December 20, 2015 at 7:37pm

Some years ago I wrote an article on the complicated relationship between the Irish and French revolutionaries movements, called "Reluctant Brothers. It is the usual dry academic stuff, but for those who would like to take a look it is available at:

Mr. Hoban should be congratulated for his article, as the level of detail he has gathered is quite remarkable. He has included a number of points that are not available in any academic papers I've seen, and they add a valuable level of understanding. Well done!


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