John Augustus O'Shea

 Rue des Fossés Saint Victor
Compared with the light touch of Miles Byrne (or his wife), the prose of John Augustus O’Shea (Nenagh, Co. Tipperary 1839- London, 1905) is slightly overblown. If he is remembered at all today, it is largely for his coverage of the Siege of Paris (1870-1871) from inside the city, as well as his reporting on the Carlist War in Spain (1872-1873) and of famine in Bengal (1873-1874). 

In 1866, O’Shea was living with a group of young Irish Fenians in the Pension Bonnery in rue de Lacépède (5th arrondissement), a street that mostly fell victim to the process of "Hausmannisation" in the late 19th century after O’Shea’s passage. Among his fellow lodgers were a painter, Nick Walsh, a medical student whose name O’Shea only gives as Nick O’H—, and Hon. Captain Bingham, “brother of Lord Bingham”. Many of these exiles, plus O’Shea, later moved to another address in the rue des Fossés Saint Victor, behind the Pantheon (now rue du Cardinal Lemoine, 5th arrondissement, where James Joyce was later to live for a few months).

O’Shea had arrived in Paris with a letter of introduction from the former MP for Meath, John Martin, to the Young Irelander leader John Mitchel, already resident in Paris. Mitchel had initially turned up in Paris in 1859, six years after his escape from Van Diemen’s Land, where he had been sent as punishment for his involvement in the 1848 rebellion. Between 1853 and 1859, he had been in New York and then Tennessee, where he had established a paper and had become a fierce advocate for the Confederate cause, to which he was to sacrifice the lives of two sons during the American Civil War. In his Leaves from the Life of a Special Correspondent  O’Shea writes that “When he heard of the death of the first he gave a natural sigh, but consoled himself with the expression : ‘He could have had no more enviable fate. He died in honourable company.’” According to O’Shea, Mitchel’s daughter, Henrietta, converted to Catholicism but was “cut off in the bloom of youthful beauty, and lies under a mound in a convent of the Sacred Heart in a Parisian suburb”. [Other contemporary Irish sources say she was buried in Montparnasse cemetery.] In Paris, O’Shea came across other Fenian exiles such as James Stephens and the brothers William and Edmond O’Donovan (see below).

O’Shea’s journalistic career started when he took over from Mitchelwho lived in the same boarding house in the rue Lacepèdeas Paris correspondent for a New York newspaper. This was the first of a series of jobs with English-language newspapers that, in O’Shea’s words, “paid their journalists in compliments”. His big break came when he landed a job with the London Standard, for whom he covered the trial of Pierre Napoleon, nephew of  Napoleon III, who had killed a journalist by the name of Victor Noir. (Noir's funeral sculpture, and particularly a protrusion in his  bronze trousers, has since become the centrepiece of strange practices by Parisian women eager to boost their fertility.)

After a stint in London and Bavaria, O’Shea was posted back to Paris in the summer of 1870, just as Napoleon III declared war on Prussia. He followed the French army to Metz, then made it back to Paris via Luxembourg just before Metz was encircled. in late August 1870, he found lodgings in a ground-floor apartment in the rue de Clichy (9th arrondissement) with “an aged Austrian housekeeper with a title, who had two aversions after the devil: Prussia and the Republic.”

O’Shea made it through the Prussian siege of Paris in the winter of 1870-1871 and managed to leave the city before the crushing of the Commune in May 1871. He describes the siege as a period of “debilitating sameness of lengthened miserycold, privation, baffled hope and an awful tenebrousness of horizon”. A propos privation, O’Shea writes that “it is not surprising that a diet of horsefleshsix days’ rations of which I devoured raw between the butchers and my residenceof garbage and of mahogany-hued bread, in which bran and sand were more plentiful than flour, is apt to derange the stomach after weeks of repetition.”

And yet, despite the years spent in Paris, and despite having shared their worst travails, O’Shea felt little empathy with the French. “Why Irishmen should be particularly drawn toward it [the French nation] to me is a mystery,” he writes. “In all that I have seen of it the guiding principle is the love not of humanity but of self. There are exceptions, but the ordinary Frenchman…is as watchful of his own interests to the exclusion of all others as any man I know.”

Of the Franco-Prussian War, in which he became caught up, O’Shea writes: “…I was [before the war] an ardent partisan of the French: but from what I saw later and from what I think now, I believe it was better for civilisation that France was beaten. That she was not beaten fairly and on the merits, none but fools or knaves can maintain. Had Germany been crushed on that occasion, other adventures would have been tried: the French, it is to be feared, would have swollen up with pride as of Lucifer, and would have played, as they did in the earlier portion of this century, the European bully. They would have been unbearable. “
I have come across a reference to a certain John O'Shea, journalist with the Shanghai weekly newspaper, The Celestial Empire. In December 1892, John O'Shea interviewed Franz Lenz, who had just landed in Shanghai on the latest stage of his tragic attempt to cycle around the world. Could it be that this John O'Shea was the John Augustus O'Shea of the London Standard?
Sharing lodgings with O'Shea in rue des Fossés Saint Victor in the late 1860s was one Edmund O'Donovan. Edmund's brother, William, had preceded him to the French capital, where he worked as a journalist and acted as a Fenian agent. In 1867, when Edmund arrived in the aftermath of the failed Fenian uprising of that year, William was residing at the Hôtel de Suez in rue du Four (6th arrondissement, hotel no longer exists). Both O'Donovan brothers had an adventurous life. Edmund joined the Foreign Legion at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian ar in 1870. Wounded and taken prisoner, he was shipped back to Ireland in May 1871. His life as a dashing foreign correspondent came to a tragic end when he disappeared in the Sudan during the Mahdi uprising in 1883. William survived a lot longer. As a correspondent for the Irish Times, he found himself, like O'Shea, in Paris during the Prussian siege of 1870-1871. Unlike O'Shea, William O'Donovan also lived in Paris during the Commune, and saw its bloody repression in May 1871. In spite of his revolutionary sympathies as a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, O'Donovan took a rather jaundiced view of the communards. According to John Devoy, O'Donovan "had a theory that the majority of them were not really Communists at heart or by conviction, but were unbalanced by the hardships of the Siege, when the general privations were so great that rats, mice and cats were a luxury. Some doctors were of the same opinion."
Select Bibliography
Leaves from the Life of a Special Correspondent (1885)
John Augustus O’Shea