O’Moran, whose father was a shoemaker in Elphin, Co. Roscommon, was partially educated at the Irish College in Tournai (now in Belgium), where his uncle was rector. In 1745, when O'Moran was still a small boy, the French had won a famous victory against the British just a couple of kilometres to the west of Tournai in the Battle of Fontenoy. In 1752, aged 13, O'Moran joined Dillon’s Regiment of the Irish Brigade in the service of France. Serving with distinction during the Seven Years War, O’Moran swiftly rose through the ranks and participated in the capture of the island of Grenada from the British in July 1779. In the same year, O’Moran was wounded just ahead of the unsuccessful Franco-American siege of Savannah in Georgia during the American War of Independence and was invalided back to France, where he was promoted to the rank of colonel but later returned to fight against the British in the Caribbean.
He was placed in charge of the defence of northern French strongholds in spring 1793, but quickly fell foul of an increasingly paranoiac regime in Paris as foreign armies massed on France’s frontiers intent on restoring the monarchy. Already taxed by Lazare Carnot as displaying “ a prudence which makes me desperate”, O’Moran’s opposition to a flawed plan for a diversionary attack on vastly superior enemy forces in northern Belgium, led to his arrest in the summer of 1793.
O’Moran was brought to Paris, where he was to spend several months awaiting trial at La Force prison, which stood in the Marais district in the present-day 4th arrondissement (Some sources say he was kept at Saint Lazare prison. It too has disappeared.)
Together with a misplaced trust in the virtues of revolutionary justice, O’Moran thought his long military record in the service of France would lead to his acquittal and declared at a court hearing that he did not think he needed anybody to defend him. The letters O’Moran wrote in his own defence contain a note of poignancy in light of his untimely end. “Without fortune, without relatives, without friends,” he writes, “the only support I find is in the calm of my own conscience as in the justice that I implore will shine for me.” Declaring that he and his wife’s wealth came to just 14,000 francs, he felt that “forty-one years of service without interruption and without reproach and the many serious wounds I have borne must surely establish my reputation.”
O’Moran’s son, William Auguste, served in the Irish Legion at the beginning of the 19th century. William Auguste’s godfather was Arthur Dillion (Braywich, England, 1750—Paris, 1794) of the eponymous regiment in which O’Moran started his career. Dillon was the English-born grandson of another Arthur Dillon, born in county Roscommon in 1633, who had founded Dillon’s Regiment. Like his underling, O'Moran, the founder’s grandson served with distinction in the regiment, and remained loyal to the new republican regime during the revolutionary wars. However, again like O’Moran, he was accused of intelligence with the enemy and was briefly locked up in Luxembourg prison before being guillotined on April 13, 1794, a little over a month after O’Moran. The posthumous rehabilitation of Arthur Dillon means that his name figures in the list of France’s most glorious soldiers from the Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods not far from that of general Charles Jennings Kilmaine on the Arc de Triomphe. Kilmaine was also briefly imprisoned with his wife during the Terror but, unlike O’Moran and Dillon, he survived.
Judicial procedures involving James O’Moran are in file W335/585
Judicial procedures involving Thomas Ward are in file W429/965
Judicial procedures involving Arthur Dillon are in file W345/676
Le Moniteur, Sept. 18, 1792
Englishmen in the French Revolution (1889)
John Goldworth Alger
“James O’Moran and the French Revolution”, Richard Hayes,
Part I in Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, vol. 22, no. 88 (December 1933)
Part II in Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, vol. 23, no. 89 (March 1934)
“Irishmen before the Tribunals of the French Revolution”, Richard Hayes
in Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, vol. 21, no. 81 (March 1932)