The enforced lockdown (it’s an ill wind ) afforded the opportunity to revisit Stephen Dunford’s ‘In Humbert’s Footsteps’, that eminently readable and thoroughly researched work which, by right, should be made required reading in every primary school in the land.
It is a book which bridges the gap between folk memory and academic research, and which put flesh on the bones of what, in Irish terms, was a hugely important historical event. Granted, in the grand sweep of world history, the French invasion may be no more than a footnote, a skirmish which lasted not much more than a month, and which ended in abject defeat. But yet, in Irish folk memory, it was probably the most significant event up to the Great Famine.
‘In Humbert’s Footsteps’ is a book based on folk memory which gives it an authenticity rarely found in the more academic, and dull, manuscripts of professional historians. In the words of Dunford’s collaborator, the historian Guy Beiner, it finds its sources in the dustbin of Irish history, that rich oral culture for which we as a nation are famous. Yet it is a culture often disparaged by those who find their material in archives and documents and official reports which, however accurate they may be, fail to convey the real flavour of the impact of historical events on the perceptions of ordinary people.
Folk history may not always be entirely accurate; it may be biased in its retelling of local lore and the involvement of local people; its factual narrative may sometimes be faulty, but it is none the less authentic for all that. It is history seen ‘from below’ and, in the hands of a Stephen Dunford, it becomes live and relevant and as immediate as if the events described were fresh and recent.
The military narrative of the Humbert invasion, from the academic perspective, is unremarkable and straightforward. In terms of high politics, it was a minor event, a footnote to history, a trivial affair in the great scheme of things. The defeated French largely escaped the merciless punishment visited on their Irish allies, who were abandoned to their fate.
And yet, in poems and songs, in street ballads and childrens’ rhymes, in place names and stories, the centrality of 1798 in folk memory emerges again and again. When the famous schools folklore project was conducted in the 1930s, story after story referred back to ‘the Year of the French’, and the local happenings associated with the French invasion.
In reality, of course, we are still within touching distance of the events of 1798. The memorial stone inside the gates of Christ Church in Castlebar commemorates the named Frazer Fencibles who died on the hill; the Croppies’ grave in Kilcummin , the Frenchill monument, the apocryphal story of how Staball Hill got its name; Henri Dupre of the St Mary’s staff, of French descent, the French soldier, fleeing for his life and given shelter with a local family, who gave his name to the village of Gillardstown; 1798 is all around us.
And the infamous hanging tree on Castlebar Mall, opposite the Imperial Hotel, whose wood was later carved into crosses to the memory of patriot priest of Addergoole, Fr Conroy.
Stephen Dunford sometimes complains that the French victory at Castlebar is the only battle not to be commemorated on the French wall of honour at the Arc de Triomphe. The reason may have to do with Humbert’s fall from grace in French eyes, after the 1798 adventure.
But, whether or not, it need not be too late yet.