James Smith of Leixlip: calico printer, United Irishman and veteran of Napoleon’s army


Recently I was contacted by historian Nicholas Dunne-Lynch and genealogist Cécile Déjardin, who wrote regarding a previous post on this site:  ‘Who was Smith – the mysterious designer of ‘Belvedere’?’  In this I had gathered what I could find about the career of James Smith,up to the point of his release from Kilmainham Gaol as a State Prisoner, and his exile to France in 1802. But this, it seems, was only the starting point of a long and distinguished career of military service in the Irish Legion of the French Army, under both Napoleon and the restored Bourbon monarchy. Nicholas and Cécile have most generously supplied the following biography of Smith, gleaned from their own research into French military and other archives, including many of Smith’s letters.

Proprietor of a calico-printing enterprise at Ryevale near  Leixlip, County Kildare, in 1796, James Smith joined the movement dedicated to the establishment of an Irish republic, which had been founded in the wake of the French Revolution of 1789. Since the movement was proscribed by the government, as a member of the local branch of Society of United Irishmen Smith was committing ‘a treasonable practice,’ even High Treason, a crime punishable by death, in fact, by being hung, drawn and quartered under  a law that had been on the statute books since the 14th Century and had survived the arrival of the so-called Age of Enlightenment.

Smith was deeply involved in the rebellion of 1798, probably with the north Kildare rebels under William Aylmer of Painstown and Hugh Ware of Rathcoffey, in a campaign of ‘fugitive warfare’ against British rule. His rank is reported to have been that of captain, a considerable responsibility, and he may have taken part in the battle of Ovidstown Hill, five kilometres south-west of Kilcock, County Kildare, on 19 June 1798, in which the rebels under Aylmer and Ware were defeated by government forces. The engagement was an unsuccessful departure from the ‘fugitive’ tactics of the Kildare rebels and, among the leaders, Smith was subsequently listed on a proclamation by Lord Castlereagh, Chief Secretary for Ireland, ordering the prominent rebels to surrender unconditionally on pain of being attainted traitors, which would surely have attracted the death penalty.

On 21 July  1798, the rebel leaders, including Aylmer, Ware, John Reilly of Kilcock and Smith, surrendered at Odlum’s Mill, Osberstown, County Kildare, on the banks of the Grand Canal, between Naas and Sallins. All were imprisoned at Kilmainham Gaol except Aylmer, who was allowed to go into exile.

The State Prisoners, as they were known, at Kilmainham as well as another group of State Prisoners, including Arthur O’Connor and Thomas Addis Emmet, incarcerated at Fort George in Scotland, were held until the Treaty of Amiens (1802-1803) was negotiated under the Addington administration in London. The Fort George group was exiled immediately to France, but the Kilmainham men were allowed to remain at liberty in Ireland for a time. On 16 July 1802, Smith married Julianne Marie Burke at Saint Andrew’s Catholic parish church in the city of Dublin. From French documents, we know that James was 30 and Juliane 27. The newly-weds then went into exile in France via London. It appears that Smith was able to liquidate his business in Leixlip and the couple brought with them the equivalent of 130 thousand French francs. At Rouen, Smith writes that they established ‘un filiature de cotton’ or cotton spinning enterprise, but some sources say it was ‘a manufactory of Indiennes , or printed chintz fabrics.’ Among the Irish exiles at Rouen was William Putnam McCabe of Belfast (1776-1821), industrialist and an organizer of the United Irishmen in Ireland up to 1798, who set up a cotton mill.

On 5 March 1803, Marguerite, the eldest Smith child, was born, while the family was living at rue de Darnétal, Saint Hilaire, a faubourg of Rouen, at which address the enterprise was also operating. Reports that James returned to Ireland in 1803 to participate in the Emmet conspiracy and rebellion of 1803 are not supported by any documents discovered in French archives and, in view of his family and business commitments, are hardly credible. Smith is not mentioned by Miles Byrne as being present in Ireland in 1803, and any report that he travelled to County Down with Thomas Russell just before the outbreak of rebellion in Dublin on 23 July 1803 is not supported, since Miles Byrne writes that James Hope (1764-1847), a Presbyterian and a native of County Antrim, accompanied Russell. Smith, a Catholic and native of Dublin, was unlikely to have been suitable. His place would have been among the rebels in his home area, as with Michael Quigley of Rathcoffey, who did return to from enforced exile to organize the Kildare rebels.

In the spring of 1805, the Smith’s first son, Edmond (or Edward) Julian, was born and, in April 1806, their second daughter, Marie-Catherine, arrived and the family are given as residing at 26, rue du Mont, where the manufactory is also located. In November 1807, Jean-Thomas was born, and the occupation of James is given as ‘machinist,’ residing at no 52, rue de Sotteville, where their third daughter, Adélaïde, arrived in December 1808. Smith is given as ‘proprietor of a mill,’ at the same address, at which the family were still residing when, on 24 April 1810, twin daughters Désirée and Julie were born. In June 1810, Jacques was born, and, one day, would emulate his father and be awarded the Legion of Honour.

