There are many old Irish songs that tell of the help coming to this country from abroad. If every army that had promised to come and save the poor old Sean Bhean Bhocht actually arrived, there would not have been room for them all.
For a country that sent soldiers to fight wars all over Europe, we did not get much support in return. Spain sent troops to help O’Neill and O’Donnell but they landed at the opposite end of the country, in Kinsale. France benefited more than any country. Almost half a million Irishmen died in the service of France in the 100 years after the Treaty of Limerick.
They made one attempt to send soldiers to Ireland. Three fleets sailed to Ireland in 1798. The main fleet, destined for Bantry Bay, was scattered by storms and a small fleet was captured in Lough Swilly. The only group to actually land came ashore at Killala in Mayo, led by General Humbert. Again, like the Spanish at Kinsale, they were far from any hope of serious Irish support and involvement.
The French were disappointed with what they found. Instead of a country in rebellion, they were met by a few thousand unarmed people with no leaders. They tried to organise the Irish into troops and marched to Ballina, which they took. Humbert heard of a force of 3,500 marching against them under General Lake, who had defeated the rebellion in Wexford. He marched to meet them at Castlebar.
They overran the British at what came to be known as the Races of Castlebar. The British fled the scene, leaving most of the supplies and arms behind them – even General Lake’s luggage.
Humbert set up a provisional government in Connaught and then marched east, hoping to meet up with whatever was left of the United Irishmen in Leinster. They were always going to be in difficulties but that delay in Castlebar proved fatal. It allowed the British time to regroup and face them. Lake followed and harassed them from the rear. They suffered losses at Ballisodare in Sligo and the United Irishmen were routed at Granard in Longford. Cornwallis, meanwhile, marched to meet them with a force of 26,000 men.
Matters came to a head at the village of Ballinamuck in Longford. Humbert had his French troops and about 1,000 Irish. The battle lasted less than half an hour. The dragoons cut through the Irish lines. Their engagement with the French lasted only minutes before Humbert surrendered to the inevitable.
Still mad after Castlebar, Lake wanted revenge and refused to allow the Irish men to surrender. As they stood on a hillside they were fired upon and then were chased into a bog by cavalry where they were either drowned or bayoneted. Their bodies were gathered and dumped in a mass grave, known ever since as the Croppies Grave; 842 French prisoners were taken. A banquet was given for them in Longford and they were brought to Dublin, from where they were eventually exchanged for English prisoners of war.
That Battle of Ballinamuck, which ended the Year of the French and was the last time that a European army fought on Irish soil, took place on September 8, 1798 – 212 years ago this week.