French Connection II: Robert Emmet and Malachy Delaney’s memorial to Napoleon Buonaparte, September 1800

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Emmet, Features, Issue 3 (Autumn 2003), The United Irishmen, Volume 11

Report to the First Consul [Buonaparte], 16 nivôse 9 [18 January 1801]

Two Irishmen called on me and submitted a memorial which they wish to present to the First Consul on behalf of the United Irishmen, having been appointed by their executive in Ireland and sent to France with the express mission of requesting, for the last time, the assistance of the French government. The Irishmen have presented a well-crafted memorial, which is clear, precise and nobly written. It presents the state of Ireland, demonstrating that the parliamentary Union is imposed by constraint, and not by the consent of the nation. The memorial argues that if Ireland were supported by the French, she could shake off the yoke, and to that purpose presents a plan of execution. […] I await the First Consul’s instructions in order to pursue the matter.


The memorial that so impressed the French Minister for External Relations is one of numerous appeals from Ireland for military assistance preserved in the diplomatic correspondence on England in the archives of France’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This one, however, is unique; concise and clearly formulated, Marianne Elliot deemed it ‘remarkable, portraying the new pragmatic approach of the post-rebellion organisation to the French alliance’. Adopting the appropriate rhetoric to exhort the reader to action, it is a tribute to the communicative abilities of the United Irishmen who penned it. These abilities, along with political prowess, organisational skills and military tactics, were prerequisites for successful leadership. Unsurprisingly, it bears the clear signatures of Robert Emmet and Malachy Delaney, the first known for his ‘transcendent oratorial powers’, the second feared by Irish Chief Secretary Wickham as ‘a man of considerable talents’. That Delaney and Emmet (the latter in particular) were more than competent to act as credible and formidable emissaries for Ireland in their representations to France has never been doubted, but that they exploited—to Ireland’s advantage—the power of language in stylish and elegant French has not received the attention it deserves from scholars.

Mission to France: ‘executing the garden conversation’

By the summer of 1800, post-rebellion leaders in Ireland had reorganised under a streamlined United Irish directory in Dublin. Their strategy clearly advocated awaiting French military assistance before any rising could be envisaged in Ireland, and their efforts turned towards bringing it about. Despite the passing of the Union, the viceroy, Cornwallis, did little to veil his apprehension of another insurrection, and the country silently lived with the threat of the French. From Belfast, Martha McTier related to her brother William Drennan the arrival of vast quantities of handcuffs, observing that ‘the common people have a keen lookout, and even those who have the charge of such gifts of union may perhaps pervert them from their destined use’. In May 1799 Robert Emmet had joined the Dublin United Irish executive, and quickly made use of his talents by assisting Surgeon Wright, leader of the executive, and Malachy Delaney, a former officer in the Austrian army and veteran of the Kildare rebellion, with a manual on insurgent tactics. Quickly distinguishing himself as the leading spirit of mischief-making in Dublin, Emmet was, in the summer of 1800, appointed as secretary to Delaney, who was named ambassador, on a secret delegation to France.
Robert Emmet travelled to the north-east of Scotland to visit his older brother Thomas Addis, a state prisoner at Fort George. Also there was Thomas Russell, and the three men may have discussed a conversation which had taken place back in 1795 in the older Emmet’s garden at Rathfarnham. Thomas Addis, Russell and Theobald Wolfe Tone had agreed on the necessity of a mission to France, which Tone undertook. In August 1800 Emmet and Delaney set foot in Hamburg, ‘the resort of the disaffected’ and ‘rife with intrigue’, according to the Reports from the Committees of Secrecy of the House of Commons. There they liaised with their contact John Grey, and composed the memorial forwarded to General Augereau, from whom they requested passports. Travelling on to the Batavian Republic (Holland, then a ‘sister republic’ of France), they presented their memorial to the French general and arrived in France in January 1801. Talleyrand received them and penned his enthusiastic report to Buonaparte, whose earlier reading of the Irish plea (forwarded by Augereau) had convinced him to sanction, and finance, their trip to Paris.

