"General" James Dyer MacAdaras (Rathmines, Dublin, 1838 – Paris, 1919) was another one of those archetypal Irish chancers who turn up periodically in diverse cities of the world. In the words of historian Janick Julienne, “the life of this fellow is a patchwork of different shapes and colours, with many missing pieces.”
MacAdaras first appeared in Paris at the time of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870 when he offered to raise an Irish contingent to fight beside the French. He claimed that he had fought in the Crimean War and that he had suffered a leg wound during the attack on the Redan fortifications in front of Sebastopol (when he would have been 17). He also claimed to have fought in the Indian mutiny. Having received permission to form an Irish brigade and having, improbably, been promoted by a disintegrating French administration to the post of "general", he was sent in September 1870 to Caen to assembe recruits disembarking in Normandy. This proved an unhappy experience for all concerned. The French failed to provide food, arms or pay to the Irish and at one stage the British consul had to intervene to feed them.
MacAdaras himself gained a bad reputation among the Irish in Normandy, with some even considering him a spy working for the Prussians. MacAdaras also drew and spent pay due to his sidekick, John O'Kelly, during the latter's absence on a recruitment drive in Ireland.“ For the moment we know that the Irish in Caen are behaving themselves pretty badly and they voice their doubts on Mr. Dyer's intentions and his honour,” states a French army report from October 1870. Nonetheless, in that same month, MacAdaras—probably benefiting from the chaos surrounding the collapse of the Second Empire—was appointed to a new position as lieutenant-colonel of the 2nd foreign regiment, which included the few Irish survivors of the Normandy experience.
As usual, John Devoy provides a brilliant, cutting assessment of character. Devoy tells us that in late summer 1870, MacAdaras somehow convinced the French war minister, the Count of Palikao, that he represented the Lord Mayor of Dublin and others who the French knew were trying to organise an ambulance corps to send to France. Through Palikao he gained an audience with the Empress Eugénie, who provided him with a letter of introduction that he showed back in Dublin. Quickly, thanks to poor communications and the chaos of war, MacAdaras found himself a general. One day in Normandy, a member of the Irish Ambulance Corp, Dr. Constantine MacGuire, had a meeting in a café with MacAdaras. But MacAdaras, when he arrived, found that MacGuire was sitting with a journalist and ex-cavalry captain of the British Army, and swiftly turned on his heels. The journalist, it turned out, knew MacAdaras from his army days. "General be damned", he told MacGuire. "That fellow was sergeant-major of my troop and he's the damndest scoundrel from here to hell." According to Devoy, MacAdaras had been eking out a living by acting as an interpreter and guide to American tourists in Paris before he conned the French military establishment and the Empress Eugénie.
With the war over, MacAdaras made his way back to Paris in March 1871, taking lodgings at rueBellechase (7th arrondissement) just as the Communards seized control of the city. In the same year, he put in an application for French citizenship—an application that was rejected because an investigation concluded that “he lives in London and only comes to Paris a few days a year.” He also filed a claim for 114,000 francs with the French war ministry to cover the costs he claimed to have incurred in his abortive attempt to form an Irish regiment. The claim was rejected. “This affair can be summarised thus," writes a War Ministry official. "Mr. Dyer MacAdaras had promised to bring 6,000 Irishmen to France but only managed to bring 300 who didn’t perform any service and who were quickly repatriated.” Notes in MacAdaras’s military file also suggest he left a number of unpaid bills around Caen. MacAdaras’ cheeky bid for the Legion d’Honneur in 1871 was also rejected.
MacAdaras moved from one place of temporary accommodation to another throughout 1871. By June 1871, he was living no longer in the bourgeois 7th arrondissement but in a much more modest part of the 9th arrondissement (15, rue de Montholon), and by October he was staying at 102, rue Neuve des Mathurins (street no longer exists). He may also have lived a while at the Hôtel de Londres (rue Lafayette, 9th arrondissement), but a letter from him at the end of that year was written from Rostreavor in County Down.
MacAdaras next appeared in the French capital in 1887. In the interval, he had moved to America, married an American of some means and was leading a comfortable existence thanks to property speculation in Saint Louis, Missouri. Indeed, an issue of Le Petit Journal from September 1889 mentions that, according to some, he was a “millionaire several times over”. Why he came back to France is something of a mystery. His involvement with Irish nationalism might provide a clue. His first address in 1887 was at 21, avenue Carnot (17th arrondissement), where he shared lodgings with Eugene Davis and the shadowy revolutionary Patrick Casey. He attempted (unsuccessfully) to set up a bilingual newspaper with Eugene Davis and was apparently a party to the co-called ‘Jubilee plot’ to assassinate Queen Victoria. For all that, veteran Fenian John Devoy wrote that MacAdaras “was the most successful of all the fakers who traded on the Irish Movement, but he never got into it”.
In 1888, he was living at 57, rue de Babylone (7th arrondissement) and by this stage his secondapplication for French nationality had been accepted. Remarkably, just a year later, and still flouting the title of "general", he was elected to parliament as a ‘radical’ representative for the Sisteron area in southern France. "General" MacAdaras’s meteoric rise from foreigner to member of the French National Assembly within the space of one year may have owed a lot to his friendship, possibly masonic, with the insufferable Georges Clemenceau and the equally dotty Henri Rochefort. But MacAdaras does not seem to have been much of a parliamentarian, and with opponents contesting his eligibility and the legitimacy of his claim to be a "general", he was not re-elected in 1893.
Service Historique de la Défense
MacAdaras’ correspondence with the French War Ministry and his candidacy for the Légion d’Honneur: 17YD8 OGP Macadas, mémoire de proposition en faveur de Mr. MacAdaras (James Dyer), lieutenant colonel à titre auxiliaire pour le grade de chevalier dans l’ordre de la Légion d’Honneur
John MacAdaras naturalisation papers : dossiers BB11 1179 NJ 635x71 and G/9/154
La Compagnie irlandaise, reminiscences of the Franco-Prussian War (1873)
Recollections of an Irish Rebel (1929)
“General MacAdaras: An Adventurer in the Service of the Irish Revolutionaries in France”,
Janick Julienne, in The Irish Sword, no. 93 (2003)
On General MacAdaras’ election to the Assemblée Nationale,
“Echos de Paris” in Le Petit Journal, Sept. 26, 1889
Le Progrès Militaire, Nov. 20, 1889