A Republican Government for Connaught

Valerian Gribayedoff
Chapter VI

A Disgraceful Incident—Losses on Both Sides—The French indulge in the Pleasures of Music and Dancing—General Results of the Battle—A Republican Government for Connaught.


HE flight of the British from Castlebar was marked by an episode of which two distinct and widely different versions have been handed down by contemporaneous writers. According to British official accounts, a party of French dragoons pursued the retreating army above a mile from the town and took a piece of cannon, which they were on the point of turning on their rear, but a party of Lord Roden's Fencibles rescued the gun and killed five of them.

The other side of the story is as follows: It appears that when Humbert entered Castlebar and witnessed the utter demoralization of the enemy he instructed Bartholomew Teeling to secure the swiftest horses in the town for himself and an escort, and follow up General Lake with proposals for a capitulation of the British army. Teeling had greatly distinguished himself during the day. He had been in the thickest of the fight, and single-handed had captured an English regimental standard. Wishing to pay a signal compliment to his subordinate, Humbert insisted that he should use the trophy as a flag of truce in lieu of the usual white bunting. As Teeling with his party crossed a small eminence in the rear of the retreating force, they were suddenly set upon by a body of horsemen, who, disregarding the flag of truce—probably not comprehending it—cut down every man but Teeling himself. They spared the latter only on account of his officer's uniform, but they took him along with them a prisoner. Forced to accompany the army in its retreat for many a weary mile, denied access to General Lake, insulted and threatened with death, Teeling preserved his dignity and stubbornly refused to communicate the purport of his message to the various officers who questioned him. Therefore no alternative being left to his captors, he was at length taken into Lake's presence. The commander-in-chief became furious when Humbert's words were transmitted to him; and well he might, for this was, as he considered, heaping insult on injury. Lake expressed indignation at the language of the message and indulged in personalities, whereupon Teeling protested in courteous but decided terms. This only increased the Englishman's rage. "You, sir, are an Irishman," he cried. "I shall treat you as a rebel. Why have you been selected by General Humbert on this occasion?" "To convey to you, sir," was the reply, "his proposal in a language which he presumes you understand. As to your menace, you cannot be ignorant that you have left with us many British officers, prisoners at Castlebar."

Here the interview ended and Lake sullenly turned away. Not long after General Hutchinson rode up and apologized with every evidence of sincerity for the rash act of his cavalry. He also brought an apology from General Lake—who had apparently reconsidered matters—coupled with the request that the French commander desist from reprisals. Teeling was given full permission to return to Castlebar, and an escort was placed at his disposal. He declined the escort, but insisted on a surrender of his flag of truce—a demand that caused some hesitation on Hutchinson's part, yet was complied with in the end. Accompanied by that officer to the limits of the British lines, Teeling set out for Castlebar. He arrived there early in the evening, anxiously awaited by Humbert, whose apprehensions for his safety had increased with his prolonged absence. A man of violent temper when aroused, Humbert swore dire vengeance on the murderers of Teeling's unfortunate companions, and it required all the Irishman's persuasive powers to calm his wrath and bring him to a more reasonable view of the matter.(40)

The battle of Castlebar cost the British dear. It is true that the official report places the casualties at "one sergeant and fifty-two rank and file killed; two lieutenants, three sergeants, and twenty-nine rank and file wounded; two majors, three captains, six lieutenants, three ensigns, two staff, ten sergeants, two drummers, and two hundred and fifty-one rank and file missing—also nine field pieces." But the testimony of many participants goes to prove that these figures underestimate the loss. Humbert, in his report to the French Directory, puts the enemy's casualties at "1,800 men—of which 600 were killed or wounded and 1,200 prisoners—ten pieces of cannon, five stand of colors, 1,200 fire-locks, and almost all the baggage." Here again there is a palpable misstatement, although an excusable one under the circumstances. In order to keep up the interest at home in the progress of the expedition, and to secure the much-needed reëforcements and supplies, the French general felt justified in resorting to such exaggerations. In point of fact the defeat cost the English about 600 men, killed, wounded and prisoners, and the greater part of their artillery and stores. But this loss is trifling when compared to the humiliation brought upon England's pride. Some of her most decisive victories in the past had been won by forces numerically but little larger than the one engaged at Castlebar;(41) and that this well-equipped body of men, inured to hardship and military life by several months of warfare, should succumb to a most insignificant foe, was the bitterest pill the nation had had to swallow for many a day. For a moment it seemed as if even the great Marlborough's achievements had been put in the shade; for, asked the pessimist, had he ever beaten the French under similar circumstances?

No absolutely reliable account has ever been given of the French losses on this momentous occasion. Humbert, for reasons of his own, omitted any mention of the subject in his report to his government. That they were very severe admits of no doubt whatever. When, two weeks later, the French army surrendered at Ballinamuck, it had dwindled from 1,130 men—the number that originally landed at Killala—to 844. Of the 300 men, more or less, who succumbed during the campaign, probably two-thirds bit the dust at Castlebar; in other words, twenty-five per cent, of the entire French effective.(42) Among the dead were the chief of staff, Grignon, and Lieutenant Moisson, who charged through the town at the head of the French cavalry. About a hundred of the prisoners were Roman Catholic yeoman from Louth and Kilkenny, who, when appealed to by Humbert's Irish allies, expressed a willingness to serve under the French flag. They were mustered in to a man.

