Napoleon Bonaparte and the ‘bonny Irish’ who played a big part in his story

Many people may be aware of claims that Napoleon’s famous white horse, Marengo, was bred in North Cork, but few would know that two of his doctors were Corkmen or that one of his generals at the Battle of Waterloo drowned off the Cork coast and is buried in Kinsale.
Napoleon Bonaparte and the ‘bonny Irish’ who played a big part in his story

Two villages in Cork have fought a long battle maintaining it was in their areas that Napoleon's famous white horse Marengo was bred.

Many people may be aware of claims that Napoleon's famous white horse, Marengo, was bred in North Cork, but few would know that two of his doctors were Corkmen or that one of his generals at the Battle of Waterloo drowned off the Cork coast and is buried in Kinsale.

Cormac O’Brien, Vice President of the Irish Napoleonic Society, said Napoleon's impact on Cork, and that of the French in general, was immense from 1796 until his final exile on the tiny South Atlantic island of St Helena following his defeat at the famous Battle of Waterloo where he died on May 5, 1821.

Here he speaks to Irish Examiner journalist Sean O'Riordan about the connections between Cork, Ireland and Napoleon.

Napoleon's horse Marengo 

Two Cork locations have fought a long battle maintaining it was in their areas that Napoleon's famous white horse Marengo was bred - the village of Bartlemy, near Fermoy and Buttevant, where it's said the horse changed hands on it way to France after being sold at Cahirmee Fair.

“The hint of ancestry comes from the St Leger estate in Doneraile after the analysis of ownership of horses during that period there is evidence that Marengo could have been raised on the St Leger estate,” Cormac said.

Ironically, he stated that there is also some evidence that Copenhagen, which was the Duke of Wellington's horse, was also bought at the same Cahirmee fair, which continues to this day.

Marengo was named after the famed general's victory over the Austrians on July 14, 1800 at the village of Marengo, close to the Italian city of Alessandria, in Piedmont.

“The theory of Bartlemy comes from folklore from that area. The general hypotenuse is that he (the horse) was bought from that market as the radius of where the market was surrounded by counties such as Waterford and Wexford with the Battle of Vinegar Hill in the 1798 rebellion. Therefore, he would have made a good horse for war and Marengo was used for war,” Cormac said.

Both Cork villages have disputed the validity of the other claims. 

Marengo, seen here in the famous painting of Napoleon, was named after the famed general's victory over the Austrians on July 14, 1800, at the village of Marengo, close to the Italian city of Alessandria, in Piedmont.
Marengo, seen here in the famous painting of Napoleon, was named after the famed general's victory over the Austrians on July 14, 1800, at the village of Marengo, close to the Italian city of Alessandria, in Piedmont.

The people of Bartlemy were so sure of their claim they all turned up to an unveiling some years ago of a famous portrait of Napoleon on the white house which was painted on the full gable wall of what was then Barry's pub. Sadly it has been painted over since.

Bartlemy's claim was even bolstered in song with a ballad by singer/songwriter John Spillane.

However, both Buttevant and Bartlemy united when they 'went to war' more recently in an effort to get the bones of Marengo returned by the British to North Cork.

The British replied with a very diplomatic version of what could roughly be translated as get lost.

The Kanturk/Mallow Municipal District Council wrote to the National Army Museum in London - after hearing it was refurbishing the skeleton of the famous horse – demanding it be repatriated to North Cork.

Some international military experts have disputed the two North Cork claims, maintaining Marengo was acquired by Napoleon during his campaign in Egypt and Syria (1798–1801).

The Irish, however, maintain he was inbred with the Celtic fighting spirit. Marengo carried Napoleon around many of the bloody battlefields; was wounded eight times but lived to the ripe old horse age of 38.

The French Battle of Waterloo general who lies in a Kinsale grave 

He survived many battles, including the ultimate French defeat at Waterloo when the Prussians under Field Marshal Gerbhard Leberecht von Blúcher arrived at nearly the last minute to save Wellington's skin.

Charles Lefferve Desnoutte led an extraordinary life before fate led him to be buried on Irish soil.

