Peter Berresford Ellis reminds us of the Irish contribution to the battle of Fontenoy in the War of Austrian Succession and of the particular significance of this year's commemoration for members of the Irish Literary Society
During the weekend of May 6-8, the citizens of Fontenoy and Tournai, in Belgium, gathered to commemorate the 260th anniversary of a famous battle - the battle of Fontenoy, fought on 11 May 1745. On the same weekend, President Jacques Chirac of France sent a delegation to Dublin, with a contingent of the Elyses Palace guards in 18th Century uniform, to also mark the event.
Fontenoy was a major engagement of the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48). It was fought between an English army, with their Hanoverian and Dutch allies, commanded by the HRH Duke of Cumberland, and the French army of Marshal the Comte Maurice de Saxe. King Louis XV of France and his son, the Dauphin, were also on the battlefield.
While Fontenoy hardly ever appears in English history books, it has a strong historical resonance in Ireland. Even GAA teams are named after the battle.
A French victory, it was the result of the celebrated charge of the Irish Brigade of the French army. They turned an imminent defeat into victory by driving the English Brigade of Guards from the field shouting the famous battle-cry: `Cuimhnidh ar Luimneach agus ar feall na Sasanach!' - Remember Limerick! Remember English perfidy!
The Treaty of Limerick in 1691, in which William of Orange claimed he would guarantee the religious liberty and civil rights of all the Irish following his victory in Ireland, had been torn up almost before the ink was dry. Once the remnants of the Irish armies were safely out of the country, as part of the surrender terms, there followed the enactment of the draconian Penal Laws denying rights to Irish Catholics and Dissenting Protestants. This duplicity bore deep into the Irish psyche.
The conduct of the new colonial landlords in Ireland added to the burning resentment of the people. A few years before Fontenoy, in 1741, another of the many artificial, landlord-induced, famines swept Ireland in which half a million Irish men, women and children died from malnutrition and related diseases.
So, at Fontenoy, when the French lines were wavering under the English assault, the French commander Marshal Maurice de Saxe moved the Irish Brigade forward. The brigade consisted of six infantry regiments: Bulkeley, Clare, Berwick, Rothe, Dillion and Lally plus the FitzJames cavalry regiment. They totalled 3,870 infantry and 250 cavalry. The brigadier was Charles O'Brien, Lord Clare (1689-1763), lineal descendant of the High King Brian Boru. He went on to become a Marshal of France.
The brigade lost 750 killed and wounded. Dillon's Regiment, which made the first assault, suffering the highest casualties. It not only lost its colonel, Chevalier James Dillon, leading a charge, but its Lt. Colonel Mannery, together with four officers and 51 other ranks killed and 11 officers and 70 other ranks were wounded.
All are now commemorated by the Celtic high cross on the field of Fontenoy.
It is said that a Captain Antony MacDonagh of Dillon's Regiment, a Co. Clare man, was the first to exhort his men to remember why they were there. He became the first of the Irish Brigade to engage the enemy. The entire Brigade took up his battle-cry.
The English retreated in disorder leaving 60 major pieces of artillery, the regimental Colours of the 2nd Regiment of Foot Guards (Coldstream Guards) and another regimental colour. Colonel Francis Bulkeley's regiment captured the colours. The English casualties were 7,500 while the overall French casualties numbered 7,200.
The Irish Democrat of June, 1993, in this very column, explained the significance of Fontenoy and why it should be remembered. Two years later, the Irish and Belgium governments issued a special Fontenoy stamp showing the Irish Celtic high cross memorial on the battlefield and two soldiers of the Irish Brigade standing before it.
The commemoration in May of this year was something very special for a delegation of 33 members of the Irish Literary Society from London (including this columnist). The Irish Literary Society not only went to commemorate the battle but to mark a century since their first visit to Fontenoy which led to the erection of the High Cross in 1907.
Richard Barry O'Brien, grandson of the 1905 President of the Irish Literary Society (who bore the same name) laid a wreath together with Alain Tripneaux, historian, author and president of the Tricorne Society. Professor Raymond Chapman, chairman, of the Irish Literary Society, and Seán Hutton, of the British Association of Irish Studies, who made his address in Irish, also spoke together with M. Desmaels, the French consul.
The Nobel Literary Laureate W B Yeats founded the Irish Literary Society in 1891. They first went to Fontenoy in June, 1905, led by Richard Barry O'Brien and the Lord Mayor of Dublin, M M Hutchinson together with other dignitaries, led the visitors. O'Brien wrote a booklet Remember Fontenoy published by the Irish Literary Society in 1905.
To mark this year's visit, the Irish Literary Society have published a new book of essays under the same title - Remember Fontenoy - with a foreword by the current honorary president, Nobel literary laureate, Seamus Heaney. This recounts the battle and its significance, the men involved and the ballads and poems it engendered. A second volume containing poems engendered by the battle by Thomas Davis, Emily Lawless, Bartholomew Dowling, Voltaire and others, will be published later.
It was that first visit which decided the Society to set up a Celtic cross memorial to the Irish dead. This was unveiled at Fontenoy on August, 1907. It stands over sixteen feet high on a plinth of Newry marble and was the work of the sculptor Anthony Scott of Dublin.
Francis J Sullivan, one of those involved, presided over a banquet in Dublin to mark the occasion. Among the guests were John O'Leary, then President of the Supreme Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, T D Sullivan, writer and politician, Father Patrick Dinneen, of Irish dictionary fame, Pádraic Pearse, soon to lead the 1916 uprising, and 'Sceilg' (the writer Seán Ua Ceallaigh), who was to become Speaker in the Dáil 1925-30 and president of Sinn Féin.
