‘The Year of the French’ is a phrase that I have been familiar with since I was 9 as a TV mini series was made with that title and subject beside where I grew up outside Navan, Co. Meath. It chronicled the failed Irish rebellion of 1798. For one of its locations they used the local big house, Ardbraccan House, its avenue and the disused church which adjoins its grounds. I watched the series the following year it was shown on RTE and today can remember little or nothing of it. I do however have very vivid memories of watching the week or so they spent filming. Only through researching this article I realised it was the great Robert Stephens (1931-1995) who I met at this time, who must have been one of the principles of the cast. It’s very difficult to know for sure but he may have been playing the part of John Moore who joined the French forces and was made president of the short lived ‘Republic of Connaught’. As my family lived so close to the church we were welcome onto the set and standing at the back waiting in full costume and somehow exuding star quality that even I could recognize was someone who to me was an old man (he would have been 50). I could also tell that the crew were a little bit nervous and in awe of him but maybe this was just my perception. Perhaps for this reason he talked with me, it struck me he was relieved to get to talk light heartedly as you would to a child. I remember his very dignified English accent and that he was very self-depreciating and one line I remember him telling me that, “this acting is a funny business”.
The series has never been repeated on TV and has yet to be made available on video or DVD. I couldn’t even find a still or any image from it online (only this reference) so it is really like it has disappeared almost without a trace and exists only in the memory of those who made it, saw it or heard about it. Which is fitting as the latter way is how the period of Irish history the production tried to portray is remembered now anyway.
An important aspect of A Guide to Here Nor There is very much about how fiction is inherent in any retelling of history and how that becomes a very subjective truth in the process, history then like acting is a very funny business indeed. Therefore my following brief description of what happened can’t tell you what really happened but only indicate what may have. I would also recommend Remembering the Year of the French: Irish Folk History and Social Memory (2009) by Guy Beiner which tackles just this subject.
A troop of just under a thousand French soldiers led by General Humbert landed at Killala on 22nd August 1798 and joined up with many rebels from the non sectarian United Irishmen. They had some victories against the English at first and even declared a ‘Republic of Connaught’ after one early battle in Castlebar. Leaving a small force behind they marched through Co. Mayo and into Co. Sligo where they were taken by surprise outside Collooney on 5th September. Bartholomew Teeling bravely managed to kill one of the English gunners and this turned the fray to Humbert’s forces favour. A statue of Teeling marks the spot today. They next marched to Dromahair where they crossed the border into Co. Leitrim in the early morning of Thursday the 6th. They had a short rest and are said to have drank wine in Villiers castle there. Humbert split his army and sent a small advance guard north towards Manorhamilton but this was only to give the impression to the British they were going north, they actually turned south and went to Drumkeeran and presumably the other group rejoined them by a circuitous route. The advance guard of the pursuing army caught up with the rear of the march along this part of the route. In fact they were hot on their trail and fighting with the rear column at points all the way through Co. Leitrim. Many Irish volunteers joined the march as it passed by and Leitrim was no exception.
At the front Humbert had time to camp on high ground in front of Drumkeerin village. The local people are said to have brought them milk, meat and potatoes and they were very impressed with the hospitality of the people there. They left again and continued south to Drumshanbo. A second army was now coming at them from the west and had reached Carrick-on-Shannon. Humbert had to get to the base of Lough Allen at Drumshanbo or risk being trapped. By midday of 7th September they reached the relative safety of the town and are said to have rested on the high ground where Laird’s jam factory would one day be and is now an industrial park (The Food Hub) which has the best view in the town in my opinion.
They managed to repulse the attack in Drumshanbo but didn’t delay long and left the town via the hilly road. I live on this road and knowing this now I cannot help but imagine what it must have looked like to see them marching past my front door pursued by the English, fighting as they went. The farmhouse I own appears on very early maps just after this period so it may well have been there at that time. An even more ancient ring-fort is also very close-by and is positioned to overlook the road which may also testify to its age. They next got to the townland of Roscarbin and went along the road skirting Lough Scur (where a battle is said to have also taken place), then through Keshkerrigan and onto Castlefore. Things were quickly falling apart by now, certainly in the rear and the skirmishes were getting bigger as the pursuing advance guard caught up, overtook and killed any stragglers they came across.
Humbert was trying to get to Granard where he thought that up to 2000 United Irishmen volunteers would be waiting but unknown to him they had already been defeated in a battle there. In the townland of Cloodrumin Humbert again split his forces to confuse the enemy of his intentions. One division got to Fenagh and fought a battle there before joining up again and fighting another battle at Carrigallen. They got through and made it to Cloone where they rested. Tradition has it that they used the iron gates from the graveyard as a grill to cook meat. The second approaching army had gotten as far as Mohill and they were still being closely pursued from behind. This combined force came to 23000 and by now Humberts forces were something under 2000. They were finally caught up with for the Battle of Ballinamuck on Saturday morning the 8th where their defeat was swift and inevitable.
They had just left Co. Leitrim, while they had been here there had still been a vain hope, but this was the last battle of the campaign. A much more detailed but still subjective version of them in Ireland can be read here. Another good guide to this subject is by local historian Father Liam Kelly in his A Flame Now Quenched Rebels Frenchmen in Leitrim.
The French had come in too small numbers and too late. If things had turned out differently the country might be a very different place today (we would have had our revolution earlier along with France and America). Perhaps this failure and the heroic myths and legends that would grew around it in the retelling were necessary to inspire others to success in the years to come? (Stephen Rennicks)