According to Cormac, Desnoutte was born on September 14, 1773 in Paris.

“At first he was aide de camp to Napoleon himself. But at the battle of Marengo he became a captain and then his career grew. 

At the battle of Austerlitz he served as a colonel. As for most (French) leaders after the battle he was made a count. 

"He commanded a troop of soldiers to Spain were he was captured by the British he was imprisoned until 1811 and made parole in 1812,” Cormac said.

Desnoutte led the French Cavalry Division in the failed invasion of Russia. At the Battle of Waterloo he was a general and commanded the cavalry at the Battle of Quatre Bra, which was the lead-up to the main battle.

At the Battle of Waterloo he was injured. As a result of that battle many generals tried to flee France as a result of their loyalties to Napoleon, Cormac explained Desnoutte was no exception. He fled France to America where he had bought a house for his wife and family to be safe.

As a result of payback for his service to Napoleon, he was worried that his family would be guillotined as a result, so he travelled back home to France on a ship called the Albion.

On May 22, 1822 the ship got into difficulties and sank off the Old Head in Kinsale, Co Cork. The majority of the passengers drowned.

“Desnoutte was no exception. There was a new church with a graveyard in a place called Templetrine (Kinsale) which is still a church to this day. Many historians have dealt with this topic including Raymond White and Jerome Bealcour of the Institute Napoleonic in Grenoble. In 2019 work started to create a monument to this general, with Jerome leading the way,” Cormac said.

Napoleon's two Cork doctors 

The chances of it happening are astronomical, but two doctors who looked after Napoleon during his final exile on the island of St Helena both had strong Cork connections.

These men were Barry Edward O'Meara and James Verling and according to Cormac are extremely important to the Napoleonic story.

O'Meara (1786 – 1836), is said to have once lived at Mount Corbett House in the village of Churchtown, near Buttevant in North Cork.

Indeed in the annals of Churchtown, Dr Barry O'Meara is one of three men honoured on the equine statue in the village, the others being Irish language poet Sean Clárach Mac Dómhnaill and Dr Vincent O'Brien.

O'Meara is remembered as the author of 'Napoleon in Exile, or A Voice From St. Helena'. When published in 1822 it created a “no small sensation” because O'Meara claimed Napoleon claimed his jailer, Sir Hudson Lowe, had mistreated the former emperor.

Less known are his secret letters he sent clandestinely from Saint Helena to a clerk at the Admiralty in London. These letters shed a unique light on Napoleon's state of mind as a captive and the causes of his complaints against Lowe and the British government.

Research carried out on O'Meara's journal concludes that Napoleon had some kind of autistic traits.

Cormac Finn O-Brien, Vice president of the Napoleonic Society of Ireland, next to the grave of a French general, Charles Lefferve Desnoutte, buried at the Templetrine Church of the Holy Trinity, Ballinspittle, Kinsale who fought at the battle of Waterloo. Photo: Dan Linehan
Cormac Finn O-Brien, Vice president of the Napoleonic Society of Ireland, next to the grave of a French general, Charles Lefferve Desnoutte, buried at the Templetrine Church of the Holy Trinity, Ballinspittle, Kinsale who fought at the battle of Waterloo. Photo: Dan Linehan

O'Meara was also the physician to have performed the very first medical operation on Napoleon, by extracting a wisdom tooth in the autumn of 1817 The doctor was also a founding member of the establishment's Reform Club in Pall Mall, London, said to be the first 'gentlemen's club' in the world.

Dr James Roche Verling (1787 – 1858) was born in Queenstown (now Cobh) Co Cork, and was also Napoleon's doctor towards the end of his life.

“Verling helped take part in the autopsy of Napoleon, which leads us to believe he had complications with stomach cancer,” Cormac said.

Verling also served under general Hudson Lowe (whose grandson would later accept the surrender of Padraig Pearse after the 1916 Easter Rising).

Verling was a puppet of Lowe who Napoleon never really trusted. Napoleon's mother sent out her own doctor to look after him as well.

Verling returned to Cobh in 1922 where he lived at the Bella Vista, which is now the Bella Vista Hotel.

