(The Irish Citizen, March 25, 1871)
On the evening of the 17th of March, 1871, the re-union of the Knights of St. Patrick took place at a dinner at Delmonico’s, New York, in celebration of the National Festival. John Mitchel responded as follows to the toast of: –
“FRANCE – May her present sorrow be a prelude to a future more glorious than her past.”
Mr. President and Knights of St. Patrick – Surely there is a peculiar propriety in the toast which has just been drunk at this board; that an assembly of Irishmen celebrating the fete day of our National Saint should remember in their festivity the ancient kindred nation from which Ireland never received anything but good. St. Patrick himself came to us from France. It is true that on his first arrival upon the Irish shores he was brought to us as a slave and bondsman. That first time he did not come to us; we went for him, and we go for him still. But again, the second time, when he came of his own accord, as a Christian Missionary, it was also from the shores of France. From France, too, came all the best and noblest, even of the invaders of our soil, of whom I may mention the Geraldines, who became chiefs of a potent Irish clan, and from whose loins sprang the good Lord Edward. And from France, in after ages, came St. Ruth, who was struck down at Aughrim, even as MacMahon was struck down at Sedan, and the cause of Ireland fell with the one, as the cause of France fell with the other. After that luckless day, too, when the Dutch “Deliverer” reigned supreme; in the dark days of the Penal Laws, when education in Ireland became a penal offence under English enactments; where was it that our Irish clergy and gentry had to learn their letters? Why, in France. In that noble, generous country were always schools and colleges for our countrymen; although to go thither or to return, was always a source of extreme danger, and students had to run the blockade to go to school, and run the blockade again to come back, knowing that if captured in that treasonable practice, they were liable to long imprisonment or transportation to the Colonies of the West Indies. And where was it but in France that towards the end of the last century Irishmen learned something of the rights of man? It was on French principles that our fathers founded the United Irish Society, and on French aid they relied to make good those principles of freedom in their own island. If that aid finally failed our people, it was not from want or zeal or friendship on the part of our kinsmen, the French. Bantry Bay saw their Tricolour fly from the mastheads of a noble fleet, which, unhappily, the cruel weather of a savage winter blew out to sea, and scattered; from France came the small squadron of General Humbert and his gallant little force that routed the British at the “Races of Castlebar”; from France set sail that other flotilla which bore Wolfe Tone, bound to free his country or to die. He could but die. So it is that down to this very day our people look to France as a friend, our only friend in Europe, and we cannot look on unmoved in this day of her sore affliction and humiliation.
I do not deny that we owe something also to the Germans; we owe them the Hessians. Not that it is altogether strictly correct to say that Ireland owes anything to those Hessians, because she was made to pay their expenses, and Ireland is at this day paying interest on the money which hired those cut-throats to trample down our brave county of Wexford; and with that very blood-money, their master and owner, the Duke of Hesse Cassel, built the great palace of Wilhelmshohe, the imperial prison of Napoleon III.
It is no wonder, then, in the great struggle between France and Germany, the Irish race, both here and at home, has warmly and ardently sympathised with the French. No wonder that we refuse to believe in the long-continued humiliation of that gay and proud people. I do not wish to say one word against the unfortunate Emperor Napoleon, thrice and four times unfortunate, indeed, in being the official and responsible head of his great nation in the day of her sudden and astonishing collapse. Therefore, it is best to say nothing about him at all. Neither is it possible, here and now, to go into any military review of that tremendous campaign in which it must be admitted that the Germans have approved themselves the most scientific soldiers the world has ever seen. Enough to know that, throughout this terrible business, our kinsmen, the French, maintained all their old reputation for desperate gallantry; so that there is not, perhaps, in all history a finer example of heroism than was seen in the disastrous battle of Woerth, lost by the French against four times their numbers.
And now let me say one word – it is surely appropriate for an Irishman, speaking to Irishmen, on St. Patrick’s Day, and in response to the toast of “France” – one word of a countryman of our own, the greatest of French soldiers in this age, to whom six months ago the whole French army and all the rest of the world looked with enthusiasm as the man who would lead to assured victory, and who did hold the cause of France at his sword’s point until that sword was struck from his hand. Of other French commanders men have spoken hardly. They have called Bazaine a traitor; Aurelles de Paladine a blunderer; Trochu himself an imbecile; but who is there, French, or English, or German, who has been bold enough to utter one word against the name or fame of Marshal Patrick MacMahon, Duke of Magenta?
We can all remember the circumstances under which he first drew his sword in this war. He was summoned hastily from Africa and desired to command a corps of 35,000 men on the frontier, arriving only on the very day before he was to be attacked by 150,000 Germans. He did not, and could not, know the force opposed to him. He only knew that he was expected to hold that frontier pass; and his men – who remembered that he had led them up to the storm of the Malakoff – who remembered how at Magenta he had torn out the Austrian centre, and rolled up their two wings – would follow him anywhere, believing that MacMahon could always achieve the impossible. But this time it was too hard for him. After a desperate and magnificent fight, he retired before the vast masses of the enemy. Again he met them at Sedan; and, in the crisis of that dreadful day, the shell that tore him almost to pieces destroyed the best and last hope of the French Empire.
On the whole, then, his countrymen have reason to be proud of their French Marshal; and especially so, that, although his family has been French, and of the noblesse of France, for two hundred years, he still remembers with ancestral pride that his clan was the old Clare family of the MacMahons of Corcabaiscin, with their strong place at Carrigaholt on the Shannon. And when our friend, Smith O’Brien, was last in France, the great Marshal, being then in command of 40,000 Frenchmen on the plains of Chalons, ordered a special review of those troops in honour of O’Brien as chief of his Dalcassian clan.
Ah! No wonder that we Irish have a warm heart for the French! If they have given us saints and apostles, if they have made many efforts to redeem and rescue our unfortunate nation, we also on our side have given something to them – brigades of invincible soldiers, marshals, and general officers, who have graced their army and carried their banner (Fleur de Lys or Tricolour, it was all one) high over all the standards of Europe. So it was once; so it will be again.
And thus, with all the memories of the past crowding around us, and with all the hopes for the future which we cannot help associating with the new and certain revival of French influence and power, we send our greeting this night to our dear kindred nation. Knights of St. Patrick! I call upon you to join me in draining a glass to the health and long life of Patrick MacMahon, Duke of Magenta.
- The name of MacMahon still flourishes in France. Marshal MacMahon’s two sons are distinguished soldiers in the French Army of today. At the beginning of the War Patrice de MacMahon, Due de Magenta, was a colonel. In 1915 he attained the rank of general, in command of the 43rd Brigade of Infantry. In 1916 he was appointed Inspecteur des Batallions d’Instruction of the Second French Army. His younger brother, Emmanuel, was a general at the outbreak of the War, and since then he has commanded the 80th Brigade of Infantry. Both of the brothers have won high distinction in Champagne and at Verdun. – Ed.