Miles Byrne (Monaseed, Co. Wexford, 1780—Paris, 1862) was an extraordinary man who fought from Vinegar Hill in his native Wexford and the Wicklow Mountains under Michael Dwyer to Greece under the French flag in the late 1820s. In between, Byrne had spells fighting for Napoleon in Spain, the Low Countries and Germany. He was also one of Robert Emmet’s most trusted lieutenants during the failed 1803 rebellion in Dublin, after which he escaped to Paris, bringing news of Emmet’s execution to his brother, Thomas Addis Emmet (although alternative sources suggest that another United Irishman, John Swiney, was the bearer of the sad news to Paris in October 1803). Byrne supported the petition presented by Thomas Addis, Arthur O'Connor and other United Irishmen to Napoleon, which led to the establishment of the Irish Legion as a unit of the French army.
During his long retirement, Byrne wrote his Memoirs, a valuable source of information on the somewhat precarious existence of Irish conspirators and rebels in the French capital during the early 1800s. Having escaped back to Paris from the botched Emmet rebellion in August 1803, Byrne writes that Robert’s brother, Thomas Addis, rented a miserable room for him in the petite Rue du Bac. After that, Bryne lodged with a Monsieur Moreau in the rue de la Harpe (5th arrondissement) where, for all his impecuniousness, he seems to have been happier. One of his frequent ports of call at this time was the London Coffee House in the rue Jacob (6th arrondissement), “then much frequented by the Irish”, he writes, “on account of the Argus newspaper being taken there…It was in that newspaper that I read all the sad tidings of my dear friends in Ireland”.
He also trotted over to rue de la Loi (now rue de Richelieu, 2nd arrondissement), where two other Irish rebels – John Sweeny and William Lawless - were lodged (probably in a stretch of the street close to the present-day Galerie Colbert, where there were a number of hotels, including the Hôtel des Etrangers). “We generally met and walked in the Galerie du Bois in the Palais Royal, where we met other exiles and heard all the news of the day,” writes Byrne – suggesting that Byrne had little to do but hang around during his first few months in Paris in 1803 before receiving a commission in the Irish Legion.
His military career survived Napoleon’s demise in 1814—just about. After the fall of Napoleon in 1814, the loyalty of army officers to the newly-reinstalled Bourbon king was of pressing importance. Many Irish officers, including Byrne, came under suspicion because of their supposed Bonapartist sympathies. Byrne, stationed in Montreuil-sur-Mer, does not seem to have taken part in Napoleon’s comeback, the “One Hundred Days”, which ended with defeat at Waterloo in June 1815. But that did not stop unfavourable reports on Byrne being circulated in Paris. A police report of January 1817 reported that he had been “indicated as an enemy of the government”, while a War Ministry report from March of that year improbably describes Byrne as “a cunning, evil and very dangerous man; was a furious supporter of Bonaparte and will never change”. If Byrne could not move back to Ireland, then his passage to America was to be facilitated.
Byrne launched a vigorous campaign to avoid deportation that was ultimately successful. He left Tours for Paris, and took a room at the Hôtel de Calais "opposite the diligence office" at 138, rue de Montmartre (2nd arrondissement) from whence he launched his campaign "to appeal against such injustice and to seek redress". An introduction to the Prince de Broglie, then vice-president of the Chamber of Deputies and two audiences with the Minister of War, Marshal Henri Clarke, the Duke of Feltre, contributed to the latter's decision to quash Byrne’s deportation order. To avoid any further threat of being thrown out of France, Byrne swiftly requested French naturalisation, which was granted in August 1817. The deportation of the far-more politically-tainted Arthur O’Connor was also rescinded, but other members of the Irish Legion were not so lucky, with the French deporting officers such as Luke Lawless, nephew of William Lawless, and captains Jackson and Towne. Luke Lawless went to the U.S. and Towne to Italy, while Jackson went on to a military career in South America.
But while the deportation order had been lifted, Byrne was still at a loose end. For 12 years (bar a period in 1819-1820), Byrne found himself on half pay in a state of “non-activity”. Whether out of boredom or out of financial necessity, Byrne wrote repeated appeals to the authorities to be allowed resume his military career as a staff officer, first from his lodgings at 4, rue du Cherche Midi (6th arrondissement) and then, in the early 1820s, from 81, rue des Saints Pères (6th arrondissement).
Finally, in 1828, Byrne was called up to serve at a regimental HQ and was finally promoted lieutenant colonel, commanding one of the battalions of the 56th regiment of the line in 1830.He retired from the army in 1835, but remained an icon around which other Irish exiles in Paris gravitated until his death in his apartment at 18, rue Montaigne (now rue Jean Mermoz, 8th arrondissement) on January 24, 1862. His wife, Fanny, seems to have moved out of rue Montaigne very quickly after his death for in May 1862 her address was just around the corner in 45, rue Ponthieu (8th arrondissement).
After his funeral in Saint-Philippe-du-Roule church near his home in the 8th arrondissement, he was laid to rest in Montmartre cemetery (18th arrondissement), where the original tombstone inscription, dating back to the inauguration of the High Cross in 1956, seems to be have replaced by a more recent one, partially in Irish.
Service Historique de la Défense
File GR YF 3 45404 (Dossier Miles Byrne)
Memoirs of Miles Byrne, Chef de Bataillon in the Service of France edited by his widow (1907)
Biographical Dictionary of Irishmen in France (1949)