The Weekend of the French, by Mairead Maguire
My name is Mairead Maguire, and I’m a member of the Ballina 2023 Steering Group.
Recently I was invited to represent Ballina 2023 in La Rochelle to celebrate the 225th anniversary of the Irish Expedition to assist with the Irish Rebellion of 1798.
Here’s a little about what was a really special weekend in France.
On August 6, 1798 General Jean Humbert departed La Rochelle in France, with a flotilla of 3 ships and a troop of 1,025 soldiers to join the Irish fight for Independence. General Humbert’s expedition was one of three, commanded by Napoleon, to aid the United Irishmen in their struggle for a republic.
This year, 2023, marks 225 years since the French set sail, and 200 years since General Humbert died. The Embassies in France and Ireland have worked together to remember this momentous occasion, in a year-long programme of events – ‘The Year of the French/Bliain na bhFrancach’ – which also celebrates the long-standing relationship between EU neighbours Ireland and France.
Over the August Bank Holiday weekend, a delegation from Ballina visited La Rochelle to participate in the commemorations. Attending were Cathaoirleach of Ballina Municipal District Cllr Séamus Weir and his wife Mary, Cllr Annie May Reape (Ballina Municipal District) and her husband Diarmuid, Sharon Horkan (In Humbert’s Footsteps) and myself, representing Ballina 2023. Also in attendance from Ireland was French Honorary Consul for Connacht and Donegal, Catherine Gagneux.
The Mayor of La Rochelle pulled out all the stops, with Irish and French tricolours flying on all the major landmarks, and a parade of re-enactors in full costume, cannon fire and gunshots.
We started the weekend of celebrations with a boat trip aboard Le Notre Dame des Flots, a beautiful wooden sailboat built in 1943, for us to recreate General Humbert’s departure from France. While Humbert took three boats with 1,025 men, we had one boat with 11 people. In untypical style we got wet and windy weather, and a choppy sea, so we got a tiny flavour of what life might have been like aboard a frigate for two weeks crossing the Atlantic!
We visited The General Humbert’s Pub where we met the owners. They are very passionate collectors of General Humbert documents and artefacts including a Napoleonic cannon. Not only are they running a great pub, they have a lovely museum on site too.
On the Sunday, August 6, which was the actual anniversary of the sailing, the commemoration plaque was unveiled. To start the celebrations a group of French re-enactors from Le Garde Chauvin, marched in full uniform through the city to the old port. After impassioned speeches from Vincent Guérend, the French Ambassador to Ireland, Niall Burgess, the Irish Ambassador to France, and Anna Maria Spano, Deputy Mayor of La Rochelle and Cllr Seamus Weir, Cathaoirleach of the Ballina Municipal District, Mayo County Council, we heard the tale of the expedition from French historian Sophie Muffant.
Speeches over, le Garde Chauvin treated us to a display of cannon fire and gunshots, much to the surprise of the tourists pootling around on pleasure boats in the harbour.
It was very touching to see and hear the regard for Ireland, we encountered all weekend. Thank you to everyone in La Rochelle who made us so welcome.
We are really looking forward to welcoming a delegation from France to Ballina this weekend to continue the celebrations! If you haven’t seen re-enactors in action before, don’t miss out!