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The Year of the French

Huge re-enactment of 1798 French liberation of Mayo to take place this August

Humbert’s landing at Killala and Races of Castlebar to form centre of ambitious festival

Edwin McGreal

Plans are well underway for an ambitious re-enactment of the French invasion of Mayo in 1798 with committees in Killala and Castlebar working together for festivities this August.
Prominent Humbert historian Steve Dunford is on board and committee members Michael Baynes and Damien Cashin told last week’s meeting of Castlebar Town Council that they are looking at a projected cost of €90,000 for the Castlebar end of the festivities, all of which will be free to the public.
The re-enactment events of 2013 will involve over 200 re-enactors and will be called ‘In Humbert’s Footsteps’ and will commence on Friday, August 16 with social events in pubs in Killala and Castlebar with French themes.
At Kilcummin on Saturday, August 17 there will be a re-enactment of the French landing in Killala Bay with vessels from the Irish, French and British navies taking part. Later that day the Battle of Killala will be recreated on the streets of the north Mayo town with period army costumes and weaponry.
At Lahardane on Sunday, August 18 there will be a dedication ceremony to all the men and women of 1798 while later that same day The Races of Castlebar will be recreated. A victory dance will take place afterwards, either at The Mall or the Military Barracks in Castlebar, which is expected to be the highlight of the festival.

Historical context

Ireland in 1798 was a place primed for revolution. The ideas of the French Revolution and the American Revolution in the preceding decades had a huge effect on Irish revolutionaries looking to end British imperial rule.
Inspired by the French revolutionary government, the leader of the United Irishmen, Theobald Wolfe Tone, went to France looking for help in an uprising in Ireland.
Part of that help came on August 22, 1798 when General Jean Joseph Amable Humbert and his French forces landed three ships at Kilcummin, near the north-western shores of Killala Bay.
Thousands of Irish volunteers flocked to their assistance and this ‘Franco-Irish army’ marched towards and took the town of Killala on that same day, August 22. They captured Ballina two days later.
At this stage considerable British manpower was sent to protect Castlebar, the then major garrison town of north Connacht, from the Franco-Irish army.
Famously General Humbert and his 1,500 or so troops hit for Castlebar via the alternative, mountainous route through the Windy Gap, at the advice of Father James Andrew Conroy of Lahardane, apparently catching British troops by surprise when they entered the town at Sion Hill.
In a battle that became known as ‘The Races of Castlebar’, Humbert’s small forces roundly defeated the much larger British army at various battle points in the town such as Staball Hill, at Main Street and, finally, at Christ Church at the Mall.
The majority of British forces fled the town, some left at speed as far as Athlone, leaving behind considerably artillery. The speed of the departure gave the battle the name of ‘The Races of Castlebar’.
Humbert’s forces took the town, after which John Moore was appointed First President of the Republic of Connaught.
Humbert’s forces would eventually be defeated at Ballinamuck, Co Longford in September after considerable progress throughout Connacht.

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