Carlow man's part in the
Fall of the Bastille
How often have we heard the saying "The Fighting Irish".
It has appeared in books, being told in stories, even a film
was made with that name. I suppose there is a certain amount
of truth in the words, for in days long gone, when the Irish
had to emigrate and seek work in different parts of the
world they often got it tough. How often did we hear the
saying, and thousands of Irish see it, “No Irish need
apply”. It often turned out to be the survival of the
fittest and where a crust was to be earned, Paddy often was
the fittest. But then were we not always a fighting nation.
When we were finished fighting among ourselves we threw out
the Danes or Norsemen whichever you like to call them. Poor
Brian Boru, I wonder was he the last man to lead a force of
United Irishmen in the full meaning of the word.
Again we speculate, did not the men of Leinster fight
against Brian on that faithful day at Clontarf in 1014.
Still, it was as near as we got since and hope springs
eternal in the human breast. Then we had to wait almost 200
years before the coming of the Normans and we are fighting
ever since. Irishmen have fought on every battlefield in
Europe and on a good many outside it. Legend tells us that,
“On far foreign fields from Dunkirk to Belgrade, lie the
soldiers and chiefs of the Irish Brigade.” Indeed plains,
the battlefields of the American Civil War, the African
deserts or the rivers of Argentina or the flat lands of
Mexico. The Irish or people of Irish decent became leaders
in many countries and fought for many more. England may have
been the ‘Ould Enemy' but thousands of Irishmen died
fighting under the Union Jack in both World Wars. Some of
England's greatest leaders were Irishmen as indeed they were
of other countries too. Most of them are recorded for their
deeds of bravery and courage but there are some who took
part in great events in the words history and their names
remain almost unknown.
Such a man was Joseph Kavanagh, a cobbler of Lille, a man
who made his way to France in the middle 1700's. He later
transferred his work to Paris where he became involved in
the revolutionary movement. For some time before the rising
of July 14th, 1789 the city of Paris was a hot bed of
intrigue, plots, murders and crime. Of all the government
ministers in the cabinet there was one in whom the people
believed, Minister Necker. He had been on the side of the
people in their efforts to obtain more food supplies and
better living conditions. At this time living conditions in
the back streets of Paris were worse than famine conditions
in Ireland in later years.
This was the time that Marie Antionette was supposed to
have said when told the people had no bread, “Let them eat
Cake.” Hunger can be a terrible driving force and the people
of Paris were at the last stages by this time so it was not
hard to urge them to rebel against the government. The final
straw that set the country aflame was the fact that Necker
was removed from the cabinet. This news spread quickly and
soon the whole of Paris was in uproar and the cry was
Liberty or Death.
Far from the general conception that it was mob law all
the way there was a certain chain of command among even the
wildest of the mobs roving the streets and as a result 60
paris district representatives met the Hotel de Ville.
Outside in the street things were getting worse and six
citizens were chosen to go into the Hotel and ask the
municipal representatives to form a National Guard. One of
the six was Irishman Joseph Kavanagh.
The meeting told the six to go to their churches and get
200 citizens from each parish to form a bourgeois militia.
Kavanagh realising the need for arms, picked his men and
headed for the centre of the city. He was surrounded by a
mob howling for arms and stating that a large number of
Royal troops were approaching the city. A rumour spread that
there were arms in the Bastille. Kavanagh now, along with
two other horsemen raced through the streets shouting “To
the Bastille, To the Bastille.” Hundreds of angry men now
reached the Bastille and eventually stormed it and released
the few prisoners within it. Yes, the Bastille had fallen
and the chief organiser of that fall was an Irishman. Over
100 citizens died in the storming of the Bastille. After
this victory Kavanagh was among those honoured as a hero. A
strange twist to the story of the fall of the Bastille was
the fact that Kavanagh's name never appeared on the official
manuscript of the victory of the Bastille.
Two years after this, Joseph Kavanagh appeared again in
the uniform of a Paris police inspector. Stranger still, he
was one of those who carried out the terrible La Force
Prison massacre of September 1792, when Irish prisoners,
including Arthur Dillon were murdered.
The story of Kavanagh had another twist some years later
with the downfall of Robespierre in July 1794, when those
who had taken part in the prison massacre were taken
prisoner and paid for their cruelty with their lives. Joseph
Kavanagh was one of the few that was not named on the list
of the men who died. Where he went or his ultimate fate will
probably never be known, but then he was not the only
Irishman who vanished after been involved in the fighting
for a cause in another land and ending up on the wrong side.
Courtesy of Willie White from the Carlow Nationalist
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