The Tricoloured Shamrock: Franco-Éire Politics

By Nicholas Stark, FINS


From 1792 onwards, when the French declared international revolution with the decree of fraternity on 19 November, the idea of establishing relations between the French government and Irish patriots was a reality. In particular, the organization France would associate with was the Society of United Irishmen, established in 1791 as an effort to establish a unified Ireland without distinction for Protestants, Catholics, or other dissenters, under a new reform program calling for Catholic emancipation and constitutionalism. Despite the views of prominent Irishman Theobald Wolfe Tone, the organization was not inherently republican in nature from its conception, as neither was France during the revolution. Like the French, the United Irishmen originally aimed to maintain the monarchy, but they believed in dual monarchy, that the king was the “King of Great Britain” and the “King of Ireland” distinctly, opposed to what it had become in effect, “King of Great Britain over Ireland.” The distinction is that they wanted a king with their best interests at heart, rather than being treated as a sub-sect of another country.


In the 1780s, the Irish Parliament of Henry Grattan had successfully campaigned for reform in Ireland, increasing the powers of that body and repealing, however methodical, the Penal Laws that, although failing to root out Catholicism from Ireland, still served to create a great divide in society. However, by the 1790s, the reforms themselves began being repealed, the beloved Volunteer units were forced to disband, societies outside of Parliament or those specifically noted by Government were made illegal, and the Militia Act and Insurrection Act further antagonized the people. When war as approaching between France and Britain in 1793, the Society of United Irishmen in particular was seen as a threat and Government tried to disband it. The period that follows becomes a mix of violence and riots, from Protestant Orangemen to Catholic Defenders to moderate Volunteers, and by 1796 many people from all of these groups would consolidate into the United Irishmen when Government raids of their towns demonstrate that the English, in their view, is the main source of their discord, and so they resolve to break away. The fighting would also serve to create a rise in republicanism.


All through this period, the possibility of French assistance remains open, although highly debated among Irish patriots. Some, like Lord Edward Fitzgerald and Wolfe Tone, argue all along in favor of French assistance, but that is not the preference of the society of the whole until at least 1795. For the French, the plan for Ireland was not originally given much credence in 1792. The decree of 19 November was seen by most as a burst of enthusiasm and was soon abandoned, for the French originally did not aim to cause internal disturbances in Britain, not until they realized Britain was largely behind the civil war in the Vendée in 1793. With that, the idea of an Irish connection was born, under Foreign Minster Lebrun, the Directory, and finally Napoleon. The purpose of the paper is not a detailed account of the military campaigns involved, but rather a look at the use of secret intelligence, negotiations, and the broad military plans. Ireland was not merely a French dream; it was a reality nearly borne to fruition.