The Races of Castlebar 1798 in Co. Mayo

On the 3rd July 1998, An Taoiseach Bertie Aherne T.D. unveiled a plaque on The Kingsbridge Inn to commemorate the Bi-centenary of "The Races of Castlebar". This event as well as the publication of Thomas Flanagan's “The Year of the French" in 1979 and the subsequent filming of this novel some years ago, have increased an awareness of the events that took place in Mayo following the arrival of General Humbert at Kilcummin on August 22nd. 1798 and their importance in the course of Irish history.


The French Revolution 1789-95 had a huge influence on most of Europe including Ireland. In 1793 The National Assembly in Paris promised the assistance of France to all nations seeking freedom. Theobald Wolf Tone had gone to France to seek help for the Irish cause in 1796. This help was promised but unfortunately an expedition under General Hoche and 15,000 troops failed to reach Bantry Bay as the fleet was scattered by storm. Following the rebellion of May 1798 Tone again sought help from France and on July 19th the French Directory agreed to send three expeditions to Ireland. The first of these expeditions with an army of some 1100 troops sailed from La Rochelle on August 6th under the command of General Humbert. There were a number of Irish among Humberts command. These included Matthew Tone, a brother of Wolf Tone, Bartholomew Teeling and Fr. Henry O Kane. The fleet had originally planned to land in Co. Donegal, but due to storm and no doubt influenced by the presence of Fr. O Kane who was a native of Killala the fleet sailed into Killala Bay.


On 22nd August three frigates The Franchise, The Medee and The Concorde landed at Kilcummin flying the English colours. Edwin and Arthur Stock, sons of the Protestant Bishop of Killala, who had sailed out to meet them, greeted them. The two were captured, the English flag taken down and the French flag hoisted. One of the first to disembark was Fr. O Kane who spoke to the locals in Irish which was the native tongue of most of the Irish at that time. Word soon filtered to native Irish throughout Mayo and Sligo. Bishop Stock also heard of the arrival and he sent messages to the local gentry among them the Jacksons, the Knoxs, Binghams, Palmers and Kirkwoods.

By about 7pm the landing was complete. General Sarrazin and Fr. O Kane set out for Killala to survey the town. Capt. O Kane was challenged by a yeoman from a side street, but was not hit. He went on to shoot the yeoman dead. Sarrazin and his men arrived in Killala, where they were met by a volley from the loyalists. Instead of replying they attacked with bayonet charge and as they numerically outnumbered the yeomen, they soon captured the town. Bishop Stocks palace was taken over as Humberts H.Q. Several of the yeomen were taken prisoner while others fled towards Ballina. A French soldier climbed to the top of the palace and removed the British flag, which was replaced by a green and gold flag bearing the inscription Erin Go Brach.

The arrival of the French at Killala and the rumour of other French landings caused panic among the English. The British military commander in Mayo sent a despatch to Lord Castlereagh in Dublin Castle seeking help. The local Irish leaders also sent for help throughout Mayo and Sligo. Many Irish volunteers arrived to help them among who was Hugh Maguire, Richard O Dowd, and Colonel Matthew Bellew, a retired Austrian officer and brother of the Catholic Bishop of Killala. Bellew was appointed leader of the insurgents. Many priests arrived with recruits, Fr. Munnelly, Fr. Owen Cowley, Fr. David Kelly, Ballycroy and Fr. James Conroy, Addergoole.

Having captured Killala Humbert sent two groups under Generals Sarrazin and Fontaine to capture Ballina. That night a fight took place between Sarrazins troops and the British at Rosserk. The English eventually retreated in confusion. The next morning the French/Irish troops captured Ballina under cover of darkness. The Irish peasants lit bundles of straw to show them their way. This approach road to Ballina has since been known as Bothair na Sop. They took Ballina without much resistance. They were shocked to see the body of Patrick Walshe of Crossmolina who had been hanged publicly. He had been sent in advance to reconnoitre. The English for the most part fled towards Foxford where they would have their forces waiting for the French advance on Castlebar.

On 22nd. August Sarrazin who had been joined by Humbert, left Ballina for Castlebar. They marched for a few miles towards Castlebar and on the advice of Fr. Conroy decided to turn west towards Crossmolina and approach Castlebar via Laherdane and Barnageehy. At Laherdane the French rested and were fed by the locals before proceeding on the last leg of their journey through Barnageehy. The night was so treacherous with rain and wind that the heavy artillery had to be abandoned.