With the forwardness Tone had advocated

The memorial, succinctly presenting the United Irish cause in about 1000 words, conforms to the conventions of French revolutionary correspondence still in use under the Consulate. Addressed to the ‘Citizen Consul’ (Buonaparte), it is dated using the revolutionary calendar, 28 fructidor—month of fruit—year eight of the Republic, i.e. 15 September 1800. Two annotations in different handwritings in the upper right-hand corner of the first page confirm that it eventually made it to ‘the top’: ‘Sent on to the Minister for External Relations [Talleyrand] to have permission granted to them to come to France’, and the slightly unclear but unmistakable imprimatur of ‘The First Consul, Buonaparte’.
Its opening statement clearly explains its purpose, with the forwardness Tone had advocated, in language ‘plain as a pikestaff’. It then goes on to skilfully combine this no-nonsense approach with the rhetorical flourishes and exhortations common in the polemical writings of the time. Through the arduous task of historical translation, reformulating in English for this article the intent of the original author in the idiom of the period, Robert Emmet’s distinct style, as echoed in his other writings, began to emerge. Almost eerily preserved over two centuries in French, many expressions in the memorial mirror his poetry, the Manifesto of the Provisional Government (found at the Marshalsea Lane depot in July 1803), and the legendary speech from the dock. Emmet often ‘enchained the attention and sympathy of his audience’, and, without diminishing Delaney’s contribution, it is easy to imagine the former captivating an audience by reading out loud portions of this text:

Citizen Consul,
On behalf of our fellow Irish citizens, we have come to ask, for the fifth time, the help of the French Nation. For four years, we have waited relentlessly for deliverance—and from France’s interests, nothing has distanced us. In this brief account, we rely on the frankness of our representation and of our requests, which make clear that most certain of truths, and in this spirit of truth, we ask for your help. We have been instructed to declare to you that the English union has in no way eased the discontent of Ireland. We have been ordered to say that the silence of that part of the Nation, in the mind of which the oppression of six hundred years has excited an unfailing hatred against the name of England, has been but a politic silence, under a state of persecution, or the silence of the greatest nonchalance for an event which it deems to be in no way connected to that which it regards as ardently as ever—revolution.
Business arrangement

Emmet and Delaney go on to claim an exaggerated United Irish force. After the failure of ’98, the United Irish society had abandoned its elaborate structure: local colonels would call out their forces once the French had landed. With such a rudimentary organisation, the numbers of sworn United Irishmen could only be guessed at. They dispel any notions that Ireland had been pacified and, echoing Emmet’s later disavowal from the dock of any servitude to France, make clear that this is a business arrangement. No strangers to the war of words that had raged between France and England as belligerently on paper as on the seas, they allude to the Franco-Irish alliance cemented by a common anglophobia:

Five hundred thousand men have been included in the organisation of United Irishmen; the true participation of that number into a system to overturn their government, awaiting only an invasion, and subjected to repeated persecution of the cruellest kind, is a demonstration of the universality of sentiment which runs through that corps; one could not doubt that threefold that number would co-operate, when the invasion would actually take place. We are still offering these men. We offer them without having the slightest doubt as to their success, as they have demonstrated their force. We offer you more still, from that part of the nation on which the government has relied until now, having discovered during the debates on the English union their detestation for that measure—the most part having openly declared that they considered themselves absolved from their obedience should it cease; some have, since that event, made overtures in order to be reconciled to our corps. [A wildly optimistic reference, perhaps, to United Irish overtures to the Orange Order based on common opposition to the Act of Union.] It is on the owners of landed property—on the church—on those who are attached to it through the link of personal dependence, that the government relies at present for its existence. We offer you the combined forces of a nation of four and a half million. We offer you ample compensation, for all the expeditions which have been sent up to now, or which you will send hereafter to accomplish our objective. We offer you two hundred thousand brave Irishmen, who in twenty days would be worthy to fight alongside the French army and wrest the peace of the world from the heart of England—do you wish to abandon us?

