The 11th of October 2020 marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Orléans, in which eighteen brave Irishmen defended a French town from a relentless Prussian attack. They have been airbrushed out of European history but now, for the first time, Eugene Dunphy tells their story.
The French parliament was outraged when Otto von Bismarck announced his intention to expand the Prussian empire. Seeing it as a threat to the stability of Europe, on the 19th of July 1870 France declared war on Prussia, present day Germany.
Just over a month later, on the 22nd of August, the French parliament sanctioned the creation of the 5th Battalion of La Légion Etrangère (the French Foreign Legion), a new corps under the command of Commandant Victor-Joseph Arago, nephew of mathematician and astronomer, François Arago.
Consisting of approximately 1500 men, the 5th was made up of recruits from Poland, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, Italy, Spain and Serbia. The Irishmen who joined were actually committing an offence by flouting the British Foreign Enlistment Act of 1870, which prohibited all British subjects from joining armies of countries not at war with Britain, France and Prussia included.
The Act certainly did not deter twenty-six-year-old Edmond O’Donovan, from the North Strand in Dublin. As a matter of fact, he saw France’s difficulty as his opportunity to show the British government that Ireland could also be an independent republic, just like France.
Edmond was the son of John O’Donovan, a topographer, linguist, and latterly Chair of Irish at Queen’s College Belfast. Having completed his education at Belvedere College, Edmond studied medicine at Trinity College Dublin, but his strong leanings towards Irish nationalism resulted in him leaving third-level education in his early twenties, and joining the Fenian movement.
In early 1867 he was arrested in Limerick, found guilty of the illegal possession of arms, and sentenced to six months imprisonment in Limerick Gaol. Released in October of that year, he was arrested again in November and incarcerated at first in Kilmainham, then in Mountjoy. Released on the 20th of May 1868, he was ordered to leave Ireland, escorted to Cork by members of the Royal Irish Constabulary, put on a ship bound for America, and told never to return.
But his stay in the US did not last long. Within months he returned to Europe, settled in Paris, and joined the 5th Battalion under the name ‘Donovan Elliot’. While in the Latin Quarter of the French capital, he met up with seventeen other like-minded Irishmen, all of whom wished to show their appreciation to France for assisting Ireland during the United Irishmen rebellion of 1798.