By Brian McCabe (issue 5506)
The storming of the infamous Bastille prison by the citizens of Paris on 14th July, 1789, was, undoubtedly, one of the most dramatic and iconic events in – not just European – but in world history. That act of heroism (or despair) constituted the first act in what to become known as the French Revolution.
In the months and weeks leading up to the attack, Paris had been a city in turmoil and uproar. For years, unemployment in the city had been rife. Poverty was widespread and even food was becoming increasingly scarce. Gangs were now starting to roam the streets, stealing from food shops and bakeries.
Each day which passed saw the hatred growing between the rich and the poor in the troubled city. Increasingly, the disaffected populace blamed their plight on the King and his out-of-touch advisers and Court. This was best illustrated by his queen, Marie Antoinette, whose reputed advice to those who were unable to get bread, to “eat cake” has, notoriously, echoed down the years since.
In addition to the rising anger of the people, the intrigues of the ‘Orleanist’ faction, who were plotting to put the Duke of Orleans, Philippe ‘Egalite’, on the throne, were fanning the flames of discontent and spreading rumours that the royal troops, quartered at Versailles and other points outside the city, were awaiting the order to move in and massacre the citizens.
On Sunday, 12th July, things took another turn for the worse when the the news spread that Necker, one of the few popular Ministers in the King’s cabinet, had been dismissed.
That evening saw tumultuous scenes in the streets of the city. Gunsmiths’ houses were raided and arms seized, wine taverns were looted, while brigands began to rob any well-to-do passersby.
On the following day, 13th of July, the disorder continued and, early in the afternoon, the representatives of the sixty municipal districts came together to devise measures for the protection of property and for the defence of the city against a possible attack by the royal troops.
Those who gathered clamoured for arms, while another anxious crowd filled the gardens of the nearby Palais Royal.
At the latter assembly, it was proposed that six citizens should be selected to proceed to the Hotel de Ville and impress on the representatives there, the urgent need for the establishment of some sort of National guard to protect the ordinary people.
At this point, one Joseph Kavanagh, a Wexfordman who had, apparently, moved some time previously from Lille to Paris to carry on his trade of bootmaker, was one of the six selected for the purpose.
On arrival at the Hotel de Ville, the deputation was informed that the representatives had just passed a decree enjoining the citizens to proceed at once to the churches of the various districts, each of which was to raise 200 volunteers as the nucleus of a citizen army.
The deputies returned to the Palais Royal with the news, and the large assembly at once broke up and proceeded to the different churches. Kavanagh, realising the urgent need for arms for the people and bringing with him a small group of citizens, then went to the guard house of the Tulleries and demanded the weapons stored there. On being informed that the place contained none, he insisted on searching it and the result was that twenty four guns were discovered, hidden away under mattresses. By evening time, patrols of the newly formed citizen guards, some of them armed, succeeded in restoring some order in the streets.
The morning of the fateful 14th July was ushered in by the ringing of bells from Notre Dame and all the church towers of Paris. Accompanied by some French Guards, Kavanagh made his way to Saint Marguerite, where he found the people in consternation on foot of a rumour that four royal regiments were marching in from Carrieres.
Leaving the guards to defend the barriers, Kavanagh commandeered a horse and carriage. Picking two men to accompany him, they drove quickly in through the city streets, waving their hats and shouting “To the Bastille! Let us take the Bastille!”
Stopping only to erect barricades, and spread the rumour, they drove on to the Hotel de Ville and found there an immense gathering, seething with excitement. The clamour for arms was renewed and the huge crowd, including Kavanagh, started for the Hotel des Invalides where, it was said, 30,000 muskets were stored. Having secured these, they hurried on to the Bastille.
For four hours, the attack on the hated and ill-fated fortress continued, until it eventually fell, late in the afternoon, to the determined assault of the people of Paris. The rest, as they say, is history!