The memorial goes on to ask for an invasion force almost double that commanded by Hoche in the 1796 Bantry expedition. Not for the first time, it is made clear that such a large French force is required in part to avoid bloodletting, as in ’98. Not wishing to dissimulate the true figures of the opposition the French were likely to encounter, they do state that the Fencibles ‘had never left the kingdom’, and that the government could not rely on all of the militia, nor on the tenant farmers since the Union. They conclude by reiterating their appeal to France and asking but for a brief chance to present their case, face to face, to Buonaparte:

Here is the force we are requesting for our deliverance —from 25 thousand to 30 thousand men—of which 2 thousand cavalry (supplied with horses in Ireland) would be sufficient, a considerable corps of artillery, and if possible, arms for 75 thousand men. […] such a force […] would stop the effusion of blood, and in an instant place the Irish nation in a position to provide genuine assistance to France. […] The Irish Executive have ordered us to ask nothing of the First Consul but this—does France wish once again to give us the sincere assurance of her aid? […]  For the same reason they have ordered us to maintain the strictest secrecy, and even to avoid insofar as possible any communication whatsoever with our compatriots here [Hamburg], only to apply for a passport to Citizen Augereau with whom, and the First Consul, if it is not improper, we would wish to communicate, nothing more.

Robert Emmet
Malachy Delaney

In an appended note the signatories request that the passports be issued in different names, given ‘the malicious of our nation who are in Paris and paid by the government of England’. A final, and slightly more emotional, plea concludes with a reference to ‘the Almighty’, also invoked in the 1803 Manifesto of the Provisional Government. Neither Talleyrand (a former bishop) nor Buonaparte would have been shocked by such ‘unjacobin’ religious language, as negotiations were already under way with Pope Pius VII, which would lead to the Concordat the following summer:

Hoping that General Augereau will be so kind as to pass this on to the brave Buonaparte—we await his orders to sail to him, to appraise him of the spirit which animates all brave Irishmen, and we swear before Almighty God to respond with the very last drop of our blood, for our country and for the First Consul Buonaparte.

Irish radicals not necessarily fluent in French

It is in their international dimension that the genuine strength of United Irish activity is to be found, and this inevitably required overcoming language barriers, which not all key players were capable of. Looking back from the twenty-first century, there is a tendency to assume that the intellectual élite of Irish radicalism had all fallen prey to the (mainly literary) Francophilia of the Enlightenment, and that acquisition of the language of Voltaire as a polite accomplishment was easily recycled for more seditious purposes. But following the Jackson trial of 1794, Dr Thomas Reynolds had declined an application to travel to France, ‘understanding not one word of the French language’. Though it was Tone who undertook the mission, he has entertained generations of readers since the publication of his writings with an abundance of self-deprecations on the subject. Interestingly, while en route to Brest, Tone had met a pleasant officer called Alexandre Dalton, then aged twenty, but regretted that he only spoke English ‘but very imperfectly’. In the summer of 1803 it was General Alexandre Dalton from the Ministry for War who was to meet Thomas Addis Emmet and Arthur O’Connor. In fact, foreign brigades were as good a place to learn languages as any Dublin literary salon, and some regiments employed language masters. Many Irish soldiers were to discover an additional advantage to this cosmopolitan existence, James Roche having noted ‘the variance between the deep-toned brogue of the brigaded Irish officers in speaking English, and the exquisite polish of their foreign accents, acquired in military discourse abroad’. Thus Malachy Delaney, as an officer in the Austrian army, could have at the very least acquired spoken French. His name appears, along with Thomas Addis Emmet’s, on the 1798 subscription list for Sheehy’s Modern French pronouncing Spelling Book. Its author claimed that readers could dispense with a language master, most useful for those who had not purchased it for simple edification.
United Irish lobbying in France in fact involved a strategic meeting of minds, and total fluency did not always open doors. It had taken the confident and French-speaking attorney Edward Lewins in 1797 several encounters to ease the apprehensions of the French minister at Hamburg, Reinhard reporting back to Paris that a je ne sais quoi lingered which kept him from totally trusting Lewins. In contrast, Reinhard had been immediately taken with ‘one of the best orators of the House of Commons of his country’, Arthur O’Connor, who, despite ‘expressing himself but quite poorly in French’, had demonstrated a flair for face-to-face diplomacy.