A yeoman farmer who had been tending to his cattle had spotted the French/Irish advance party. He immediately fled to Castlebar to warn the British commander of the eminent arrival of the French/Irish forces.

The English forces took up position at Sion Hill just outside the town. Humbert approached and took account of the English position. Following a number of attacks in which they were hit by British cannon, Humbert decided to regroup and divided his troops, splitting them to the left and right so as to attack the English flanks. The Irish drove a herd of cattle ahead of them causing confusion in the English rank. The French/Irish made an effective bayonet charge through the centre. The English retreated down Staball Hill.

Another attack occurred at Main Steet Bridge. The English defended the bridge for some time using forces from the Longford and Kilkenny militias and Fraziers Fencibles (a Scottish regiment). They were eventually routed and most of the English fled towards Tuam and Athlone. The event has since become known as The Races of Castlebar. In all the attack only lasted six hours from 6a.m. to 12 noon and has been described by Thomas Pakenham in The Year of Liberty as one of the most ignominious defeats in British military history.

After the battle was over Humbert set his H.Q. at Geevys Hotel (now known as The Humbert Inn). A Provisional Government of Connaught was declared with John Moore of Moore Hall selected as its President. A victory ball was held in the Linen Hall (now Town Hall) which was well attended. A small party under Teeling pursued the British rearguard under Lord Roden. Their flag of truce was attacked and five French cavalry were brutally murdered. The place where they fell is still known as French Hill. Two locals James Daly and Patrick Nally from Balla erected a monument to their memory in 1876. The monument bears the inscription In grateful remembrance of the gallant French soldiers who died fighting for the freedom of Ireland on 27th. August 1798. They shall be remembered forever. The links with that era still remain- 1798 memorial on The Mall, The Linenhall, The Humbert Inn, John Moores grave, French-hill monument, the gravestone of Fraziers Fencibles inside gate of Church of Ireland.There also exists a wealth of place names associated with the period e.g.French Hill, French field, Humbert Inn. As well as this there are several sites reputed to be Frenchmens graves and indeed a vast amount of folklore pertaining to the era. There is no doubt that the memories of this time will go on for a long time.

On the 3rd September Humbert and his forces marched out of Castlebar under cover of darkness towards Sligo, on hearing that Lord Cornwallis and his troops were within a days march of Castlebar. They covered 58 miles in 36 hours passing through Swinford, Belaghy, Tubbercurry and on to Collooney. The next morning while Humberts troops were having breakfast they were attacked by Colonel Vereker and his men. Humbert managed to outmanoeuvre the English and they retreated to Sligo and Ballyshannon. Humbert changed direction and headed towards Dromahair. On the evening of the 6th the Franco/Irish forces reach Drumkeeran where an envoy from Cornwallis offers terms of surrender but Sarrazin rejected them.

On the 7th September they crossed the Shannon at Ballintra much to the annoyance of Cornwallis. Col. Crawford’s cavalry soon overtook Humbert and a fierce engagement took place. Crawford retreated after losing several casualties. Humbert proceeded to Ballinamuck Co. Longford. Cornwallis had managed to get ahead and had the road ahead blocked. Meanwhile General Lakes army attacked from the rear. After a short battle of about 30 minutes the French surrendered, realising they were surrounded on all sides. The French were treated as prisoners of war. Over 500 Irish were killed and several others were hanged at Longford. Among those hanged were Captain O Malley from Burrishoole, Colonel O Dowd from Bonniconlon, General Blake and gunman James Magee. Matthew Tone and Bartholomew were tried and hanged within a week at Arbor Hill in Dublin.

There were reprisals also in County Mayo, Ireland. General Portarlington and his men who had come to Ballina from Sligo slaughtered and plundered before them, burning several farmhouses on their way. General Trench took Killala on Sept. 23rd and several were killed on sight, while several more were drowned in the Owenmore River. As they fled towards Palmerstown, they plunged into the river, which was swollen by a high tide and perished. There were several public hangings especially in Castlebar. The most notable of these was of Fr Conroy who was hung on the Mall in Castlebar and Fr. Manus Sweeney who was executed in Newport.

Article by Brian Hoban