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