Address by John Cooney,  Author & Journalist, Killala, Co Mayo, Republic of Ireland, Sunday August 13, 2023

My priority at this timely Killala Colloquy on 1798 Rebellion Reflections is to thank our convener Sharon Horkan for inviting me as the Founder and Co-Director with Tony McGarry of the General Humbert Summer School begun in August 1987.

It is also a delight to thank David Alexander for chairing this important session under the wider Re-enacting Banner of the late Stephen Dunford.

As I indicated to Sharon, my talk today will call on Presidents Emmanuel Macron and Joe Biden to honour General Humbert for his life-long embodiment of the true Republican Spirit of the 1798 Revolution from his birth at Saint-Nabord in 1767 until his death at New Orleans in 1823, aged just 55.

Unlike the Corsican Bonaparte who undermined a democratic government in the form of the Directory – le Directoire – and insulted Pope Pius VI by crowning himself Emperor at Notre Dame Cathedral – the Vosgian Humbert remained truly committed to la patrie throughout the ups-and-downs of his chequered career and his years of exile in the New World from 1816 to 1823.

The main arbiter of Humbert’s post-Ireland 1798 misfortunes was Napoleon’s vendetta against the hero of The Battle of Castlebar on August 27, 1798. In the Land of the Free Humbert became the Hero of the 1815 Battle of Chamette, close to New Orleans, under the command of General Andrew Jackson against British forces seeking to recolonise Americans as subjects of George III’s Crown.

These core facts constitute the case for rehabilitating the historical reputation of General Jean Joseph Humbert.

He is the only French military professional who won a famous battle for Revolutionary and Napoleonic France not to be honoured by Paris.

For their victory in Castlebar General Humbert and his small Armée d’Irlande deserve to be honoured by having their name on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, which lists victorious battles of French generals during this turbulent period.

This omission represents a grave miscarriage of justice against the Vosgian-born Humbert which could – and should – be rectified by the President of France,  Emmanuel Macron.

Humbert and his men have a right in natural justice to have their names inscribed, however belatedly, on the Arc de Triomphe.

Our challenge here in Ireland is to build-up public consciousness of this glaring historic injustice done to General Humbert which can be rooted in his persistent maltreatment by Napoleon Bonaparte, who for years deprived him of Army commissions or assignments.

As a Jacobin by conviction, Humbert adhered to the core ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity espoused by the French Revolution of 1789.

A primary motivation in his life was his hostility to monarchical England.

Also crucial was his belief inherited from his mentor, General Lazare Hoche, that Ireland offered the gateway – or passage – through which France could achieve its perennial aspiration of destroying “Perfidious Albion”.

This insight was rooted in his experience of their ill-fated expedition to Bantry Bay in 1796. This French mini-armada of 15,000 men under the command of General Lazare Hoche and Theobald Wolfe Tone, could have freed Ireland if it had landed on the Cork coast.

It was this strategic factor that drove Humbert’s  return to Ireland in the fateful year of 1798.

Crucially, at the heart of any reassessment of Humbert is his instinctive grasp of the importance of Ireland in defeating England. The roots of Humbert’s recognition of this lay in his to his native commonsense, in contrast to the fatal decision of Napoleon not to make Ireland his priority in his plans for French world ascendancy which led him to make two vital errors.

First, in opting for adventurism in Egypt in 1797-98 and second, his even worse decision, to open a second front in 1812 by his march to Moscow against the Russians.

In building-up this public awareness of Humbert’s claim to greatness local and national political representatives as well as civic bodies and individual citizens are best equipped to mount a campaign and seek petitions and publicity on Humbert’s behalf.

Whether it was crushing French Catholic Royalists backed by English forces in Quiberon Bay in the Vendée region, 1792; his combat in San Domingo under the command of General Leclerc to regain control of the island from the rebel leader Toussaint L’ Ouverture; his roles in the Mexican rebellion of 1816; his time as a pirate with the Lafitte Brothers on the Gulf of Mexico; his raids into Canada, Mexico and Brazil as a Che Guevera prototype “Freedom Fighter.”

Nor did Humbert die in obscurity, as did Napoleon exiled on the isolated island of St Helena. On his death in New Orleans in early January 1823, Humbert was honoured with the pomp of a lavish funeral Mass in the local cathedral which was well reported in the newspapers.

 My interest in Humbert was kindled in 1969 when I was studying History at Glasgow University with the  publication that year of Thomas Pakenham’s The Year of Liberty.

