Richard Ferris

Richard Ferris (Tralee, Co. Kerry, 1750 (or 1754) - Soissons, France, 1828) had indeed an eventful life, not to say a controversial one. In his Biographical dictionary of Irishmen in France (1949), Richard Hayes describes him as an “ecclesiastic and secret agent” who engaged in “an extraordinary career of intrigue and duplicity, posing simultaneously as a secret agent for France and England” before “intriguing to become superior not only of the Irish College but of the combined English, Scottish and Irish colleges in Paris”.
The Irish College, rue des Irlandais
Ferris went to France at sixteen to join Berwick's Regiment of the Irish Brigade. He then studied at the Irish College and the University of Paris before being ordained a priest 1778. Obviously bright, he became doctor of civil and canon law and chaplain at the court of Louis XVI. Ten years later, he was canon of Amiens cathedral. He refused to take an oath to the French Revolutionaries’ 'Civil Constitution' and in 1791 travelled to Germany to join the remnants of his old regiment that remained faithful to the monarchy.

Ferris took part in the abortive invasion of France by royalist, Austrian and Prussian forces in 1792. He then disappeared for a couple of years, but by 1794 he had managed to convince the French to send him as a secret agent in London. However, once in London, he tried to become a double agent, supplying the British the key to the cipher used in French secret correspondence.  While it is unclear whether his spying activities produced any great results for either side, both the British and the French handed Ferris a lot of money to fund his spying activities, (although the British do seem to have been highly suspicious of this born opportunist). In 1796, Ferris was back in Paris, living at 861, Boulevard Saint-Germain (5th, 6th and 7th arrondissements, impossible to know where this addres was because of changes in the Parisian street-numbering system), but in 1799 he was arrested and charged with espionage by the French. However, through his pre-Revolution connections to Talleyrand, then foreign minister, Ferris managed to get himself released and soon set up as a successful lawyer and went to live at 26, rue Cassette (6th arrondissement). Interestingly, 26 rue Cassette is part of a complex that stretches south to rue Vaugirard and at the time of the French Revolution was part of a convent. Here, dozens of priests were executed by Revolutionaries in the so-called "Massacre des Carmes" in September 1792.

 The former rue des Postes
In 1808, Ferris was appointed to the board set up by Napoleon to run the affairs of the Irish College. By 1810 he was, according to Miles Byrne, “splendidly lodged”  in the English seminary at 22, rue des Postes (5th arrondissement, house no longer exists), just around the corner from the Irish College. He kept a carriage and had a Chinese garden designed at a cost of at least FF20,000, paid for out of college funds. In 1813, he was appointed superior of the College. The Irish bishops saw this appointment as a scandal since by this stage unsubstantiated rumours were circulating that the unscrupulous Mr. Ferris had taken wifein essence making him a married priest.

Miles Byrne offers a more charitable picture of the man than Hayes, no doubt because Ferris and Byrne (along with most of the Irish army officers in France) were on the same side in a dispute over control of the Irish College in the aftermath of Napoleon’s demise in 1814. In an Irish version of the ageless dispute in France between Gallicans and Ultramontains the Paris-Irish, led by Ferris, refused to accept that Maynooth College back in Ireland should assume direct control of the Collège des Irlandais. Byrne suspected that the Irish hierarchy was in cahoots with the British in its attempts to muzzle a well-know seeding ground for Irish rebels. Ferris and the Paris-Irish (with the backing of the French government) won the day. Ferris was “rich and cared little about the emoluments of superior of the Irish College”, but simply wanted to show the Irish bishops that he had more influence with the French government than they had, according to Byrne. He soon proved the extent of this influence by ensuring that Maynooth’s appointee to the college, Father Long “was sent back to resume his duties as a parish priest in the neighbourhood of Dublin.”

The Ferris country house near Soissons
In 1820, the argumentative Ferris got into a dispute with a certain Hely d’Orssel, who served with him on the Irish College’s governing council. Despite his age (70 or older) and despite the fact that he could not hold a pistol in his hand “on account of the palsy with which he was afflicted” (Byrne), he challenged Hely d’Orssel (“a mongrel minister, who is only Irish on his father’s side”,  wrote Ferris) to a duel that, luckily for Ferris, was called off after an exchange of written insults.

But the dispute forced Ferris to resign as superior of the Collège des Irlandais, paving the way for the much more amenable (and less irascible) Abbé Charles Kearney. Ferris went to live at 21, rue des Filles de Calvaire (3rd arrondissement, house no longer exists), keeping his carriage. By this stage, Ferris had, according to Hayes, “amassed a considerable fortune through more than doubtful means”. Even while administering the Irish College, Ferris took a prominent part inand made a large profit froma reparations commission set up to settle claims from British subjects resident in France during the Revolution. He soon bought a large country house called La Maison Blanche and some land in Mercin-et-Vaux near Soissons, north-east of Paris, where he died in 1828.


Select Bibliography
Richard Ferris, 1754-1828 (in Journal of the Kerry Archaeological and Historical Society, no. 18, 1985)
Mary Purcell
Biographical Dictionary of Irishmen in France (1949)
Richard Hayes

The Green Cockade, the Irish in the French Revolution, 1789-1815 (1989)
Liam Swords