In 1811, the Rouen business collapsed, reportedly because of the Peninsular War (1808-1814), during which many other Irish-owned enterprises in Rouen failed, and Smith reports the ‘major events that afflicted that branch of commerce.’ Failed enterprises included that of McCabe and the Glashin brothers, John (21) and Daniel (20), originally from Tipperary. Philip Long, a leading conspirator in the rebellion of 1803 who financed Miles Byrne’s escape from Dublin, ‘lost a good deal of money in the concern,’ which may suggest the Irish entrepreneurs at Rouen were bound together in associated enterprises.

In difficult circumstances, with a large family, James Smith wrote to Minister for War Henri Clarke, whose family was of Irish descent, and was directed to the Irish Legion, by that time le 3ème Régiment étranger (irlandais) based at Bois-le-Duc (‘s-Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands) where he was commissioned lieutenant on 11 November 1812. Smith may have been encouraged by the earlier acceptance of the Glashin brothers into the same regiment under the auspices of the minister. In a letter to Clarke, Smith declares his life too short to enable him to express his gratitude.

Signature of James Smith on his letter to Minister for War, Henri Clarke, Duke of Feltre

The regiment was commanded by a County Dublin man, United Irishman and former professor at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, William Lawless, and among the officers were former Kildare rebels Hugh Ware, chef de bataillon, and captains John Reilly of Kilcock and Bryan McDermott of Hodgestown, all of whom had been Smith’s fellow State Prisoners at Kilmainham. Thus, he was sure of a warm welcome and amiable comradeship. In 1813, yet another son was born to the Smiths, William Henry. In all, they had nine children, but only five survived of which according to Smith four were boys. So four girls did not reach the age of ten, infant mortality being a sad feature of life.

Smith was fortunate not to have been selected to march when Lawless led the 1st and 2nd battalions of the Irish Regiment to the Saxon Campaign in February 1813. After the debacle in Russia in 1812, France was threatened with invasion by Russian and Prussian forces, the French resisting stubbornly in Saxony, the younger Glashin becoming a prisoner of war at Siebeneichen (Dębowy Gaj), in Prussian-occupied Silesia (Poland today) on 21 August 1813.

In a desperate engagement on the river Bober at Plagwitz (Plakowice) on 29 August, the two Irish battalions were all but annihilated, less than 120 surviving out of the 1600 that had set out. After another debacle for Napoleon at Leipzig in October, the British invaded the Low Countries with the object of capturing the strategic port of Antwerp, the Irish regiment being deployed in defence, and it is likely that Smith was present at Merksem, just outside Antwerp, in engagements against the British and Prussians, and possibly other clashes during the siege from mid-January until early May, almost a month after Napoleon had abdicated, the redoubtable Carnot in command refusing to capitulate.

Legion Irlandaise uniform

Garrisoned at Montreuil-sur-Mer (Pas-de-Calais) from November 1814, the Irish regiment was renamed the 7ème Régiment étranger in May 1815, a month before Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo, by yet another native of Dublin, the duke of Wellington, and the French Empire finally came to an end. During the year, James Smith is listed as ‘in reserve,’ the regiment now having a surplus of officers transferred from disbanded regiments. On 29 September, the Irish regiment was itself disbanded and Smith returned to civilian life on half-pay. The Smiths continued to reside at Montreuil in reduced circumstances with their five surviving children and were still living there in 1817 when Smith was made a French citizen by decree of King Louis XVIII.

A year later, he was recalled to active service as lieutenant in the Corsican Legion, which became the 10th Light Infantry (10è Léger) in 1821, garrisoned at Saint-Martin-de-Ré, Île de Ré, off La Rochelle, western France. In 1823, he was promoted captain. The French army had been greatly reduced in 1815 and Smith was extremely fortunate to have been recalled. Several Irish Legion officers, including Hugh Ware, never served again.

The “July Revolution” of 1830 overthrew the reactionary senior house of Bourbon, three of the Smith boys participating. Louis-Philippe, from the junior and liberal branch of the Bourbons, ascended the throne. In October, Smith was still stationed at La Rochelle, his records showing him to be an excellent officer. At 58 and possibly the oldest captain in active service, he had been applying for the staff since 1821, but, by November 1830, he was still unable to gain acceptance. He is listed as one of 17 captains in his regiment but 14th in order of seniority. In 1833, with the 10è Léger, he transferred to the town of Draguignan (Var, Alpes-Côte d’Azur, south-eastern France). At that stage, there were two barracks in the town, la caserne des Minimes and that of St François, but it is not clear in which Smith was based.

On 22  September of that year, at Embrun (Hautes-Alpes) Smith was made a chevalier of la Légion d’Honneur, the French equivalent of a knighthood, and, now 61, he transferred to the 11th Company of Veteran Fusiliers, and in 1839, a captain at 67, he was in command of the 3rd Company of Veteran Fusiliers. The family address in Paris was 20, rue du Bouloi, in the 1st Arrondissement today. Juliane died in 1851, but no date of death of James has been discovered. The couple had been married almost 48 years. Since James served internally in France, it is likely and very fortunate that his wife was present at every garrison, and their children in the early days, so family life was not disrupted.

Regretfully, of course, James Smith was unable to fulfil his early promise as a creative manufacturer. Once he had entered military service at the age of 40, however, he showed remarkable flexibility and exceptional longevity in that career.


Cécile Déjardin

Nicholas Dunne-Lynch