The delegation to unveil the memorial also included Dr Mark F Ryan, who delivered an address in Irish, the Lord Mayor of Dublin, then Joseph Nannetti MP, who unveiled the cross and, of course, ILS President Richard Barry O'Brien.
In 1963 the Irish Historical Society also unveiled their own bronze plaque on the railings around the memorial in a ceremony performed by the historian Sir Charles Petrie. Another plaque to members of the Irish Brigade stands at the small cemetery at Fontenoy, just outside the village.
There was yet another fascinating Irish visit to the field of Fontenoy in 1995 when, to mark the 250th anniversary of the battle, Irish hurling teams played a commemorative game there. This was organised by Eoghan Ó hAnnrachain, who was then not only financial controller of the European parliament but president of the Gaelic Sports Club of Luxembourg. There was special reason for this game of hurling at Fontenoy. In 1747 the Marquis de Lostanges recorded that members of the Irish Brigade had met there and held a match. In Co. Tipperary there survives an old song which tells what happened then entitled The Brigade's Hurling Match.
The new ILS book, Remember Fontenoy, was launched at the end of April at a meeting of the Irish Literary Society at which this columnist delivered a talk on 'Fontenoy in Fiction' concentrating on the several works of literature that have used the battle as a setting, such as The Irish Captain: a tale of Fontenoy by Frederick Whittaker; Bonnie Prince Charlie: a tale of Fontenoy and Culloden by G.A. Henty and A Day of Battle by Vincent Sheean.
The battle was not only remember in Irish literature written in English but also in Irish. In 1906 there was also a four-act play about Fontenoy in Irish entitled Seabhac na Ceathreamháin Caoile (Hawk of the Narrow Quadrant) by Tomás Ó hAodha, which was published by Conradh na Gaeilge. Next month, in fact, a new novel in the Irish language is being published entitled Fontenoy telling the story of the battle from the viewpoint of a young captain in Dillon's Regiment. The novel is by award winning novelist Liam Mac Cóil.
After the wreath laying at Fontenoy this year the Irish Literary Society delegation were welcomed at 'Le Café des Irlandais' close by the Celtic cross before going on to a reception at the town hall at Tournai and then a special supper with deputy mayor, M. Ladavidof, the French consul and members of the local history group.
The next day was the turn of the British to remember their dead. Irish delegates attended the unveiling of a plague listing the casualties of the British regiments engaged. The British military attaché to Belgium unveiled this at the church in the village of Vezon, a short distance from Fontenoy, which had been the Duke of Cumberland's headquarters before the battle.
Sadly, there were only three British representatives present. This plaque was the first time an acknowledgement had been made of the British role in the battle and the loss of 7,500 of their soldiers on the field. A squad of the 43rd French Infantry, the descendant of the regiment Royal-Vaisseaux, which fought at Fontenoy, were also present and well as members of the re-enactment groups from France, Belgium, England and Germany led by Mr. David Wilton. After speeches by the Bourgmestre of Vezon, Alain Tripneaux of the Tricorne, the British military attaché, the main address was giving by M Crickx, president of the Belgian Veterans Society.
The choristers of Vezon sang a selection of songs including The White Cockade, Amazing Grace'and The little soldier of Fontenoy' A Scots piper was also present.
There also followed a short ceremony, at the same place, also marked the end to the 1939-45 conflict, it being 8 May.
All the delegates were invited back to the town hall of Tournai for a reception and lunch. There followed a visit to the exhibition on the battle at the Musée Royal d'Armes et d'histoire of Tournai and then the re-enactment groups, clad in the uniforms of 1745, performed drills and skill with their firelocks in the Parc Communal.
On the Sunday morning, the Irish Literary Society, delegation return for a private moment to the Fontenoy Cross for prayers and a song in Irish and English before returning to London.
To give a poignant finale to this trip, the officials at Dover decided to mark out the ILS coach for special attention. Unlike other coaches coming off the Calais-Dover ferry, members of the party, several in their mid-80's, were made to disembark and walk the length of the Customs and Immigration hall, wait twenty minutes in cold winds for their coach to pass through inspection. When it did, they found all the baggage had been taken off the coach and they were forced to walk all the way back through the custom hall to reclaim their baggage and carry it manually back to the coach.
When one of the officials was question about this, he sneeringly replied "well, you were going to an Irish battle!" I wonder if the RAF Group Captain, the military attaché, making one of the speeches and unveiling the memorial to the British dead, was treated in the same fashion on his return?
It seems that the Irish are still being giving a hard time by the 'border police' of this country in marked contrast to the reception in France and Belgium.
This apart, it was an emotional trip. The Celtic cross at Fontenoy is a profound reminder of Irish history. Its inscriptions are all in Irish and one of them reads:
I cuimhne an laochraibh na nGaedheal a bhain air Magh Fonteadói sasadh ar na Sasanaibh i n-éiric air feill Luimnig.
What I found personally moving was meeting the native of Fontenoy who apparently tends to the monument and raises the Irish tricolour every 11 May in commemoration to the Irish dead. This man attended the ceremonies and presented many of us with the Belgian stamp issued in 1995 as a memento. He would accept no money for this act of generosity.
The 'Wild Geese' have become legendary and the French records show that the Irish serving in the Irish Brigade of the French army lost some half million men during their one hundred years of service for France. There are very few memorials to those men who were forced out of Ireland after the surrender of Limerick to serve in foreign fields. The cross at Fontenoy is deserving of a visit by anyone passing through southern Belgium.
Perhaps, when all is said and done, what stays uppermost in the mind, after a pause for quiet reflection on the carnage of Fontenoy, is the Irish adage: Ní dheaghaidh rogha ó réiteach. May that day finally come.
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Copyright © 2005 Peter Berresford Ellis