Much has been written about Steve Dunford since his untimely death, and fittingly so, for a man who himself turned out so many books, articles and speeches, in addition to everything else he threw himself into, heart and soul.
It would tax the expertise of any time management specialist to explain how Steve could manage to write the epic ‘Mayo Tain’, ‘The Irish Highwaymen’, several historic books on Killala, and his magnum opus, ‘In Humbert’s Footsteps’, while still pursuing a host of other projects.
Steve Dunford was a force of nature; larger than life, of boundless energy, a magnetic personality, and whose sheer enthusiasm was infectious. That he brought new life to the story of Humbert’s Irish campaign, forgotten by ourselves and written out of official French history, was to be his lasting monument.
Everyone had their own favourite stories of encounters with Steve. His friend, the journalist Frank McNally, (enlisted as a lowly private in the General’s army) recalled walking the streets of Remiremont, the small French town where Humbert was born, clad in full army regalia, of a late evening in search of a still open tavern. The bemused quartet of locals who stopped to help them were, to the dismay of the Irish duo, totally ignorant of Humbert or anything about him. Following a short tutorial from Dunford, however, they were presented with pikemen lapel pins and recruited into the General’s forces.
A personal recollection was Steve’s amusement at the story of the legendary Laurence Gildea, great grandfather of the famed band leader Stephen Garvey, whose butcher shop in Rush Street provided the meat for the banquet to celebrate the French victory in Castlebar. It was an action which left the butcher in poor standing with the authorities when the old order was restored following the Humbert defeat. However, Gildea appears to have got off lightly, to the extent that 90 years later, now aged over 100, he was among the 45 prominent citizens who signed the illuminated address of welcome to the Earl and Countess of Lucan.
A niggling pebble in Steve’s shoe was that the French military authorities chose not to recognise the Castlebar victory in any official records. The Wall of Honour at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris lists every French battle and every French victory from Napoleonic times, except that won on Irish soil. Whether it was, as most historians agree, that Humbert himself became discredited in France and spent his final years in America, where he fought with the US army in the Battle of New Orleans, Steve Dunford always maintained that it was an omission which needed to be put right.
But perhaps Steve Dunford’s most lasting contribution to Irish culture was in restoring oral history to its rightful place in folk memory. In writing ‘In Humbert’s Footsteps’ with Guy Beiner, the authors chose to go back to the rich oral history of the year of the French, often derided by academic historians. In doing so, they explored every nook and cranny of the event as told from the bottom up, just as it was remembered by the ordinary people and passed down from generation to generation.
For a century and a half, stories and anecdotes of the French invasion had been part of the everyday conversations of the families of the rural west of Ireland.
And maybe, just maybe, it is still not too late for the French to devote an additional line on the wall of the Arc de Triomphe in tribute, this time, to General Dunford.