Francis Xavier Whyte / Joseph Kavanagh

                                                            The Bastille
The claim to fame of Chevalier James F.X. Whyte (Dublin, 1730 - Charenton, 179…), also known as Comte Whyte de Malleville, rests on his presence in the Bastille on the day the prison was stormed on July 14, 1789. In fact, he was only one of seven (or six, it depends on who you read) prisoners that the Revolutionaries 'liberated' from the Bastille that day, and one of two certified lunatics. When released, he is said to have declared himself “majeur de l’immensité”. But Whyte’s perilous mental state did not stop his liberators from parading him through the streets and proclaiming him a hero of the Revolution.

According to Richard Hayes’ Biographical Dictionary of Irishmen in France, “an eyewitness of the day’s events describes him as ‘a little feeble old man who exhibited an appearance of childishness and fatuity, tottering as he walked and his countenance exhibiting little more than the smile of an idiot.’” Another witnesses described Whyte as having “a beard almost a yard long”. A sympathetic citizen who gave Whyte shelter for the night had his house pillaged by the Irishman in return. The day after this release, the hero of the Revolution was locked up againthis time in the lunatic asylum in Charenton, where he was to spend the rest of his days. Ironically, before the Revolution Whyte’s family had tried to avoid having him placed in Charenton because of the harshness of the regime there. So much for ‘liberté, fraternité’ etc…But at least in Charenton, he could have hooked up with  one of his old acquaintances from the Bastille, the Marquis Sade, who had been shipped to Charenton on July 4, 1789.

F.X. Whyte, hero of the Revolution
Whyte had followed a military career in France after leaving Ireland and  had risen to the grade of captain in Lally’s regiment in the Irish Brigade. He had suffered a mental breakdown in 1781 and had been confined in a hospital in Vincennes but had been moved to the Bastille three years later (along with the Marquis de Sade) when the institution in Vincennes was closed. In March 1789, he had been deprived of his civil rights and his property had been transferred to his daughters.

Other Irishmen played a role in the events of July 1789 in Paris. One of the two titular chaplains at the Bastille was a certain Thomas MacMahon from Eyrecourt, Co. Galway. Fr. MacMahon, who was 70 years old in 1789, resided close to the Bastille in the rue Saint Antoine (4th arrondissement) and is believed to have said one of the last masses in the prison chapel. Ironically enough, the revolutionaries later granted Fr. MacMahon a pension of 500 livres. 

Site of the lunatic asylum in Charenton
A boot-maker of Clare descent based in Lille, Joseph Kavanagh, was one of 60 district representatives who met at the Hôtel de Ville on July 13, 1789, and one of only six sent forward to demand that municipal representatives establish a National Guard. He is also said to have planned and led the assault on the Bastille the following day, managing to gather a mob by spreading a rumour that Royalist troops were advancing on the city. Kavanagh’s role was celebrated in a pamphlet printed shortly entitled Les exploits glorieux du célèbre Cavanagh, Cause première de la liberté française. The nation "should not leave forgotten this brave patriot who so influenced the course of events on July 14 and surely determined in large part the fate of the Bastille, the taking of which was becoming very difficult, to say the least,"  reads the pamphlet.Kavanagh became an influential police official during the Terror and may have been involved in the massacre carried out at La Force prison (no longer extant, situated in present-day 4th arrondissement) in September 1792. A number of Irishmen passed througth La Force during the darkest days of the Terror (1792-1794), including the generals James O'Moran and Arthur Dillon. In April 1793, Kavanagh arrested Philippe Egalité, the Duke of Orléans, who was guillotined shortly after, and later the same year the Irishman was involved in the investigations that followed the assassination of revolutionary leader Marat by Charlotte Corday. Kavanagh wisely disappeared from circulation (or was killed) after the fall of Maximilien Robespierre in July 1794.

A complice of Kavanagh’s in the storming of the Bastille was one James Bartholomew Blackwell (Ennis, Co. Clare, 1763 (or 1765) - Paris, 1820 (or 1825)), who had studied at the Irish College before joining one of the Irish regiments of the French army. Blackwell was a friend of a number of leading revolutionaries, most notably Camille Desmoulins and Georges Jacques Danton.  On July 14, 1789, Blackwell was among revolutionary forces in the Faubourg Saint Antoine section of the city and possibly participated in one of the decisive assaults on the Bastille. In 1800, after a time spent in British imprisonment, Blackwell was back in Paris, staying for a time at the Hôtel de York at 56, rue Jacob (6th arrondissement), where, 17 years earlier, the British had signed a peace treaty ending the American War of Independence and recognising the American republic. In 1804, Blackwell was appointed colonel in Napoleon's ephemeral Irish Legion. During the Restoration, Blackwell was appointed lieutenant du roi at La Petite Pierre, a fortified castle near Saverne in Alsace. He died in Paris (one of his addresses was 25, rue Babylone in the 7th arrondissement) and he was buried in Père Lachaise. All trace of his sepulchre disappeared in 1992 when the authorities decided to recoup his burial plot, which had been left in a state of abandon. 

Finally, one of the heads of the newly formed National Guard on July 14, 1789 was Count Robert O’Shee (Cloneen, Co. Tipperary, 1736-Paris, 1806), who was to become a benefactor of the family of Wolfe Tone a few years later.


Select Bibliography
Biographical Dictionary of Irishmen in France (1949)
Richard Hayes

Ireland and Irishmen in the French Revolution (1932)
Richard Hayes

The Green Cockade, the Irish in the French Revolution, 1789-1815 (1989)
Liam Swords