Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821): An Irish Connection

10 July 2015

In 2015 a number of bicentenary events including exhibitions* commemorated the Battle of Waterloo on 18 June 1815. It proved a battle too many for Napoleon’s army who were beaten by combined British, Dutch, Belgian and German forces, led by the Duke of Wellington, or the Iron Duke, and Prussians, under Gebhard Leberecht von Blucher, whose concerted charge brought an allied victory.

Historical, military and naval anecdotes abound about Napoleon’s military campaigns and exploits. Caricatures, monumental paintings and the statues of him are legendary. In his birth place of Ajaccio the Museum Curator has noted … We do not have the same passion for Napoleon as his enemies have for him. He was born in Corsica, Ile de Beaute, and was sent to military school before he was ten. From a junior artillery officer he rose through the ranks and by 1795 was made a major general after defeating a royalist rising against the Revolutionaries. A year later he led a French army and, by 1799 by plebiscite ruled France as First Consul, and from 1804-15 as self-proclaimed Emperor of the French.

From 1800 to 1814 he bestrode Europe like a Colossus. He created a vast empire in less than a dozen years. At its greatest extent it stretched from Spain to the edge of the Balkans and from the Netherlands to Poland. His military feats made him universally feared as an adversary. Having achieved empire by war, he could not compromise to make lasting peace. An upstart among the rulers of Europe, he never won the legitimacy he craved.
During his first years in power a patchwork of civil law was codified and promulgated as the Code Civil. Prefects were appointed to districts and mayors to large communes reporting to central government. It took three years from 1790 for the text to be agreed. It was promulgated in 1804 and retained many principles of the Revolution: the secular state, equality before the law, freedom of religion, conscience and work. It protected property rights and gave a father increased authority over his family. It became widely influential used as a model in much of Europe and the legal systems of a number of American states were based on it. The Code Civil remains the basis of the legal system in France. His legacy is enormous but he does not feature in scholastic programmes, nobody studies him.

He was forced to abdicate in 1814 to Elba off Italy from where he escaped and returned to France landing near Cannes. From there he undertook a route by stages over the Route des Alpes to arrive in Paris on 20 March 1815. To mark Napoleon’s military encampment in Cannes, a large historical plaque about the event has been placed on the side of the Church of Notre-Dame de Bon Port in the rue Notre-Dame, Cannes. After his defeat at Waterloo he was taken as a prisoner to Saint Helena in the South Atlantic, where he died in 1821. He is entombed under the Dome at Les Invalides in Paris.
An Irish Connection

In 2009 from June to November, the Long Room at Trinity College Library, Dublin hosted an exhibition on Napoleon Emperor of the French to coincide with the anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo on 18 June 1815. It examined Napoleon’s career and political philosophy through the use of contemporary image and print from the library’s rich collection of nineteenth century French materials.

A public Symposium ‘Napoleon and Ireland’ with lectures by academics and others explored aspects of Napoleon’s extraordinary career, the legacy of his memory and his impact upon Irish affairs. The attendant’s records of Barry Edward O’Meara, Napoleon’s Irish doctor, were explored. His long and daily conversations with the Emperor are one of the main sources recording Napoleon’s personal views.

The lecture on Napoleonic wars assessed the impact upon Irish life in a time of rebellion and rising. It specifically considered Napoleon’s relations with the United Irishmen in the 1790s and later. It briefly considered Napoleon’s Irish Legion formed in 1803 to accompany his proposed invasion of Ireland and offered some reflections concerning the image of Napoleon - based on ballads, plays and folklore - and on the place of Napoleon in later Irish history.

Ita Marguet, June 2015

Note: Acknowledgement is given to sources used in this text. It follows a visit to the 2009 exhibition in Dublin and a previous text Napoleon Bonaparte: ‘Napoleon and Ireland’ by Ita Marguet, March 2010. *At Musee Carnavalet in Paris called Napoleon et Paris – Reves d’une capitale until 30 August 2015.