John & Bernard MacSheehy

The MacSheehys of Killarney had a long association with France. The most eminent member of the clan was probably Bernard (or Brian) MacSheehy (Dublin, 1774-Eylau, 1807). His grandfather, who had the same name, was born in Killarney of a renowned military family in the first decade of the 18th century and fought as a captain in the FitzJames cavalry regiment in the French army's Irish Brigade.

          Irish Legion standard bearer

Bernard MacSheehy became an ardent supporter of the French Revolution while studying at the Collège des Irlandais. In spite of his revolutionary fervour, he, like his uncle (see below), was interned as a British subject in 1793 and scheduled for deportation. However, he was released soon after when he requested French citizenship and offered to join the revolutionary army. MacSheehy also curried favour with the authorities by denouncing the clerical heads at the Collège des Irlandais as ‘counter-revolutionaries’. In the college, according to MacSheehy, refractory bishops and priests, "followed by a huge crowd of fanatics, celebrated baptisms, confirmations, secret marriages and ordinations and launched tirades against the principles of revolution".

In late 1796, MacSheehy was sent by General Lazare Hoche to Ireland to report on conditions in the country prior to the failed French expedition to Bantry Bay at the end of that year. Alas, Hoche had already left on his luckless expedition to Bantry Bay by the time MacSheehy made it back to Brest. MacSheehy was then re-appointed to his previous position as adjutant to Wolfe Tone, who quickly came to consider MacSheehy  a “sad blockhead”. In 1798, MacSheehy accompanied Napoleon on his Egyptian expedition before becoming adjutant-commandant and operational head of the Irish Legion, which in  1803 was stationed near Brest ahead of a planned invasion of Ireland. However, as a result of his role in a fatal duel between two officers (John Sweeny and Thomas Corbet) MacSheehy was kicked out of the Legion. He next became a colonel and aide-de-camp to Napoleon, beside whom he was killed by a cannon ball at the battle of Eylau in February 1807 (a battle fought and won by the French in thick snow).

Miles Byrne, who had also joined the Irish Legion in Brittany, had little time for MacSheehy. “Unfortunately for the Irish officers,” he writes, “he [MacSheehy] proved himself quite unfit to remain at their head. He was capricious, passionate and vindictive; consequently, not impartial as a chief should be…He used, or abused, the confidence with which the War Ministry entrusted him…They [a Commandant James Blackwell, colonel in the Legion's only battalion, who had stormed the Bastille in 1789 was also sent packing] were not soon forgotten by their countrymen, who had to remain in the Legion to suffer from having had chiefs so incapable of commanding respect for themselves.” 

Some historians have a more charitable view of Bernard MacSheehy, even suggesting that he was one of the most talented Irishmen in the French army. As proof, they offer his almost meteoric rise through the ranks, the probability that Napoleon personally chose him to head the Irish Legion, and the honour he had of becoming one of the first knights (chevalier) of the Legion of Honour. Indeed, MacSheehy's French superiors held a superior opinion of MacSheehy than Byrne, with one report describing him as "a brave officer with military talents of the first order, a vast erudition, and capable of speaking and writing in several languages".

Before being forced out, MacSheehy managed to find a position in the Legion for his nephew, Patrick MacSheehy, who became a "captain". But, says Miles Byrne, the nephew became involved in a dispute of his own with the mayor’s son in Morlaix, where the Legion was stationed. Patrick MacSheehy was subsequently “found unfit to command and retired”. After the collapse of invasion plans, the Irish Legion formed the backbone of the 3rd Foreign Regiment (Irish). It wore green uniforms (see photo below) and at one stage comprised five battalions. With its officers mostly made up of exiled United Irishmen and former officers of the French royalist army, this regiment was the only foreign one to be granted an imperial eagle by Napoleon, although its "Irish" character became increasingly diluted. The regiment was disbanded in 1815 after the fall of Napoleon, but not before its 1st Battalion had distinguished itself during the defence of Walcheren and Flushing (1809) under William Lawless.

Irish Regiment standard bearer

John MacSheehy (Killarney, 1745-Paris, 1815) was Bernard MacSheehy's uncle and son of the original Bernard MacSheehy. Having studied medicine in Paris, he rose to become premier médecin to Louis XVI, a conseiller du roi and a chevalier de l'ordre du roi (St. Michel). (Fellow Irishman John O’Reilly was also one of Louis XVI’s doctors, while one Owen O’Shiel was for a long time one of Louis XIV’s favourite physicians). In 1782, John MacSheehy married a French woman who bore him two sons, Patrice Maurice MacSheehywho served as an officer in the French navy and was killed at the battle of Trafalgar in 1805and Jean Bernard Louis MacSheehy who, like his cousin, fought at the battle of Eylau. Although wounded, Jean-Bernard survived the battle and went on to fight for Napoleon in Austria and Spain. In all, he went through 12 campaigns, was wounded six times and was showered with the highest military medals. He retired from the army in 1834 with the rank of lieutenant-colonel.

Probably because of his links to the deposed king, Jean-Bernard's father, John, was arrested in a dawn raid on November 8, 1793 as part of a general clampdown on foreigners. He had actually been denounced by his nephew, the “insufferable coxcomb” (another Wolfe Tone compliment) Bernard MacSheehy, as part of the latter's efforts to ingratiate himself with the Robespierre regime. Described in police documents as “un natif de Query en Irlande”, John MacSheehy was living at the time at 763 rue d'Enfer (A coherent street-numbering system was not introduced in France until the early 19th century, making it virtually impossible to know the site of MacSheehy's abode, although it was possibly in the modern-day rue Henri Barbusse, 5th arrondissement). Despite MacSheehy's claims that he was to all intents and purposes a Frenchman (having lived in France for 29 years), all his letters and papers were placed under seal. Later that same day, MacSheehy seems to have gotten drunk (“il nous a paru avoir imbibé du vin, ce qui le met hors de raison,”  says the police report) and kicked up ructions over custody of his papers. Finally, unable to deal with a drunken Irishman in full flight, the police handed the documents back to MacSheehy, making him sign an oath that he would not break the seal. Some years later, in 1803, MacSheehy moved his practice to 533, rue Saint Jacques (5th arrondissement), "opposite the Pantheon", which would seem to be the equivalent of today's 168, rue Saint Jacquesthe address he gave in 1808, after Paris street-numbering had been rationalised.

Select Bibliography
Archives Nationales F/5/74720 dossier 5 (8 sept. 1793), F7/4775/52 dossier 2—police files on Bernard MacSheehy

Service Historique de la Défense
Files Xh14, Xh15, as well as Xh16b, c and d for the Irish Legion
Sous-serie 2Ye for Bernard MacSheehy

Memoirs of Miles Byrne, Chef de Bataillon in the Service of France edited by his widow (1907)
Miles Byrne

Biographical Dictionary of Irishmen in France (1949)
Richard Hayes