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Article Published February 12, 2002

County Mayo (Ireland): An Outline History -- 'The Year of the French'
By Bernard O'Hara and Nollaig ÓMuraíle, Mayo Ireland Ltd

'The Year of the French'

Ten weeks after the United Irishmen had been crushed at Ballynahinch, Co. Down, and two months after the fall of the rebel camp at Vinegar Hill, near Enniscorthy in Co. Wexford, Humbert landed at Kilcummin strand, on Killala bay, with about 1,100 officers and men of the army of the French Republic. Four days later, on Sunday, 26 August, having taken Killala and Ballina, Humbert led about 700 of his men, and about the same number of untrained Irish recruits, in an amazing all-night march down the almost trackless west shore of Lough Conn, arriving next morning in front of the startled British garrison of Castlebar. The force opposing Humbert numbered about 1,700, under the command of General Lake, and consisted mainly of Irish militia. After a short, sharp engagement, the militia broke and fled, and were quickly joined by the remainder of the garrison in a headlong flight which, for some of them, did not end till they reached the safety of Tuam, Co. Galway. The episode, still remembered as 'the races of Castlebar', was an ignominious defeat for the government forces and a corresponding morale-booster for the small force opposing them, but it was in no way decisive. Humbert realised that without additional aid from France his expedition was doomed to failure. He remained in Castlebar for eight days awaiting further orders from his superiors, and while he waited he established a 'Republic of Connacht', with a young Catholic gentleman, John Moore from Moorehall on the shores of Lough Carra, as its president. When neither orders nor help were forthcoming, Humbert marched his little army towards Sligo, winning a skirmish at Collooney. Then hearing reports of a rising in the midlands, he swung south-eastward through Leitrim into Longford where, on September 8 the force of 850 French troops and about a thousand Irish allies faced a force over five times as strong under Lord Cornwallis and General Lake.

The token battle at Ballinmuck ended with Humbert's surrender after barely half an hour. The French soldiers were treated honourably, but for the Irish the surrender meant slaughter. There was more slaughter a fortnight later when Killala finally fell to General Trench's forces. The little garrison (including its commander, Ferdy O'Donnell) was massacred. The government forces were turned loose on the countryside. The insurgents, or anyone suspected of having been involved in the rising, were hunted down and butchered without mercy. In all, it is estimated that some four to six hundred were killed in the battle for Killala and in the course of the 'mopping-up operations' which continued for some weeks, while others died on the scaffold in towns like Castlebar and Claremorris, where the high sheriff for County Mayo, the Honourable Denis Browne, M.P., brother of Lord Altamont, wreaked a terrible vengeance - thus earning for himself the nickname which has survived in folk-memory to the present day, 'Donnchadh an Rópa' (Denis of the Rope). The awful aftermath of those few stirring weeks, in what was long remembered with a mixture of pride and horror, as Bliain na bhFrancach ('The year of the French') ensured that it was many a long year before the people of Mayo felt free to celebrate in song the exploits of "The men of the West' and to remind their countrymen that 'When Éire lay broken at Wexford she looked for revenge to the West.'

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