17th century vagrants

The Pont Neuf in the 17th century

The French have traditionally been good at deportations. In July 1942, during the Second World War, their police distinguished themselves in the ‘Vel d’Hiv’ round-up of foreign Jews, who were subsequently sent to Auschwitz. More recently, Tunisians who tried to exploit the open border between France and Italy to sneak into l’Hexagone after the collapse of the Ben Ali regime were quickly expedited back home. French expertise in this area actually goes back at least to the early 17th century, when the problem of Irish beggars prompted the authorities to charter boats to take them back to where they came from.

The defeat of the Irish chieftains at Kinsale in December 1601 unleashed a flood of destitute Irish soldiers and their families on continental Europe. Some scholars estimate that 1,000 soldiers and their dependents left Ireland annually in the years after Kinsale, while William Lyons, bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross claimed in 1607 that “by credible report, 4,000 or 5,000 are departed [from the diocese], some for France, some for Spain”. 

Having travelled through Brittany or Normandy, Paris was a port of call for many of these demobbed soldiers and their entourage on their way to join regiments fighting in Spanish Flanders and other parts of the continent. But without resources, contacts or a pre-established Irish community on which it could rely, the Irish were reduced to begging (and worse). Their place in the Parisian imaginary at the time can be gauged from this little ditty from the pen of Pierre de l’Estoile called La bonne aventure de Cascarette:

…never your husband

Will be jealous or grieved,

Whether you be sweet or proud;

Even a thief or an executioner will avoid you,

And if he were jealous

It will be like an incubus for a witch.


Then, some time having passed,

Hating you and hitting you,

And both quarrelling eternally,

Your clothes full of bugs and torn,

Under Saint-Honoré bridge

 will you die like a poor Irishwoman [“comme une pauvre Irlandoise”]


By 1605-1607, the Irish had become a nuisance. De l’Estoile describes them as “people expert in the begging and excelling in the supreme science of this profession, which consists in doing nothing and living under the sign of the old man Peto d’Orléans: what is more, they are light-fingered and good at making children [little has changed] and from their entourage has Paris been overrun.”  

 The Pont Neuf today

The Pont Neuf is the oldest existing bridge in Paris. It was completed in July 1606, but inaugurated by a temerarious King Henry IV in June1603. Pierre de l'Estoile tells us that "On the 20th of that month, the king crossed from the Quai Saint Augustin to the Louvre over the Pont Neuf, which was not then fully secured and which few people were willing to hasard to use. It was pointed out to His Majesty that the few people who had tried the bridge had broken their necks and fallen into the river, but he replied that not a single one of those people had been a king like him." It was around the Pont Neuf that vast numbers of Irish congregated, especially on the place Dauphine on the western edge of the Ile de la Cité (1st arrondissement).  

Given that the bridge was just a stone’s throw from the Louvre, the foreigners’ presence soon attracted the attention of high officialdom, including Pomponne de Bellièvre, chancellor of France. Bellièvre estimated that somewhere between 1,200 and 2,000 Irishmen lived in filthy conditions around the Pont Neuf, along with several women and children. The local Parisians were, he wrote in a letter to king Henry IV, alarmed by the sheer number of Irishmen who congregated around the Pont Neuf, and fearful of the crimes they might commit. Bellièvre also expressed the fear that they would spread the plague, as they were already dying of hunger in the streets of several towns. "There are a great number of men." he wrote to the king. "There is also a certain number of women and small children who are badly nourished and who live in such dirty conditions that they could spread the plague in the healthiest city in your kingdom."


But how to get rid of them? Expulsion would have been the neatest solution, but the French were anxious not to jeopardize diplomatic relations with the British who were adamant that they would not allow foreigners set foot in England unless they had the means to support themselves. A second-best solution would have been simply to kick them out of Paris and let them fend for themselves beyond the city limits. But Bellièvre was anxious of the effect an invasion of Irish gangs would have on the French peasantry outside the city. He then hit on the idea of transporting them to Canada, which the French had begun to probe with a view to turning it into a colony. No luck. A gentleman returning from Canada in 1605 said that the colonists had no use for the Irish: “For nothing in the world would he receive such useless people who do not know and no not wish to work,” wrote Bellièvre. At last, with Bellièvre arguing that the Irish were subjects of the king of England and therefore could not be labelled foreigners, some sort of accommodation was reached with the English to ship the Irish back to their homeland, thus enabling Paris to ease its Irish problem in 1606.


City thanks official for role in deportation of Irish
Early in that year, as part of a big crackdown on begging, the Paris authorities gave all mendicants 24 hours to leave the city and return to where they came on pain of being flogged. In May, a roundup of those Irish who hadn’t got the message was organised. The Irish were detained while a boat capable of carrying 500 passengers and a supply of food for the journey back to Ireland was made ready. City archives record the city fathers thanking a certain Mr. Myrton, civil lieutenant, for his efficiency and benevolence during the deportation of the Irish, “organising them and distributing yourself the victuals and supplies they needed for the comfort of their journey”. Mary Ann Lyons believes there is evidence that two boats actually set sail from Paris to Ireland in 1606, while Sir Arthur Chichester reported the arrival from France of a boatload of “people in the habit of beggars” in Waterford in July 1606.


Pierre de l’Estoile, like many Parisians, was not sad to see the Irish go. He judged their expulsion “a great relief for the city of Paris that was a long time in coming after having been repeatedly put off in much the same way as other rules and regulations in this city involving the well-being and health of the local population”.







Mémoires-Journaux 1574-1611, tome XI, recueils divers, 1610-1611

Pierre de l’Estoile



Supplément au Régistre-Journal de Henri IV, Roy de France et de Navarre (1606) Nouvelle Collection des Mémoires pour servir à l’Histoire de France depuis le XIII siècle jusqu’à la fin du XVIII, 2ème série, éd. Jean-Jacques Champollion-Figeac et Aimé Champollion, Paris, 1837


Histoire de la ville de Paris composée par D. Michel Félibien (vol. 4), revue, augmenté et mise au jour par D. Guy-Alexis Lobineau (1725)
Bellièvre letters at the Bibliothèque Nationale de Paris (BNF)
MS fr. (manuscrit français) 15894, f. 609
MS fr. 15578, f. 246


“‘Vagabonds’, ‘Mendiants’, ‘Gueux’: French reaction to Irish immigration in the early 17th century”, Mary Ann Lyons, in French History, vol. 14, no. 4, pp.363-382, December 2000


“France and the Fall-Out from the Nine Years War in Ireland, 1603-1610”, Mary Ann Lyons in:

Franco-Irish relations, 1500-1600—Politics, Migration and Trade (2003), ed. Mary Ann Lyons