This was a decade before Tom Flanagan’s epic novel The Year of the French, L’Année des Français – – Bliain na bhFrancach – that inspired the foundation of the Humbert School on the  week-end of August 21-23. The inaugural theme was Republicanism Today. It was opened by the Nobel and Lenin Peace Laureate, Seán MacBride.

The Humbert School is proud of its role in the peace process through its Nobel Laureate, John Hume as its School Patron, presiding over an array of statesmen-speakers including Presidents Patrick Hillery, Mary Robinson and Michael D. Higgins when he was a Dail Deputy; Taoisigh Jack Lynch, Charles J. Haughey, Garret FitzGerald, Albert Reynolds, John Bruton, Bertie Ahern, Brian Cowen and Enda Kenny; national politicians of the stature of the current Minister for Foreign Affairs and former Taoiseach, Micheal Martin, and numerous Fianna Fail luminaries, including Brian Lenihan Senior, the legendary Sean Flanagan, Padraic and Beverley Flynn, Mary O’Rourke, Joe Walsh, Ray MacSharry, Rory O’Hanlon, Michael O’Kennedy, Michael Smith, Eamonn Ó Cuiv, Noel Davern, Dick Roche, Frank Fahey, Sean and Dara Calleary, Noel Dempsey, Jim McDaid, John O’Donoghue, Tom Kitt, Pat the Cope Gallagher and Conor Lenihan.

Fine Gaelers Jim Higgins, Michael Noonan, Michael Ring, Avril Doyle, Frances FitzGerald, and Michelle Mulherin.  Barry Desmond, Jim Kemmy, Proinsias de Rossa, Pat Rabbitte, Eamon Gilmour and Joan Burton of the Labour Party; Des O’Malley and Liz O’Donnell of the Progressive Democrats; and Independent Marian Harkin.

Although Humbert was a man of war, the Humbert School was – is – a Peace School which placed the enmities of 1798 into our contemporary context of Ireland, France and Britain – the belligerents of 1798 – were partners in the European Union.

Indeed, the most successful School was in August 1998 when over 1,000 “Humbertians” gathered in Killala’s Youth Centre in Killala to send a clear message to politicians to reach a political agreement on the governance of Northern Ireland.

On the podium that warm summer afternoon television cameras recorded the proceedings of a cross-section of politicians: John Hume of the SDLP, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. Prime Minister Tony Blair was represented by John Dew of the British Embassy to Ireland.

There too were John Later Lord Alderdice of the Alliance Party and the courageously eloquent David Ervine of the Progressive Unionist Party. Official Unionists and Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionists declined to attend. On the platform with the politicians were Bishops Thomas Finnegan and John Neill, along with Tony McGarry and myself.

A key to the success of the Humbert School from 1987 to 2010 was its line-up annually of principal figures in national and international events and trends.

The Humbert School’s contribution to the Peace Process through The Bishop Joseph Stock Address in Killala was warmly acknowledged by the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, Seamus Mallon, Austin Currie, Joe Hendron and Brid Rogers of the SDLP, Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness Pat Docherty and Caoimhgín Ó Caoláin of Sinn Fein, Ken Maginnis of the Ulster Unionist Party.

Prominent churchmen, Cardinals Tomás Ó Fiaich and Sean Brady, and Archbishops Diarmuid Martin, Donald Caird and John Neill, Bishops Brendan Comiskey, Tom Finnegan, John Fleming, Richard Henderson as well as Presbyterian Moderator John Dunlop, Fathers Michael Conway, Kevin Hegarty and Sean Healy graced Humbert Schools with their reflections on eroding sectarianism by reshaping Irish civil society, North and South, on pluralist lines.   

A second major dimension of the School was its annual Humbert Foreign Policy Forum. This brought to “French Mayo” political heavyweights in the persons of Pierre Muscovy of France, the cosmopolitan Peter Sutherland, the elegant David Byrne, the sharp-tongued Alan Dukes, the silver-tongued Maurice Manning, Alex Salmond “Oh Flower of Scotland”, Piet Dankert of the Netherlands, European Parliament President Pat Cox, Senator Chris Dodd, Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith and novelist Tom Flanagan of the USA; Esko Hamilo and Matti Kohva of Finland, plus supportive messages from Prime Ministers, John Major and Tony Blair, and US President Bill Clinton.

The School’s third strand was the Humbert History Lecture which was complimentary to the Bishop Stock Peace & Reconciliation Address usually held in Killala Church of Ireland Cathedral.

This Forum’s aim was to draw on the expertise of professional historians such as Professors Marianne Elliott and Tom Bartlett; from France Dr Pierre Joannon and Fr Liam Swords of the Irish College in Paris, now the Centre Culturel Irlandais.  

