was the French Officer who saved Father Donovan?
Over the centuries the links between Ireland and France
have often been discussed and either praised or criticised.
There are those who maintain that France still owes a lot
to the Irish. From the time of the 'Wild Geese' Irishmen
have served that country well, not only at Fonternoy but
in many ways since. Perhaps the biggest let down the Irish
suffered by depending on French aid was during the 1798
rising. Even though Humbert and a small French force landed
at Killala in August of that year they were far too late
and in the wrong place to really stand a chance of overthrowing
the British forces and were defeated by Cornwallis at the
head of a much bigger force at the battle of Ballinamuck.
A few days before the rebellion broke out, Napolean had
sailed for Egypt having decided that it should be the main
object of French overseas interest. But our story today
is about another rebellion or should we say revolution,
that had taken place some nine years before, the French
Now let us go back in time to a home in county Cork, where
a young lad was preparing to go to college to study for
the priesthood. With conditions such as they were in Ireland
at the time that meant going abroad to complete his studies
. While a lot of those who studied for the priesthood at
the time went to Spain for their education this boy Daniel
Francis Donovan was sent to a French college. When he finished
college he became a Capuchin friar and gained appointment
as chaplain to one of the noble family's of Paris.
It was at this time that hunger and poverty had turned Paris
into a hot bed of murderers, robbers and plotters and a
hate that grew more and more vicious by the day between
those who ruled and those who were supposed to obey.
Eventually what had been a simmering pot came to the boil
and spilled over into what was one of the most barbaric
revolutions of all time. Paris had became a city of murder
and terror. It became dangerous to even walk the street
lest some fanatic reported you to the revolutionaries who
had taken over the city. Anyone classed as noble or even
connected to nobility were among those who were sentenced
for being enemies of the republic and were sentenced to
death accordingly. Crowds began to gather at the Guillotine
to watch and jeer as they went on the journey to the place
of beheaded. The rumble of the tumbrels as they went on
the journey to the place of execution filled the streets
and the cheers when a head came off were ample proof of
the hysterical mood of the population at the time. So it
was that Fr.Donovan became worried about the family he ministered
to and he finally persuaded them to leave Paris and the
country before it was too late, and they also would end
on the Guillotine. In spite of the fact that they begged
him with them to leave Paris and the country before it was
too late, Fr. Donovan refused, but promised to look after
their house and possessions. He now went around the streets
and back lanes giving comfort to all he could. This task
was filled with danger for among the revolutionaries were
many who thought little of taking a life, aristocratic,
Having had some narrow escapes the priest was eventually
arrested as a recusant priest and was tried by revolutionary
Court. Despite his effort to persuade his judges of his
innocence and that all he was doing was giving spiritual
help to those in need he was condemned to death by beheading
at the guillotine. He was thrown into prison along with
the many others who were to end their lives under the mighty
The night before they were to die, there were pitiful scenes
in the part of the prison where Fr. Donovan was. He did
his best to console them and help them to make their peace
with God. As the dawn broke over Paris the sound of the
tumbrel wheels awoke the prisoners from their fitful sleep
and were soon loaded like animals to go on their last journey.
The tumbrels waited in line with their cargo's were executed
and each one was emptied the next moved into line.
When the turn of Fr.Donovan came to mount the steps there
is a story told that an officer guarding the guillotine
called out in Irish"Are there any Irish among you?"
There are seven of us replied Fr.Donovan", "Then
have no fear" said the officer. He then spoke to the
officials and after what appeared to be some strong words
the seven were picked out and returned to prison, but not
to death cells.
It is told that unofficially Fr. Donovan was allowed to
move among those being sent to the guillotine and to give
them spiritual aid.
Paris was still a terrible city to live in until Robespierre
met his end in July of 1794. Then most of those who had
ordered those terrible massacres during the revolution met
the same fate that they had ordered for others.
Among the hundreds of prisoners released from the jails
was Fr. Donovan. After a short time in France he returned
to his native Cork where he resided at the Franciscan Convent
and acted for a long time as chaplain in the county jail.
The question that remains unanswered is who was the French
officer who called in Irish among those to be executed.
Did he know that Fr. Donovan was there? What influence had
he that he knew that the Irish were alright? Perhaps there
were those who knew him and where he came from. One way
or another the question must have sounded like words from
heaven to the seven Irishmen before the Guillotine.
Courtesy of Willie White
The Carlow Nationalist