Despite the hardships of their march to the field of victory, despite their decimation by shot and shell, the soldiers of the French Republic, once the conflict over, had thoughts but for distraction and pleasure. The Gallic nature, with its fantastic mobility, its violent contrasts, once more asserted itself. On the very evening of the battle, with the dead lying unburied on every side, with the unhoused wounded torturing the air with their moans, Humbert's officers brushed off the dust and powder of the fray and assembled all that remained of youth and beauty "to trip the light fantastic toe" from "eve till dewy morn." It was a strange scene—the large, bare hall, lighted by the mellow gleam of flickering candles; the officers in their shabby uniforms, some embellished with white bandages that would later blush with the blood of the wounds they concealed; the lithesome Irish belles in their bucolic finery, whose simple minds were half repelled by these rough exteriors, half frightened at this reckless indifference to surrounding dangers and hardships, yet wholly fascinated by the martial halo that enveloped their " deliverers." The faint, wheezy notes of a spinet, accompanied by the screech of a fiddle manipulated by fingers more used to grasping a sword than a bow, supplied the music that wooed the too-willing feet to merry measures. Through the open casements the night air, still heavy with the breath of battle, entered to cool the hot cheeks of the damsels, and by its familiar odor to spur on the sons of Mars to softer conquests.(43)

Ball after Battle

"the officers in their shabby uniforms,. . . the lithesome Irish belles in their bucolic finery,"—Page 105.

Though Terpsichore elated them and Venus enchanted them, these heroes had still another source of gratification. The work of the morning had elevated them another step on the ladder of promotion. Sarrazin, already raised one grade at Killala, was now a general of division; Fontaine, who had led the cavalry with such decisive results, had become a general of brigade; and chiefs of battalion Ardouin, Azemare, and Dufour exchanged their rank for that of brigade commander. Every man, in fact, who had at all distinguished himself during the day—and there were few who had not—received his reward at nightfall.

During all that night bonfires blazed from every eminence around the town of Castlebar, and far out toward Westport and Newport to the west. By this the peasantry manifested their elation at the success of the invaders, and their readiness to take up arms for the cause. At Westport some depredations were committed on Protestant property, but the owners on fleeing to Castlebar found at least ample protection for their persons. By the morning of the 28th the town was overflowing with peasants from all parts of the province of Connaught, some armed with rusty match-locks, some with pikes, and some with shillalahs. All were in a fever of excitement, and desired to be enrolled as soldiers of the Irish republic. Shouting their wild refrains, the throng marched through the streets in military order, their leaders bearing the "tree of liberty," surmounted by the Phrygian cap.

Although from the beginning Humbert had manfully opposed all attempts to despoil the loyalists of their property, it was beyond his power to prevent the pillage of the residences of Lords Lucan and Altamont. Taking advantage of the confusion occasioned by the capture of Castlebar, the insurgents ransacked these two magnificent mansions from attic to cellar. Lord Altamont's property suffered most. His horses and cattle were driven off, his wine casks emptied, and his handsome furniture smashed during the drunken revels of the pillagers. The carved doors were dragged from their hinges, and the stained-glass window panes shattered to atoms; in short, the work of demolition was complete. Of Lord Lucan it is fair to say that his treatment was undeserved. He had done much in the few preceding years to improve the town of Castlebar, which practically belonged to him, one of his recent improvements being the construction of a large linen hall, with assembly rooms.

This taste of the sweets of revenge, instead of appeasing the half-intoxicated multitude, only served to whet their appetites. After ravaging Lord Lucan's house they proceeded to the Protestant church, which they left an absolute wreck,(44) and then assembled on a lawn to discuss the advisability of a general massacre of the Protestants. The French officers present protested vigorously against any such course, and Teeling and O'Keon added the weight of their influence to restrain the bloodthirsty desires of the mob. A certain Dr. Crump, more persistent than the rest, mustered a band of plunderers and marched with them to Humbert's quarters, where he formally demanded permission to indulge in one hour's revenge on the Protestant population. He seemed to consider this a poor compensation for over a hundred years of suffering at their hands. His pious request was not granted. Humbert curtly informed him that any further aggression on loyalist civilians would be promptly punished. That ended all talk of massacre in Castlebar.

Several more houses were pillaged, however, one being the handsome home of Lord Altamont's brother, Mr. Dennis Browne, and another the residence of the Rev. Dr. Ellison, who has already been spoken of as participating, while a guest of Bishop Stock, in the defence of Killala. The reverend gentleman, after partly recovering from his wound, was taken along by the French as a prisoner of war, together with about eighty other loyalists, including one of the bishop's sons. Unknown to Humbert, some members of the native contingent broke into the parsonage and carried off every article of value. This act greatly incensed the French general, who entertained a profound respect for his clerical prisoner. It is even said that Ellison's influence with Humbert prevented the levy of two thousand guineas on the town of Castlebar.