Many historians have written about both Verling and O'Meara. The president of the International Napoleonic Society Dr J David Markham has written a book on Verling.

Napoleon's 'bonny Irish' and the Irish at the Battle of Waterloo 

The story of Napoleon and Wolfe Tone's failed Irish rebellion of 1798 is one of the most important episodes during the Napoleonic period.

“Although Robert Emmet did have a rebellion in 1805. Wolfe Tone's influence on the Napoleonic story and the story of Cork is probably one of the most important elements when it comes to the Napoleonic yarn,” Cormac said.

He pointed out that Cork was probably the hardest place on the island of Ireland to invade.

At first Napoleon was supposed to be on the fleet to sail to Cork in 1796, he was becoming too powerful so the French government sent him off to the invasion of Egypt.

“In the diary of Dr Barry O'Meara Napoleon, while exiled on St Helena, talked about the invasion of Cork.

He stated that he had arranged everything with the country (Ireland) and if only he was able to land his troops he had every reason to suppose they would have succeeded in possessing themselves of the whole island of Ireland. 

"He also stated he kept a constant communication with the 'active parties' (anti-British) which he said was by no means confined to the Roman Catholics. They also had a large population of Protestants in their ranks,” Cormac said.

Napoleon said he had no issues about religion and wouldn't interfere in people's beliefs if the French had been successful with the invasion. “His only objective was to liberate Ireland from England.” 

After the failed uprising in 1798, many Irish fled to France to gain a better life under Napoleonic rule. There were already so many Irish living in France due to the fact of the 'Flight of the Earls.' Many of their sons and exiled Irish who fled to France joined the French army.

One of the Irish soldiers after serving in the Cognac region decided to retire and create one of the most famous drink brands in the world, Hennessy cognac.

“The man in question was Richard Hennessy and his family healed from Killavullen in North Cork. The story goes that to not serve in Napoleon's army he made a deal with Napoleon himself to create cognac for his army. Although Napoleon never drank cognac but it saved Hennessy's from serving in the Napoleonic Wars,” Cormac said.

He added that a Spanish town on The Camino Way, which is one of the most walked routes in the world, has an Irish connection to Napoleon's Peninsula Wars.

Napoleon whose "only objective was to liberate Ireland from England”. 
Napoleon whose "only objective was to liberate Ireland from England”. 

Irish troops in Napoleon's army fought and captured the castle in the main town of Astorga.

“During this battle many Irish soldiers received the highest reward in French Society which meant that their children would be well looked after, giving them an education. Also in Spain Napoleon's Irish legion faced off against Wellington's Irish troops in what could be described as a Irish civil war in Spain. The Irish who fought with Napoleon would often be classed as Napoleon's gaeilgeorí,” Conor said.

Although Napoleon lost the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, the battle itself contained the many stories of Irish troops.

“The world-famous closing the gates of Hougoumont (the main farmhouse in the battle) painting depicts the scene of the Coldstream guards including two Irish Brothers closing the doors of the farm on French troops,” Cormac said.

“However this picture doesn't tell the full story. The story goes that the soldiers at the front of the French troops were Irish. Therefore the social ramifications of this scene of them closing the gate illustrates the division of Ireland between loyalist and nationalists on a European scale,” he said.

As mentioned previously Wolfe Tone had a big influence on the Napoleonic story. His son Theobald Wolf Tone Jr is more commonly referred to in French as 'Le Petit Loup' (the little wolf) had a big part in Napoleon's cavalry. As a result he took part in Marshal Ney's massed cavalry charge at the battle against the British lines.

  • Cormac Finn O'Brien is an Irish historian who deals with Irish Republican history during the Napoleonic era. He has spoken at many events from the International Napoleonic conference in Trier and Grenoble to the Napoleonic convention in Italy. Cormac has an undergraduate of history politics sociology and social studies from the University of Limerick with his undergraduate project being on Napoleon's 'bonny Irish' and the role they played during the Napoleonic wars. Cormac is a fully trained regional and national tour guide and is currently writing a book on Daniel O'Connell.

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