Stephen Dunford,
In Humbert's Footsteps:
Mayo 1798

(Fado, 2006)

Ireland's history is littered with rebellions and uprisings. Through the centuries, we were ever eager to have a go at an oppressor. Bigger and stronger than us? Sure. But we'd still have a shot. One of the greatest risings of them all was that led by the French General Humbert in 1798, when our Gallic friends came to give us a helping hand.

Much has been written about the events of 1798 already, most famously Thomas Flanagan's historical novel The Year of the French. Castlebar native Stephen Dunford has added to the body of work with In Humbert's Footsteps: Mayo 1798. As the title implies, the book follows the steps of the eponymous general as he arrives in Ireland and undertakes his campaign to liberate the country.

Many people will have a passable knowledge of the events of the campaign. From the landing of the three ships -- the Concorde, Medee and Franchise -- at Kilcummin, a few miles north of the town of Killala, right through to the final defeat at Ballinamuck in Co. Longford and the ensuing massacre back at Killala, the author brings the events vividly to life.

And a fascinating journey it is. On August 22, 1798, three vessels were seen in Killala Bay. Initially thought to be English, the boats landed at Kilcummin and those aboard quickly took the town of Killala. Immediately Irish recruits joined the French. The next day, the town of Ballina was taken. A week later the famous Races of Castlebar saw the rebel forces overcome a larger British force and capture the garrison town.

In Castlebar Humbert proclaimed the Republic of Connaught, complete with a president, and began recruiting in earnest. Further battles were won at Tubbercurry and Collooney, before the fateful Battle of Ballinamuck signaled the end of the dream. Dunford's book takes a detailed look at each step of Humbert's journey, focusing on many of the heroes, locations and incidents along the way. Names such as Matthew Bellow, Patrick Walsh, Fr. James Conroy, John Moore, James Joseph McDonnell, James O'Dowda, Fr. Manus Sweeney and many more, many of whom having street names and monuments in their honour, are all illuminated.

Places like Leac A'Chaonaigh, Baile an Champa, the Frenchman's Well, Summerhill House, the Frenchman's Garden, Rappa Castle and Barnageeha (Windy Gap) are just some of the locations examined and their significance explained.

Much attention is paid to the episodes from Castlebar, from the rebels' journeying from victory in Ballina through Lahardane and into Castlebar, to the celebratory ball in the Linen Hall. "It was near the end of August in the year of '98 / When Killala saw the Frenchmen under Humbert at the gate. / It was only four days after amid laughter near and far, / When the panic-stricken British ran the Race of Castlebar" (lines from "The Races of Castlebar," collected in 1936 from Tomas O'Collarain, near Hollymount) sets the scene well for the description of the high point of Humbert's adventure on Irish soil. Between a combination of good luck, shrewd tactical maneuvering and the element of surprise, Humbert's men drove the much bigger force from the county town. The British soldiers fleeing the town on their horses led to the success being dubbed the "Races of Castlebar."

The book is filled with loads of interesting anecdotes. Placenames are explained, hugely important things such as the history and background of the pike are presented, and a chapter is devoted to a description of Humbert's uniform. All are presented in great detail yet are extremely accessible for the casual reader with a passing interest in a richly significant chapter of the history of this county.

The book is lavishly illustrated with photographs, maps, drawings and reproductions of paintings associated with the event. Many of the drawings are by Dunford himself. As well as the many illustrations, there are a number of pieces of music throughout the book. Some have only recently been discovered by the author and all commemorate the uprising and the heroes and characters involved. The "French March 1798," collected by Jim Ryan of Ballina, is particularly interesting. The book states the French soldiers had among them a small number of musicians and suggests they might have brought the tune with them from their home country. Musician, composer and Waterboy Steve Wickham is cited in the book as backing up this claim.

Written in collaboration with Guy Beiner, a lecturer in modern history at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beer-Sheeva, Israel, Dunford has done a great job in compiling and writing this fascinating account of an immensely important chapter in Irish history. Historical writing is a difficult genre to tackle, laden as it is with a requirement for intensive research, painstaking presentation and the problem of making it all readable and enjoyable. Dunford has certainly achieved this with Humbert's Footsteps. The end result is a wonderful package, offering us a fascinating glimpse into the past.

by Sean Walsh
14 April 2007

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