Two-hundred years on from Napper Tandy’s arrival back in France, Ian McKeane of Liverpool University’s institute of Irish studies reassesses the reputation of one of the most colourful figures of the United Irish movement
MOST PEOPLE meet James Napper Tandy in the song the Wearing of the Green. He pops up again, or rather his Dublin residence does, in the ballad The Spanish Lady.
Apart from that he is rather a shadowy figure, one of the United Irishmen but condemned by events to be eternally in the shadow of such as Wolf Tone, Russell and Lord Edward Fitzgerald. He is dismissed as a drunk, a gossip unsuited to conspiratorial activity, another Irish failure without the saving grace of martyrdom.
A Dubliner, born in 1740, he became involved in the political animation of late 1770s Dublin. As secretary of the Dublin branch of the United Irishmen, he was the link between the upper class Protestant leaders and the Catholic rank and file.
When the government proscribed the United Irishmen in 1792, Tandy felt exposed and travelled to America. There he continued his United Irishmen activities which brought him into contact with the French minister plenipotentiary of the French republic, citizen Adet. Adet described him as: “an excellent republican, a man entirely devoted to France and hating England as much as he is attached to our cause”
The French diplomat sought to gain Tandy’s support for a French action in Ireland suggesting that he should “contribute” to the project of an invasion of Ireland with the possible reward of an “honourable situation in France.”
Adet was surprised that Tandy left for Paris in the spring of 1797 without demanding or discussing any personal financial reward. Once there, he joined with Tone in pestering the Directory (French government) to send an invasion force.
Finally, director Carnot gave the orders which set in motion the series of confused, and uncoordinated French military moves against Ireland during 1798. As part of these preparations, Tandy was commissioned in the French army with the rank of brigadier general on 2nd April 1798.
Tandy was appointed second in command of the Dunkirk invasion force under general Rey. They set sail in the brig Anacréon, one of the fastest ships in the French navy, on 4 September.
The Anacréon arrived off Co. Donegal, on the 18th and anchored by Rutland Island. Rey, Tandy and other members of the party, including, James Blackwell, and William Corbett, went ashore. They landed, addressed the locals, distributed a proclamation signed by Tandy and gave out green cockades.
It is suggested that Tandy was rather the worse for drink at the time but, despite the enthusiasm of the moment, he heard confirmation of the defeat of Humbert and therefore advised Rey that their force was unequal to any formal confrontation with British troops and that they should withdraw -- hardly the action of a man in his cups.
Withdraw they did and set sail for Bergen in Norway. On the way the Anacréon met and captured two English ships. One was subsequently lost but the Anacréon eventually reached Bergen with its remaining prize which financed the entire expedition.
Tandy, Blackwell, Corbett and Morris decided to return to France. The first stage was to travel to Hamburg where they arrived on the 22nd November 1798.
Hamburg was a self governing city but relied on the protection of its powerful neighbours, such as Prussia, for defence and the senat’s (city government’s) ability to negotiate with Russia, Britain and France to enable its ships to pass unhindered in the Baltic and the Atlantic.
Hamburg’s position as a neutral port rendered it useful to continental powers and in time of war it provided conduits for communication, both open and illicit, between the larger belligerents.
The Irishmen’s first act was to present their documents to the French consul so as to gain papers to enter French controlled Holland. They then put up at the American Arms hotel.
Sir James Crawfurd, the British representative in Hamburg had been waiting for their arrival from Bergen and had almost given up on them. He acted swiftly and demanded the arrest, pending extradition, of Tandy and Blackwell from the Prätor, the city's chief magistrate.
Crawfurd’s reasoning was simple. Since the Hamburg authorities were dependent on British goodwill to allow their ships to move freely, he felt that there would be little problem in arranging for Tandy and the others to be extradited to Britain where they could be tried for treason and eliminated by execution or, at least, by transportation.
However, Crawfurd forgot that the Hamburg authorities also had French troops not far from the gates of the city, on the Dutch border. Forgot is perhaps ingenuous -- he felt that the pressure that he could bring to bear on the spot far exceeded that available to the French government.
Crawfurd thought that the French might bluster a bit but would consider that Tandy and Blackwell were really of little consequence to them. Even if the Directory, reacted badly to the extradition of the Irish, for Crawfurd, the end would have justified the means.
Good relations with Hamburg were not essential to Britain’s game plan -- useful, but not essential. The war situation was fluid, a cessation of hostilities was a real possibility and new developments would just have to be dealt with. The Irish problem, though, had to be settled.