Taken all in all, the conduct of the French themselves during the occupation was deserving of all praise, and this eulogy applies no less to the individual soldier than to the chiefs. "Many of us," wrote a Protestant citizen of the town, "proved them both brave and generous; those who were lions in the street seemed like lambs in the parlor." But, as if fearful of having said too much in their favor, he hastens to add: "However, I have imagined this to be policy, and that if they had once conquered the country, they would in a mass cut off all who had opposed them."(45)

Another inhabitant of Castlebar has left an interesting account of the arrival at his house of a party of the invaders. He obtained their good will by supplying them with meat and wine. "The rebels," he writes, "who accompanied them at first, plundered us of various articles; but one day when they revisited us I alarmed my foreign visitors, who expelled and chastised them severely. One of them, by name Phillip Sheers, was from Holland; I gave him my watch, but he kindly returned it; another, Bartholomew Baillie, from Paris, was mild, learned, and rather silent. He had been a priest, but on the overthrow of his order became a soldier. He denied a future existence. One Ballisceau, a Spaniard, was as intrepid as Hannibal. Since the age of fifteen he had followed the profession of a soldier. He had been a prisoner in Prussia, in Paris, and in London. He had been confined in a dungeon at Constantinople. He had crossed the Alps with Bonaparte, and fought under him in Italy. His body, head and face were covered with wounds. He was a hard drinker, a great swearer, and mocked religion; and yet he was very fond of children, and never entered my apartments without constantly enquiring for my wife, who was on the point of lying-in. The fourth was from Rochelle and the fifth from Toulon."(46)

It has been seen that, like all French commanders of the day—men who had worked their way up amid the turmoil and uncertainties of a revolutionary regime —Humbert had much of the politician in his composition. He had graduated from a school in which the soldier was taught to consider the promulgation of republican doctrine as much a part of his profession as the waging of war. To this circumstance was due the initial mistake of a campaign thus far crowned with the most unexampled success. Instead of pushing forward after the enemy and making the best use of his victory, Humbert settled down to the task of forming a republican government for the province of Connaught. When his object became known purveyors of advice, candidates for office, pothouse orators and embryo politicians of every stripe and color came forward by the dozens. Every one of them wanted a voice in the councils of the new government; every one had his own little plan for the regeneration of Ireland. The very men who had studiously avoided facing the hated "Sassenachs" on the field of battle, were loudest in their claims for political recognition. It took Humbert a full day to rid himself of this rabble. But it cannot be said that any of his selections from among the natives were particularly happy. He was necessarily obliged to listen to all such as wielded influence with the populace, and the majority of these were demagogues or scheming clericals. One man whose counsel would seem to have carried some weight with the French general was Michael Gannon, a drunken priest who had formerly been confessor to the Duke of Crillon in France, and, after the latter's death, to his widow. At the commencement of the great revolution Gannon, to escape persecution, returned to his home in Ireland. Like other Irish priests of the period, he affected to ignore the avowed atheism of the invaders. On one occasion he harangued a large body of insurgents from Humbert's window, in response to an urgent appeal to accept a military command. He told them in substance that he felt himself incapable of leading them in the field, but he would pray for the cause and fight by their side. He further promised to heal their wounds with holy oil, of which he held up a specimen in a bottle, amid the tumultuous enthusiasm of his audience. Gannon's usual attire consisted of a French military cocked hat and a suit of fine silk clothes, the property of his former master.(47)

On August 31st, or four days after the entrance of the French into Castlebar, a new civil government was proclaimed for Connaught. The governing body was to consist of twelve members, to be named by the French commander, with one John Moore as president. The town of Castlebar was made the seat of government. The first duty of the executive, as defined by the proclamation, was the organization and equipment of a force of militia and the furnishing of supplies to the French and their allies. The force to be created was to number eight regiments of infantry of 1,200 men each, and four regiments of cavalry of 600 men each. All persons having received arms or clothing and failing to join the army within twenty-four hours were declared "rebels and traitors." The closing paragraph of the proclamation required, "in the name of the Irish Republic," every male from the age of sixteen to forty, inclusive, to "instantly repair to the French camp, in order to march in mass against the common enemy—the tyrants of Ireland—the English, whose destruction alone can insure the independence and welfare of Ancient Hibernia!"

The new republican government thus conjured into existence was but a mirage. The president—a weak-minded person, as the result showed—amused himself on the first day of his appointment, issuing assignats in the name of the French Government; and when the French departed, three days later, the whole legislative system collapsed. In the meanwhile the insurgents, after numerous quarrels among themselves over prospective spoils, also succeeded in electing a mayor for Castlebar, two high justices and six municipal officers. Half the zeal expended by them in this useless scramble might on the field of honor have turned the scale in their favor.