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Irish author uncovers the story of Napoleon’s 'forgotten' Irish Legion

A new historical fiction book looks at the history of the Irish men who fought during the Napoleonic Wars.

An Irish Legion Colour bearer
An Irish Legion Colour bearer
Image: Stephen McGarry

THE HUNDREDS OF Irish men who fought during the Napoleonic Wars have been reimagined in a new historical fiction novel which aims to shed a light on a piece of forgotten history. 

Stephen McGarry, author of Napoleon’s Blackguards, told TheJournal.ie that the Irish men who fought in many of the defining battles in the 18th and early 19th centuries have been long forgotten. He’s hoping his historical fiction book will change that.

While writing his 2013 non-fiction book Irish Brigades Abroad, McGarry accumulated a lot of research on French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s Irish Legion, an actual regiment in the French army.

This Irish unit consisted of former Irish rebels and former Irish Brigade officers. It was originally raised by Napoleon to lead an anticipated invasion of Ireland, but that never came to fruition with most serving in Germany and in Spain.

McGarry’s Napoleon’s Blackguards follows Captain James Ryan who is wanted by the British for his part in the 1798 Irish Rebellion. Ryan flees to France to join the Irish Legion which is led by a band of former Irish rebels. 

While Ryan’s battalion is in Spain, the British arrive to oust the invading French army from the Iberian Peninsula. Among the British is Captain Darkford, who murdered Ryan’s family in Ireland. Heavily outnumbered, the British retreat followed closely by Ryan’s band of Irish renegades who are out for revenge. 

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Rather than writing a straightforward history book, McGarry said he went down the route of historical fiction in an effort to make this piece of forgotten history more interesting for readers, putting them at the centre of events.

Generally speaking, historical fiction laces a good story and introduces the human emotion around the sometimes dry, turgid, historical fact.

He admits to using some creative licence in his writing but says this is essential when it comes to blending actual and imaginary events and characters.

“It’s far easier to tell the truth than to tell a lie when telling a good story. The trick is to base your story and plot lines on real events, and have your characters’ personalities and backgrounds reflect the age,” he said. 

While history books proved invaluable to McGarry during his research, so too did memoirs written by soldiers during the Napoleonic Wars. 

These accounts written from both the French and British sides gave the story from their own point of view. I learned about the common soldier’s fears, their hopes and dreams. They were often hungry and wrote about the importance of good, quality food. Drink also played a very important part. Sometimes, after a difficult campaign or after a long drawn out siege, the troops went on the rampage.

It took McGarry three years to write this novel but he says securing publication was another story altogether.

“It was extremely difficult… for it nearly takes as much time and effort in publishing a book as it does in writing it.”

But McGarry said he wasn’t discouraged by the publishing difficulties. While researching the book he says he found a “healthy appetite” for fiction set during the Napoleonic Wars, particularly from the point of view of the French side. 

“The protagonist is generally portrayed as either a British sailor, cavalryman or soldier. I wanted to present my main character as just an ordinary man, living in an extraordinary time.

“James Ryan is battle-hardened and brave but he’s flawed and struggles with self-doubt and guilt.” 

Stephen McGarry’s Napoleon’s Blackguards is published by Penmore Press

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Adam Daly

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