Monday, 25 February 2013

Myles Byrne


I OWE my acquaintance with these Memoirs to Mr. John Dillon, who spoke of them as the best of all books dealing with Ireland ; and a reading of the volumes left me inclined to agree with him. The intrinsic interest of Byrne's narrative, its easy unaffected flow, and above all the high and chivalrous temper which pervades the whole, give it an excellence, rare anywhere, but which in all the bitter records of Irish warfare is without parallel. No man could have subjects more painful than the Wexford Rebellion and Emmet's rising ; no man could have handled them more frankly, whether in stating facts or in judgments upon conduct. Yet of all books dealing with modern Irish history this is the least painful to read that is known to me.

But Byrne's Memoirs were not only concerned with Irish rebellion ; he wrote as a veteran who had seen war in half the countries of Europe. The title of the original edition is;

" Memoirs of Miles Byrne. Chef de Bataillon in the Service of France :Officer of the Legion of Honour, Knight of St. Louis, etc. Edited by his Widow. Paris : Bossange et Cie. 1863." 

A brief sketch of his career will best explain the nature of the Memoirs.

In 1798 Miles Byrne was a young and well-to-do farmer at Monaseed on the northern border of county Wexford. He was a sworn United Irishman, and, before the rebellion actually broke out, was in hiding. From the first raising of the standard he was active, but his narrative leaves us in doubt by what deeds of bravery he attained to the position of leader; no soldier was ever more modest. After fighting through the whole series of actions, he led a body into the Wicklow hills, where he and his held out along with Holt and Dwyer till the general dispersal which took place on the news of Humbert's surrender. Byrne made his way to Dublin, and found means to conceal himself and gradually to find occupation in supervising a builder's workmen. Four years passed by and he had nothing to apprehend ; yet when Robert Emmet came to Dublin in the winter of 1802-3, Byrne promptly associated himself in the new peril. The story of that unhappy enterprise is nowhere so clearly and consistently told as in these Memoirs ; and whoever else may slight the memory of Emmet, Byrne, the soldier of Napoleon, looking back from a long life's experience, offers more heartfelt homage to this ill-starred leader than to any of the great men whose names figure in his record.

When the rising had failed, Emmet made his way back to Dublin and asked Byrne to carry news to the United Irishmen in Paris. This service of danger was faithfully performed, and the exile found himself among a group of Irishmen, all in the same unhappy situation, yet all hoping for another French invasion in which they should take part. Their hopes ran high when they were formed into the cadre or skeleton of a regiment which should be filled up with men when they landed in Ireland, and were sent to be trained on the Breton coast. But months and years passed, and when the Irish Legion was called into service and its ranks filled up, the service was on the Continent. In the Low Countries, in the Spanish Peninsula, on the Elbe, and on the Rhine, Byrne and his comrades fought for Napoleon, till the great general's star set finally in disaster. Then they or what was left of them were dismissed the French service, for the Bourbons were naturally eager to pleasure the Court of England Some were actually banished from France ; some, more fortunate, had leave to remain on half-pay, and of the latter Byrne was one.

But in 1830 the revolution which dethroned Charles X. brought better days for Miles Byrne. He was not only recalled to full pay, and given the rank of chef de bataillon (equivalent to lieutenant-colonel) which had been promised him under Napoleon, but he was at once actively employed, and in the cause of freedom. He held a high command in the first expedition dispatched for the liberation of Greece.

For many years after this he was an ordinary regimental officer in the French army ; these Memoirs were the occupation of his leisure after he had finally retired, and the latter part of them was clearly never finished. The book, as it originally appeared, was edited by Mrs. Byrne, and it made three volumes, of which the first was occupied with the description of his experiences of rebellion in Ireland, while the second gave an admirable narrative of his campaigns under Buonaparte, including the whole history of Napoleon's Irish Legion from its formation to its dissolution. These two volumes are evidently as their author intended them to be. The third is little more than loose leaves from a notebook but a notebook full of interesting material. Opening with an account of Byrne's own life in Paris before the formation of the Legion, it passes into a general characterisation of the Irish exiles then in France. The account of the Greek campaign is fragmentary ; and there is a good deal of repetition and defective arrangement

In the present edition the eleven hundred odd pages of the original have been reduced into the compass of two volumes; and even so the book remains so large that it has seemed best to add nothing by way of illustrative comment. My task as editor, then, has reduced itself to seeing the pages through the press, correcting the spelling of proper names, suppressing actual repretitions, and  here and there altering the arrangement. I have dealt a little more freely with the third volume, omitting here and there what seemed to lack interest. But care has been taken to leave in full Byrne's judgment on the men with whom he served or whom he met during his residence in Paris ; for nothing is more remarkable in the book than the clearness and justice of perception which these judgments display. Byrne's mind was neither subtle nor brilliant ; but it was evidently rich in common sense, an it combined generosity with a rigorous conception of honour and principle.

As a soldier, he seems to have been the very type of a regimental officer, whose place is in the fighting Hne[sic], whose concern is not with the general conduct of a campaign or an action, but who can be trusted to act boldly, decisively and intelligently in the individual circumstances of war. His book throughout makes one feel the most agreeable and most human aspect of warfare the generous relations between man and man, the cordiality of comradeship, the interludes of gaiety and good-humoured pleasure better than any other known to me except the admirable autobiography which General Sir George Napier wrote, to tell his children how he and his brothers and their brothers in arms fought in the Peninsula "for fun and glory."

But there one strikes a contrast and a sad one. Byrne was not, like the Napiers, a soldier by choice; necessity and unjust dominion drove him from his farm- He and his comrades were the descendants of the Wild Geese "war-dogs battered in every clime," fighters in every cause but their own. His book gives an extraordinary picture of the dispersion of his race : Irish names figure in it under every flag in Europe. And the book is naturally pervaded from first to last with a fierce resentment, the exile's anger against those who keep him from his home, against those who hold
his native country in subjection. Byrne and his comrades fight for France against England with more than a Frenchman's detestation of the enemy. Is this to be wondered at ?

To those Irishmen who know the book this publication will need little commendation. To those who do not, it may be said that it is a trial whether it be possible to find a public ready to buy reprints of books which have a high value in the study of Irish history, and which having passed out of general circulation, are only to be had at a high price ; and upon the success of this venture must depend the subsequent undertaking of similar publications.



The full text of these excellent memoirs is available for free in numerous formats over on the excellent website at this link.
Posted by Saoirse Go Deo On Monday, February 25, 2013 1 comment

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    This is my personal blog and all herein is merely personal opinion expressed solely on my own behalf from my viewpoint as an Irish Socialist Republican.

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