1998 brought Pierre Maurice, a descendant of Humbert who traced his career and gifted the School a copy of his comprehensive biography of General Humbert in French.

Pictures by Bill Heaney

Outside of the world of politics, the Humbert School involved distinguished Judges like Donal Barrington Eugene Reagan, Catherine MacGuinness, John MacMenamin, Vivian Lavan and James Gilvarry.

Irish Ambassadors Noel Dorr, originally of Swinford, Sean Donlon, Padraic MacKernan and Dick O’Brien; British Ambassador to Ireland, Sir Nicholas Fenn; Irish Army General, Gerry McMahon; Garda Commissioners Eamonn Docherty and Noel Conroy;  Theologians Enda McDonagh, Denis Carroll, Fr Donal Dorr, and Dominican Friar-Editors of Doctrine and Life, Austin Flannery O.P. and Bernard Treacy O.P; European Commission experts Tom Arnold, Noel Coghlan, Gay Veale, Hugh Logue, Susan and David Hedigan.

Not forgetting Seán Boyd of the Shelbourne Hotel’s Horseshoe Bar who was my valued friend and chauffeur; Stephen Stokes with his stalls of books of historic interest on sale; the Floral Tributes of Mr Ballina, Matt Farrell and the eloquence of school teacher Mary Tobin.

The French Ambassador (centre front row) was present for one of the early Humbert debates.

Journalists to the fore in Humbert School debates included Douglas Gageby, Conor Brady, Geraldine Kennedy, Dennis Kennedy, John Horgan, Olivia O’Leary, Conor O’Cleary, Stephen Collins, Eugene McEldowney, Joe Carroll and Deaglán de Bréadún of The Irish Times, now a weekly columnist for The Irish News.  John Downing of The Irish Independent, Chris Ryder of The Sunday Times, Seán Boyne of The Sunday World; Tim Ryan of The Irish Press, Paul Drury, editor of Ireland on Sunday, David Haworth from Brussels, Llewellyn King and Linda Gasparello of The White House Chronicle, Bill Heaney from Scotland and Englishman Ed Kelly, then working in Eastern Europe. On the home-front the arrival of the Humbert School was welcomed by The Western People Proprietor, Mrs Rita Devere Durcan, and Editors, Terry Reilly and James Laffey and Deputy  Editor Denis Daly; Photographers Henry Wills and David Farrell, along with the indispensable Theresa O’Malley and Tommy Marren of Midwest Radio, and from RTE Donnacha O Dulaing, Mike Burns, Seán Duignan, Rodney Rice, Liam Ó Murchu, Betty Purcell, Tommie Gorman, Aine Lawlor, Una Claffey, Michael Ronayne, David Davin-Power, and Joe Little. The Connaught Tribune and The Mayo News also rowed in the Barque of Humbert. The Humbert list goes on when we include the many grassroots Councillors and local officials who contributed to what Alex White, a former Labour Party Minister, describes as a compass into the vast social changes which have taken place in Ireland since 1987.

To enable you to make your own judgments I have brought copies of Ireland & Europe In Times of World Change. 

This book contains a Directory of Speakers from 1987 to 2022. Publication of a second volume from 2003 is awaiting a sponsor. Perhaps that will arise from today’s session!  Over to you, Dara Calleary with your access to Micheal Martin!

I very much look forward to question time at which I would particularly welcome a discussion of the Re-enacting Model, which I believe has laboured under some defective readings of the history of the 1798 Rebellion.

Today’s gallop down memory lane remands me of how different those early days were without mobile telephones for Tony McGarry, Fiona O’Malley, his secretary at St Patrick’s College, Lacken Cross, and Terry McCole of Moyne College.

For fluency in the Irish tongue, Tony had the company of Foras na Gaelige’s Raymond Ó Baoill and Conradh na Gaeilge’s Proinsias MacAonghusa, while the contributions of Cardinal Ó Fiaich had a particular grá for Mayo.

Alas, too many of the speakers – “Humbertians” – in this brief chronicle have added RIP to their names. The Cooney-McGarry Humbert Summer School has itself already dipped into history. However, I am confident that new generations will continue to be enthralled by the Humbert Invasion of Ireland in 1798 – and that President Macron will put right the historic wrong done by France to one of its most noble sons.

Vive le Général Humbert. 

Vive L’Ecole d’Humbert .

Top of page picture: Colin and Birgit Bain from Germany, Martin Gordon from Glasgow and David Hedigan from Dublin at the Humbert School in Kilcummin, Ballina, Co Mayo. Picture by Bill Heaney

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