The Irish Angle – The Last Cavalier by Alexandre Dumas


Sympathy from the Irish –The Irish episode in The Last Cavalier by Alexandre Dumas,  author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo

Le Chevalier de Sainte-Hermine is an unfinished historical novel by Alexandre Dumas, believed to be his last major work, although certainly not his best. It was lost until the late twentieth century when Dumas scholar, Claude Schopp, discovered it as a newspaper serial in the National Library of Paris. Dumas is best known for The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo but he was a prolific writer. However, many of his novels were lost in subsequent decades as they were published in serial form in newspapers. A number of such novels have been found, but Le Chevalier de Sainte-Hermine is the longest and most complete at 900 pages. The rediscovered and re-edited text of Le Chevalier de Sainte-Hermine was published in France in 2005 and then in English as The Last Cavalier in 2007. It is, in fact, the final instalment of a trilogy following The Companions of Jehu (Les Compagnons de Jehu), and The Whites and the Blues (Les Blancs et Les Bleus).

The Last Cavalier is a sweeping historical drama charting the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte to Emperor, which switches between the interaction of major historical figures and the heroic deeds of the eponymous hero. René, the Chevalier de Sainte-Hermine, comes from a royalist family and his two brothers died for the royalist cause, but over the course of the novel, ever the patriotic Frenchman, René is won over to Napoleon’s side. He has numerous adventures in France and Asia which bring him into contact with famous historical figures and he has a Zelig-like ability to be there at key moments in history. An important scene is the Battle of Trafalgar in which it is René who fires the fatal shot that kills Admiral Nelson.

After the Battle of Trafalgar, René is taken prisoner aboard a British ship which is blown off course by a storm on its way back to England and ends up in Cork. Deciding that it would be safer to house the French prisoners-of-war on land, the British take them ashore where they are assigned eight to a cell in Cork prison. On the way, one prisoner makes it known that he is an Irishman who will help René escape and so he ensures that they are put in the same cell.

It is clear from the start that René is sanguine about being brought to Ireland as the French would “easily find sympathy from the Irish. … There had always been a special kind of pact between the two countries perhaps because they equally hated England”. It turns out the Irish prisoner, named Sullivan, is from this part of Ireland and knows their jailer, Father Donald, with whom he converses “in perfect Irish”.  Donald has reason to hate the English as his two sons were conscripted into British service. One deserted and was shot while the other died at the Battle of Aboukir. With the aid of this jailer, an escape plan is hatched and all eight prisoners in the cell make it over the wall and get out of Cork safely.

There then follows a detailed account of the escape route as Sullivan leads them first to Mallow, then to Askeaton and eventually to the River Shannon near Foynes. One assumes that Dumas had the aid of a map or guide to Ireland in drawing up this part of the Irish episode. While he does take some liberties with geography, it is more or less authentic.

While for the most part René’s expectations are fulfilled, Sullivan warns the French that they must travel across country as the roads will be watched and that they would do well to avoid the coastal towns as the people there could not be trusted since “they often had to deal with the English”. However, everywhere else the French meet with friendship and are given shelter. The Irish are not rich but treat the French as well as they can without seeking payment. Throughout it is made clear that the inhabitants speak Irish as their first or only language. Eventually, the French group seize a small boat and sail it to France, from where the ever noble René sends money back to the owner by way of O’Brien’s Bank in Dublin.

Dumas would not appear to have any obvious Irish connections but he was extremely widely read and all of his historical novels bear evidence of extensive research. In the 1850s, when he wrote The Last Cavalier, there was a healthy rivalry between Britain and France and many French people expressed sympathy for the Irish cause. Dumas would have been aware that there had been Irish rebellions against British rule and that many Irish served in the ranks of Napoleon’s armies (although he makes no explicit reference to Napoleon’s Irish Legion). As he takes his hero, René, on adventures to the Far East, it is not so unusual that he should also give him an Irish adventure considering the role that Ireland played in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars.

Tony Canavan

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