So, very early on the 23 November, Crawfurd’s arresting party burst in on the Irish who resisted manfully. The French press wrote that Tandy threatened an officer with his pistol while the official report by the French minister at Hamburg stated that it was Blackwell who struck out with his sword but that four marines jumped on him and forced him to the ground. Crawfurd himself then transported the prisoners to jail to await extradition.
he Hamburg magistrature soon began to have second thoughts -- Blackwell and Tandy had valid French commissions and this was no light matter. The Directory had not revoked the commissions and since Tandy and Blackwell had lodged them with the French consul as soon as they had landed the Hamburg government had a problem.
The French consul protested to the Hamburg authorities without success. The French ambassador Marragon argued with Burgermeister, Von Sienen, (who happened to be pro-British) equally fruitlessly. Marragon promptly demanded a meeting of the Hamburg senat the next day. The city elders could not reach any conclusion. Pro-British senators questioned the identities of Tandy and Blackwell. If their identities were false, the argument went, the British had every right to extradite them.
The international situation was changing and Hamburg seemed about to find itself on the front-line in renewed hostilities. Britain would regard a refusal to hand over the prisoners as an excuse for war. France would resist this by taking Cuxhaven, Russian troops were poised to occupy nearby Holstein, Prussia would take Hanover and, all in all, Hamburg would suffer greatly for the imprisonment of two Irishmen.
The senat’s indecision was compounded by rising anti-British public opinion in the city. The French consul was concerned that the British would become impatient and attempt a double cross by ‘springing’ Tandy and Blackwell from jail and tricking them onto an English ship. Suspecting a trick, Tandy kept his nerve and refused to rise to the temptation to escape. Stalemate resulted.
Months passed. British pressure increased and finally in Autumn 1799 the Hamburg senat agreed to the extradition of the Irish. They were taken to London. The French were furious and imposed an Atlantic embargo on Hamburg’s ships. What made this more serious was that the Directory had fallen and the French government’s voice was now that of general Napoleon Bonaparte.
Bonaparte gave the Hamburg senators a piece of his mind and foreign minister Talleyrand warned the British that the whole prisoner exchange programme would be jeopardised and Britain’s reputation would be permanently stained if the commissions held by Blackwell and Tandy were not respected.
The British were highly irritated by all this and shipped Tandy off to Dublin. Despite a trial for treason carrying the death sentence the Lord Lieutenant, Cornwallis, was instructed not to carry it out.
Tandy claimed the protection of the court on a technicality and was acquitted. He was promptly rearrested and taken to Lifford Jail to face charges for his treasonable activities in Donegal. He was found guilty and sentenced to die on 4 May 1801.
It was hoped that Tandy would incriminate his comrades and possibly accept conditions for mercy which would compromise his reputation amongst his associates. Despite months in prison, the Hamburg extradition, two trials and a death sentence Tandy did not weaken.
The British government, realising that his exchange was all that impeded peace with France, ordered Cornwallis to arrange for him to be quietly shipped over to France. He arrived in Bordeaux on the 14 March 1802. On the 24th the Peace of Amiens was signed in London.
Britain had hoped that Tandy would be more or less ignored in France but they were wrong. French propaganda made the most of Tandy’s arrival in Bordeaux. A brilliant dinner was organised to welcome him and he was immediately paid 6000 livres as army pay due to him. He was honoured with a military parade and Bonaparte personally awarded him the pension of a full general, 6000 livres.
He was very comfortably placed as a result. The only restriction was that he was not permitted to travel to Paris. Bonaparte wished to keep him away from the capital where some of his old adversaries, including Crawfurd, were now in residence.
Ostensibly, he was kept quite busy working on a scheme to invade Louisiana -- a cover for an new invasion of Ireland. But Tandy died on 24th August 1803, some two months before Robert Emmet’s attack on Dublin castle and there was no new French invasion.
Tandy was given a huge funeral in Bordeaux. His companions were quietly released and made their way to France. Tandy then slips from history which is an undeserved fate for such a colourful, brave and committed United Irishman and patriot.
Had he been of a higher social class, and perhaps more charismatic, he would be better known. As it was, only the French were prepared to support him -- for their own reasons, of course. In the end they generously provided for him, recognising his qualities in a way that others did not, and have not since.
Connolly Association, c/o RMT, Unity House, 39 Chalton Street, London, NW1 1JD
Copyright © 2002 Ian McKeane