General Jean Joseph Amable Humbert

Humbert, Jean Joseph Amable, a French general, was born at Rouvray, Lorraine, 25th November 1755, and was in 1798 appointed to command an expedition for the invasion of Ireland.

With his flotilla of three frigates and a brig, he arrived off Killala, on the coast of Mayo, on the 22nd August 1798, and next day landed his troops and occupied the town.

His force consisted of 1,060 men, with three pieces of cannon and large supplies of arms. He was accompanied by Matthew Tone and Bartholomew Teeling, two United Irishmen.

Proclamations, were issued, and large numbers of the peasantry flocked to his standard to be drilled and armed. About 1,000 Irish were completely equipped; and in all 5,500 muskets were distributed. The people themselves manufactured large numbers of pikes.

“The uncombed, ragged peasant, who had never before known the luxury of shoes and stockings, now washed, powdered, and full dressed, was metamorphosed into another being, the rather because the far greater part of these mountaineers were by no means deficient either in size or person. ‘Look at these poor fellows,’ said Humbert with an air of triumph, ‘they are made, you find, of the same stuff as ourselves.’”[203]

The officers occupied the Bishop’s palace at Killala as their headquarters—scrupulously respecting private property, and intruding as little as possible on the privacy of the family.

Temporary magistrates were appointed in the occupied districts; but in a state of war many outrages on private property were inevitable.

The exercise of Protestant worship was not interfered with, except that one Presbyterian meeting-house was wrecked.

Bishop Stock, who was in Killala during the entire occupation, thus speaks of the conduct of the people:

“During the whole time of this civil commotion, not a drop of blood was shed by the Connaught rebels, except in the field of war. It is true the example and influence of the French went a great way to prevent sanguinary excesses; but it will not be deemed fair to ascribe to this cause alone the forbearance of which we are witnesses, when it is considered what a range of country lay at the mercy of the rebels for several days after the French power was known to be at an end. … Intelligence, activity, temperance, patience, to a surprising degree, appeared to be combined in the soldiery that came over with Humbert, together with the exactest obedience to discipline.”

The French troops were amused at the deep religious feelings of their new allies, and at their being spoken of by the Irish as “the Virgin Mary’s soldiers.”

The French frigates sailed on the 24th August, and on the 27th, Humbert’s army, with about 1,500 Irish auxiliaries, marched against Castlebar, and drove General Lake’s forces out of the town, not without a stout resistance and much bloodshed. A considerable number of militia deserted to Humbert’s standard.

Lord Cornwallis, however, immediately reinforced General Lake with about 13,000 men, and the country people failing to respond to the extent Humbert had expected, he retraced his steps from Castlebar to Foxford, and then proceeded northward to Collooney.

Cornwallis had entered Connaught at Athlone, and marched to Hollymount, and then north-east to Frenchpark, detaching General Lake to follow the enemy, while he proceeded east to intercept him about Carrick-on-Shannon, or follow him up to Sligo if necessary.

On the 5th September, Colonel Vereker marched from Sligo and engaged the French at Collooney. After an hour’s fighting, in which the Limerick militia suffered considerably, the French and Irish were again victorious, but Colonel Vereker materially retarded Humbert’s advance.

Near Manorhamilton Humbert turned south, closely pursued by General Lake, and crossing the Shannon at Ballintra, was marching into Leinster, when on the morning of 8th September, he was forced to make a stand at Ballinamuck.

After an engagement lasting half an hour, General Humbert and the whole of the French troops, then consisting of 96 officers and 746 men, surrendered at discretion.

The King’s forces lost in the engagement but three killed, and thirteen wounded; the French casualties are not given; while the Irish levies were followed up and butchered without mercy.

A reign of terror ensued throughout Connaught, and the people were for weeks hunted down like wild beasts. Bishop Stock says:

“The rapacity [of the soldiers] differed in no respect from that of the rebels, except that they seized upon things with somewhat less ceremony and excuse, and that his Majesty’s soldiers were incomparably superior to the Irish traitors in dexterity at stealing.”

The small French force left at Killala, supported by the Irish, made a short stand against overwhelming numbers. As the royal troops advanced, Bishop Stock says:

“The loyalists were desired by the rebels to come up with them to the hill on which the Needle Tower is built, in order to be eye-witnesses of the havock a party of the King’s army was making, as it advanced towards us from Sligo. A train of fire too clearly distinguished their line of march, flaming up from the houses of the unfortunate peasants. ‘They are only a few cabins,’ remarked the Bishop; and he had scarcely uttered the words when he felt the imprudence of them. ‘A poor man’s cabin,’ answered one of the rebels, ‘is to him as valuable as a palace.’

On the 27th October a second French expedition, upon which Napper Tandy had embarked, anchored at Killala; but sailed away hurriedly without landing troops, on the approach of a superior British naval force. General Humbert and his officers were received with great courtesy in Dublin as prisoners of war. He was shortly after exchanged; and from Dover, on the 26th October, he wrote a letter to Bishop Stock thanking him for his courtesy, and regretting any inconvenience he and his troops had put him to. General Humbert subsequently took an active part in the Mexican war of independence, and died at New Orleans in February 1823, aged 67.

Bishop Stock’s account of the French invasion is graphic and impartially written.

A monument has been erected near Castlebar to the memory of the French expeditionary troops who fell during Humbert’s invasion.


34. Biographie Générale. 46 vols. Paris, 1855-’66. An interleaved copy, copiously noted by the late Dr. Thomas Fisher, Assistant Librarian of Trinity College, Dublin.

203. Killala, Narrative of what passed at, in the Summer of 1798: an Eyewitness. (Bishop Stock.) Dublin, 1800.

242. Military Operations Ireland, in August 1798. Dublin, 1799. (Pamphlet.) Mitchel, John, see Nos. 142, 173, 232, 269a.