Spinning the legacy of the French Revolution

Published in Issue 2 (March/April 2020), Platform, Volume 28

Narrow cynicism and rehashed stereotypes.

By Sylvie Kleinman

Encore. Another deprecating—worse, factually incorrect—spin on the French Revolution in an RTÉ TV documentary, part one of Daniel O’Connell—forgotten king of Ireland, broadcast on 22 August 2019 (reviewed in HI 27.6, Nov./Dec. 2019). The gaffes in contextualising O’Connell’s time in France, reducing everything into that unshakeable construct of the ‘excesses of the French Revolution’, prompt this discussion. We won’t attempt to squeeze in a post-revisionist assessment of the positive outcomes of this transformative decade in history, nor by any means deny its ‘excesses’, but fast, bad and biased history needs to be challenged. It would not be tolerated for one instant if it had anything to do with Irish topics. My letter to HI (Sept./Oct. 2019) had highlighted distortions and mistruths in a previous documentary, Rome v. Republic (reviewed in HI 27.4, July/Aug. 2019), which had fed viewers anachronistic scenes of mob rule and decapitations. Those ‘iconic’ images dating from the Terror (June 1793 to July 1794) are what many associate with the entire decade of political and social reform known as the French Revolution. Discussing Tone’s lobbying in France (in the spring of 1796), Rome v. Republic had sensationalised the fate awaiting Ireland. France (via Tone) would import brutal methods of dechristianisation, similar to those graphically rendered in the Gillray cartoon on the opposite page. It features symbols that scholars call ‘instant identifiers’ (here, of the Terror): red cap, cockade, wanton violence. Its logical context is the invasion fears of 1797–8, but it exploits anachronistic symbols to fuel panic. Religion had been restored when Tone arrived in 1796: he even went to church.

Above: Consequences of a successful French invasion, after James Gillray, c. 1797–8. This cartoon features symbols that scholars call ‘instant identifiers’ of the Terror: red cap, cockade, wanton violence. It exploits anachronistic symbols to fuel panic. Religion had in fact been restored in France by the mid-1790s. (TCD)

In 1916 one Miss Fitzpatrick ‘experienced’ the ‘Sinn Féin Rebellion’ on Easter Monday, when her tram was stopped by crowds on Talbot Street. She jumped off just in time ‘to see the mob attack’ another tram. It reminded her of ‘tales of the French Revolution’ (our emphasis). And herein lies the problem. Where do story-books stop and scholarly history begin, especially in 2020? More importantly, is Ireland so gripped by its current and logically new phenomenon of self-discovery as a nation, understandably focused on its link with and break from Britain, that it is unconsciously still tolerating (right-leaning) British Francophobic agendas? In the context of Miss Fitzpatrick’s times, the ‘tales’ make sense. Irish history was not then taught, and what passed for history was more like stories, heavily illustrated romanticised narratives laced with oversimplifications and binaries, steeped in the nineteenth-century invention of tradition. The pillars were origins, race and nation. France was at it just as much as Britain but, for the latter, persuasive proof was what we had not been. In this case, Dickensian foregrounding of, for example, the incessant ritual of guillotining remains embedded in the public imagination—a sanguinary mob unleashed. These national tales were disseminated through popularised images, from fireside readers to postage stamps.

Take the revolutionary tradition. When we think of America, our imaginations usually leap to the ‘instant’ Fourth of July, and the very ordered and indoor scene depicting the Founding Fathers. These august gentlemen, all in civvies, are enacting a political revolution (but not for their slaves), poised around the Declaration they have just signed. This birth of the nation became the national holiday. Much of this was constructed at the time of the 1876 centenary, and enlightened scholars have discussed the distancing from the ‘red’ and unruly French equivalent. The storming of the Bastille is incorrectly seen as the moment that ignited the French Revolution and gave birth to a regenerated France. Many would have no problem with this, though it came after a political revolution had started. Beneath the fortress, a colossal symbol of despotism and arbitrary justice in flames, are dwarfed but valiant Parisians, soldiers and citizens, united in and led by destiny. Their assault on feudalism and unjust rule was mythologised in the golden age of left-leaning history, but also by the growing cult in France of the Revolution (starting c. 1889). History was explained by spontaneous uprisings of peoples demanding justice and exerting their rights. History came to be packaged into dramatic episodes and defined by seismic events. In the English-speaking world, however, this meant rough and unruly. Perceptions, even now, are that there was no popular unrest in Britain.

Finally, back to RTÉ’s O’Connell. ‘Who in their right mind would send two youngsters to France in 1791’, when people were fleeing ‘the revolution’, asked the presenter, Olivia O’Leary. ‘The post-revolutionary government was a very very bloody one.’ Some research would have prevented this muddling of the successive phases of the Revolution; embedded stereotypes were not questioned. The otherwise sharply observed HI review (Nov./Dec. 2019, pp 52–3) did not address this.

In fact, when Daniel and his brother arrived at St Omer in January 1791, not only were foreigners still welcome but many were in Paris to experience France as a constitutional monarchy. For at least another eighteen months the American envoy in Paris, Gouverneur Morris, had an abundance of foreign diplomats and French aristocrats to wine and dine with, as per his detailed diary. Young Daniel expressed no alarm when writing to his uncle, even after the outbreak of war with Austria in 1792, until it was indeed time to flee, in January 1793. There can be no denying the danger that he would have then faced from the enraged and blindly anti-clerical populace. But months earlier, on the eve of the French victory at Valmy (September 1792), just before the founding of the Republic, he had written much of candlesticks, laundry, rhetoric and philosophy at his new school in Douai. His own reminiscences were used uncritically by the programme-makers, who never questioned the constructs on which they relied, nor referred to these letters, nor dipped into contemporary approaches to history. O’Connell also experienced the 1798 Rebellion and had been out with the Lawyers Artillery Corps enforcing martial law, though he refused to partake in the arbitrary and harsh treatment of civilians. In years to come he spoke with horror about the loyalist atrocities of the time and the ‘desperate attempt to terrorise the population into submission’, as Patrick Geoghegan has written. He would come to fear mob violence and to deplore the ignorance which had turned rebels into brutes. In the popular imagination, however, this is probably mostly associated with the ‘other’, the French devil from which we were saved after 1798. ‘Oh Liberty, what horrors are perpetrated in thy name!’, he wrote. The phrase has never been explained but is instantly recognisable to any French school pupil. As Manon Roland was being led to the guillotine at the height of the Terror (November 1793), she apparently turned towards the statue of Liberty in the Place de la Révolution (renamed de la Concorde in 1795) and uttered these words.

In 2015 the Waterloo exhibition (Phoenix Park) displayed a time-line of events; 1789 was illustrated with a single, reductionist, head on a pike. It would have been useful to add a notch, reminding visitors of all ages that the early phases of the French Revolution had created the context for the Catholic Convention in Dublin in December 1792, heralding a new age of political revolution in Ireland in the quest for democracy and equal representation. An instant, gruesome and ahistorical image of ‘1789’ (before the Terror) sufficed. This historian of 1798 silently mused that British methods would soon place many heads on pikes in Ireland. We understand how instant history is often misused today, especially in the tweetable age of spontaneous outbursts. Boris Johnson, a graduate of Eton and Oxford, had engaged in a bit of French-bashing at the 2012 Tory conference. ‘Not since 1789 has there been such a tyranny and terror in France’ as under Hollande, he stated. But we’re entitled to expect more than such narrow cynicism and rehashed stereotypes from Ireland’s national broadcaster.


Sylvie Kleinman is Visiting Research Fellow at the Department of History, Trinity College, Dublin.


Copyright © 2024 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568