Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite/Liberty, Equality, Fraternity Flag


The French Revolution of 1789 marks a significant date in the history of mankind. In France, it brought to an end the absolute power of monarchs, aptly expressed in the Latin phrase "Lex Rex, Rex Lex", the Law is the King and the King is the Law. The tyranny and abuses of King and aristocracy were ended and a new regime was inaugurated, based on the Republican and Democratic ideas enshrined in the motto Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. On July 14, 1789 the populace stormed the Bastille, the State prison which symbolised the Kings absolute power. From that date on, nothing could stop the Revolution.

The Revolution was not without fault, it had its excesses and its terror. Nor have the subsequent French republics been without blemish either  they had their colonies and they have been less than just to the minority nations within the French State. Yet, the principles which inspired the Revolution were human and generous and the French Republic has been a model for many other countries.

In the night of August 4, 1789 the National Assembly suppressed all the privileges of the nobility and clergy. Three weeks later the Declaration of the Rights of Man  Forógra ar Chearta an Duine  was promulgated and later a constitutional regime based on popular suffrage was installed.

On October 5, between six and seven thousand of the women of Paris marched on the Palace of Versailles to force the King to accept the Declaration of the Rights of Man.

On this very date, January 21, 1793 King Louis XVI was publicly executed by guillotine in Paris, and later that year his Queen, Mary Antoinette met the same fate.

In Ireland, the 18th century was probably the most miserable of all times for the people. A great mass of people lived in mud cabins, on a diet which consisted mostly of potatoes and buttermilk and were ground down by landlords and tithe proctors. They got whatever education they could in the illegal hedge schools.
Crouching neath the sheltering hedge
Or stretched on mountain fern
The master and his pupils met
Feloniously to learn

Towards the end of the century two beacons shone to rally the people. At home Theobald Wolfe Tone became a champion of the oppressed. "This horrible system," he said, "had reduced the great body of the Catholic peasantry of Ireland to a situation, morally and physically speaking, below that of the beasts of the field." He was secretary to the Catholic Committee in 1792-95. "I have laboured," said Tone, "to create a people in Ireland, by raising three million of my countrymen to the rank of citizen." The Society of United Irishmen was founded, and succeeded in uniting large numbers of Catholics and Dissenters, and some Protestants, against English rule.

Máire Mac Neill, in her biography of Mary Ann McCracken relates how the writings of Locke, Rousseau and Paine were widely read in Ulster at this time. She makes the point that "throughout the Province, but especially in the neighbourhood of Belfast, political, economic and philosophic thought had prepared the community in a remarkable degree for the great upheaval of the French Revolution."

When the Revolution happened, prayers of thanksgiving were offered in Belfast, songs of the French Revolution were published and the fall of the Bastille was celebrated each year. Henry Joy junior had this to say:

". . . The exultation with which they hailed the downfall of civil and spiritual despotism in France in the year 1789, affords a decisive proof of their disinterested solicitude for the universal diffusion of liberty and peace. Their joy was expressed by affectionate congratulations to the French patriots and by annual commemorations of the destruction of the Bastille, conducted with pomp and magnificence and calculated to impress on innumerable spectators a conviction of the vast importance which they attached to this glorious occurrence, and sensations of gratitude to the divine providence for dispersing the political clouds which had hitherto darkened our hemisphere . . . "

In a memorandum to the French Government, Tone described the Dissenters or Presbyterians as "the most enlightened body of the nation . . . enthusiastically attached to the French Revolution. The Catholics," he added, "the great body of the nation, are in the lowest degree of ignorance and want, ready for any change, because no change can make them worse."

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