Who 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 revolution.

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, ecclesiastic.

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 blade.

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