Myles Byrne, United Irishman, French army officer and author, is born into a Catholic farming family in the townland of Ballylusk, near Monaseed, County Wexford, on March 20, 1780.
At the age of 17, Byrne is asked to join the government Yeomanry. He chooses instead to join the Society of United Irishmen. In defiance of the British Crown and the Protestant Ascendancy the oath-bound movement is determined to achieve an independent and representative government for Ireland. He participates in preparations in Wexford for the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and, at the age of 18, fights at the Battle of Tubberneering on June 4 and, in command of a division of pikemen, in the Battle of Arklow on June 9, in which the rebel leader Father Michael Murphy is killed. In the face of a general rout, he leads a rebel charge in the Battle of Vinegar Hill on June 21.
Keeping command of a small band, Byrne seizes Goresbridge on June 23 but has to deplore the murder of several prisoners and other atrocities committed by his men in revenge for the torture and executions that had been visited upon the peasantry by the yeomanry and government militia. After further skirmishes he joins Joseph Holt and Michael Dwyer in taking to the Wicklow Mountains to continue a guerrilla resistance.
After Holt accepts transportation to Australia in November, Byrne, assisted by his sister, escapes to Dublin. He recalls of his sister, “If I had not remarked a long scar on her neck, she would not have mentioned anything herself. A yeoman … threatened to cut her throat with his sabre if she did not tell instantly the place in which I was hiding. The cowardly villain, no doubt, would have put his threat in execution had not some of his comrades interfered to prevent him.”
In the winter of 1802-03, Byrne enters into the plans of Robert Emmet and Anne Devlin for a renewed uprising. In his Memoirs he describes a meeting he arranged between Robert Emmet and the Wexford rebel leader Thomas Cloney at Harold’s Cross Green, Dublin, just prior to Emmet’s Rebellion, “I can never forget the impression this meeting made on me at the time – to see two heroic patriots, equally devoted to poor Ireland, discussing the best means of obtaining her freedom.”
In July 1803, the plans unravel when Anne Devlin’s cousin, Michael Dwyer, still holding out in Wicklow, recognises that there are neither the promised arms nor convincing proof of an intended French landing. In the north Thomas Russell and James Hope find no enthusiasm for a renewal of the struggle in what in 1798 are the strongest United Irish and Catholic Defender districts.
In Dublin, with their preparations revealed by an accidental explosion of a rebel arms depot, Emmet proceeds with a plan to seize the centres of government. The rising, for which for Byrne turns out with Emmet and Malachy Delaney in gold-trimmed green uniforms, is broken up after a brief confrontation in Thomas Street.
Two days after the fight in Thomas Street, Byrne meets with the fugitive Emmet and agrees to go to Paris to procure French assistance. But in Paris he finds Napoleon‘s attentions focused elsewhere. The First Consul uses a cessation of hostilities with Britain to pursue a very different venture, the re-enslavement of Haiti.
Byrne is commissioned as a captain in Napoleon’s Irish Legion. But at a time when he is convinced that “all Catholic Ireland” is “ready to rise the moment a rallying point was offered,” the Irish exiles cannot deflect the First Consul from other priorities. Rather than in Ireland, with his diminishing Irish contingent, he is to see action in the Low Countries, Germany and Spain.
Byrne rises to the rank of brigadier general and is awarded the Legion of Honour in 1813. Following the Bourbon Restoration, with fellow legionnaire John Allen, he narrowly avoids deportation as a foreign Bonapartist. An introduction to the Prince de Broglie, then vice-president of the Chamber of Deputies, and two audiences with the Minister of War, Marshal Henri Clarke, the Duke of Feltre, contribute to the latter’s decision to quash the deportation order. In August 1817 Byrne is naturalised as a French citizen.
For much of the next decade Byrne finds himself effectively retired on half pay. Returned to active military service in 1828, he distinguishes himself in the French expedition to Morea during the Greek War of Independence. He retires in 1835 with the rank of Chef de Bataillion.
In the 1840s, Byrne is Paris correspondent for The Nation in Dublin, the Young Irelander newspaper that does much to rehabilitate the memory of the United Irishmen.
In his last years Byrne writes his Memoirs, which are an account of his participation in the Irish Rebellion and his time in the Irish Legion of Napoleon. These are first published in three volumes in 1863, but there have been many subsequent reprints. Against the portrayal of 1798 as a series of disjointed, unconnected risings, his memoirs present the United Irishmen as a cohesive revolutionary organisation whose aim of a democratic, secular, republic had captured the allegiance of a great mass of the Irish people.
Byrne dies at his house in the rue Montaigne (now rue Jean Mermoz, 8th arrondissement, near Champs-Élysées), Paris on January 24, 1862, and is buried in Montmartre Cemetery. His grave there is marked by a Celtic Cross, however this headstone appears to be a 1950s replacement for an earlier one.
(Pictured: Miles Byrne (1780-1862), United Irishman. Photograph taken by an unknown photographer in Paris in February 1859. The photograph now resides in Áras an Uachtaráin, the residence of the President of Ireland, in Dublin.)