The village of Kilcummin is nestled in the heart of the Céide Coast in North Mayo. Kilcummin is named after the early Irish Saint Cuimín, and derives from the Irish Cill Chuimín, meaning “church of Cuimín” – the remains of an early Christian church can be found in the village. At present the current church in nearby Lacken is under the joint patronage of St. Patrick and St. Cuimín.
According to local legend it is Foghill the very place that the future patron saint of Ireland saw in his dream visions when he was visited in his sleep and heard “the voice of those who were in the wood of Foclut, which is near the western sea” calling to him to return amongst them.
On Wednesday 22nd of August 1798, the French General, Jean Joseph Amable Humbert (1767 – 1823) led 1,000 men ashore after three ships; the Concorde, Franchise, and the Médée sailed into the quiet village of Kilcummin, on the edge of Killala Bay. A monument can be found in Kilcummin where the French General is said to first have stood on Irish soil.
Now on Irish soil, Humbert and his men marched for Killala, crossing Palmerstown Bridge which was only constructed ten years prior. Humbert and his troops with three cannons and a supply of arms quickly occupied the town of Killala. The United Irishmen urged locals to join them.
A thousand peasant farmers come forward to be drilled and armed. 5,500 muskets were handed out to other farmers, while many more armed themselves with pikes.
The French took over the residence of Bishop Joseph Stock (1740 – 1813), the Church of Ireland Bishop of Killala and Achonory, as a temporary headquarters, before making their way to Ballina.
French/Irish troops captured Ballina under cover of darkness without much resistance.
The Irish lit bundles of straw to show them their way. This approach road to Ballina has since been known as Bóthair na Sop (Bohernasup). From Ballina, they plotted their attack on the British in Castlebar.
The Races of Castlebar
The British fled towards Foxford where they would have their forces waiting for the French advance on Castlebar.
General Jean Sarrazin (1770 – 1848) who had been joined by Humbert, left Ballina for Castlebar. The Franco-Irish force marched for a few miles towards Castlebar and on the advice of Fr. Andrew Conroy decided to turn west towards Crossmolina and approach Castlebar via Laherdane and Barnageehy known as the Windy Gap. Over 3.000 Irish recruits joined their ranks on the march to Castlebar, many armed only with pikes and pitchforks. The night was so treacherous with rain and wind that the heavy artillery had to be abandoned.
According to local legend a farmer tending to his cattle spotted the French-Irish forces and quickly fled to Castlebar to warn the British forces of the eminent arrival of the French-Irish forces.
Humbert and his troops arrived at Castlebar to face a British garrison under the command of General Gerard Lake (1744 – 1808).
The British forces took up position at Sion Hill just outside the town. Humbert approached and took account of the British 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 British flanks.
The Irish drove a herd of cattle ahead of them causing confusion in the British rank. The French-Irish made an effective bayonet charge through the centre. The British retreated down Staball Hill.
Another attack occurred at Main Street Bridge. The British 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 British fled towards Tuam and Athlone. The event has since become known as The Races of Castlebar.
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 (1763 – 1799) of Moore Hall selected as its President.
On the 3rd September Humbert and his forces marched out of Castlebar under cover of darkness towards Sligo, on hearing that Lord Charles Cornwallis (1738 – 1805) 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.
On Saturday 22nd September 1798 British troops marched for Ballina and Killala burning houses along their route. A total of four French soldiers were present in Killala. The following day the Battle of Killala took place which lasted about half an hour. The Battle resulted in a heavy loss for the Irish. The Battle of Killala is regarded as one of the last battles of the 1798 rebellion.
With Killala now under British rule again after the Battle of Killala, some British soldiers marched on west to Ballycastle. On learning of the imminent arrival of British forces some 15-20 Irish rebels took shelter in Poll na Seantainne blowhole on the ledge at the bottom at Downpatrick Head. Unfortunately tide came in before ladders could be replaced and all men lost their lives. A memorial to those who lost their lives can be seen inside the viewing point.
Fr. Andrew Conroy was placed on trial charged with High Treason and was later hanged in Castlebar. A memorial was erected in Lahardane where he served as priest.
The Leaders of the 1916 Rising took inspiration from the Leaders of the 1798 Rebellion.
North Mayo today still retains strong links with France. Ballina is twinned with Athis-Mons, Killala is twinned with Chauvé, Castlebar is twinned with Auray and Belderrig is twinned with Les Ventes.
Two centuries after the Year of The French, The Humbert Trail (Kilcummin to Ballina and into Sligo would be established.
Vive la république!