Languages learned via ‘grammar-translation method’

In Tone and Emmet’s time, languages were mainly learned via the ‘grammar-translation method’, rejected in the mid-twentieth century as one that over-concentrated on written texts and inhibited learners from formulating meaningful utterances in face-to-face interaction. A certain Corsican-born schoolboy had learned French this way, and the hours spent poring over dictionaries and syntaxes did not adversely affect his career.
But other parts of the late eighteenth-century curriculum would provide precious skills for those who turned not to the bar or the pulpit but to ‘contriving and concocting conspiracy’. Key texts in the student’s satchel were Aristotle’s and Cicero’s treatises on rhetoric and oratory. The Trinity lecturer John Lawson had also published his own Essays concerning oratory (1759), quoted above, which directed orators towards adapting to their target audience. In classical rhetoric, words were strategically arranged around the exhortation (a plea to convince to laudable action through stimulating words), to be underpinned by proof, and students honed these communicative skills through hours of public debate. Other stylistic effects—central to the appeal of polemical texts read out in public—were triadic structures, the framing of questions, and repetition of key phrases. Robert Emmet skilfully transferred and adapted these skills to the language-learning process, and the memorial is a further tribute to his intellectual abilities.
Paradoxically, embedded in the rhetorical flourishes of the French memorial are a handful of basic errors. Cognate words are spelled as in English (‘deliv(e)rance’ corrected in the manuscript, passport, compatriot, connection). ‘Certainty’ is boldly coined into a new French word certainté, while voiler (to sail) is a daring invention; the trap of false friends—‘prove’ for éprouver (to suffer)—leads to a contradiction. Finally, the vagaries of French grammar mislead into common and predictable errors with gender (de la sentiment instead of du) and auxiliary verbs (…Fencibles, des troupes…qui n’ont jamais sorti du royaume instead of ne sont jamais sortis). But these noble linguistic failures in no way confuse the reader, nor present misinformation or ambiguity. In a charming way, they convey a sense of ‘otherness’, and alert the translator that the memorial was indeed written by English-speakers.

‘Respectful deference’

The strategic alliance with France never brought about the long-hoped-for invasion, and disillusionment deteriorated into splits and bitter in-fighting. Thomas Addis Emmet at one stage deemed Buonaparte ‘Ireland’s worst enemy’, possibly having read an incendiary pamphlet on dictatorship published around the time the Emmet–Delaney memorial had reached Paris. In it the author—none other than the future emperor’s own brother, Lucien—equated France’s new dictator not only with Caesar but also with Cromwell and Monck.
It was with reserve, dignity and ‘respectful deference’ (an expression used later in the 1803 Manifesto) that Emmet and Delaney acted as emissaries for Ireland. Not as much could be said for other United Irish representations, as illustrated by a somewhat cringing effort of Dr William McNeven’s tucked away in the French diplomatic archives. Seeking an interview with Buonaparte, he appealed—in flawless French—to the greatest man ‘of the century’ (in the first month of its third year!), one ‘for whom he predicted a most brilliant career, most useful for the happiness of humankind’.
To the last, Robert Emmet vehemently denied any subservience to France. Lobbying for a French invasion continued even after his death, his own brother Thomas Addis submitting a plan in November 1803 which met with a positive and promising response from Buonaparte; but the latter’s strategic interests lay elsewhere. Years later, in exile, Buonaparte was to ponder on the fate of empires, wondering what would have become of England had he sailed for Ireland and not Egypt in 1798. Possibly he remembered the temerity and convincing arguments of these bold Irishmen, who had so ably demonstrated their loyalty and daring in the language of liberty, equality and fraternity.

Sylvie Kleinman lectures in translation studies at Dublin City University.

Further reading:

Archives des Affaires Étrangères, Correspondance Politique Angleterre.

M. Elliott, Partners in revolution. The United Irishmen and France (New Haven and London, 1982).

P.M. Geoghegan, Robert Emmet: a life (Dublin, 2002).

R. O’Donnell, ‘The Union and internal security 1798–1799’, in Acts of Union. The causes, contexts and consequences of the Act of Union (Dublin, 2001).


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