The Noble Line of the Dillons

Irish Swordsmen of France

Renagh HOLOHAN (The Irish Times)

Uniforme et drapeau du régiment de Dillon en 1689 © BNF
Uniforme et drapeau du régiment de Dillon en 1689

The Dillons were probably the best known of all the Irish families in France in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries because of their continuing pre-eminence in the Irish Brigades, of which they were hereditary commanders and colonels (1).

Mercenary armies were the norm in the Europe of the time. Wealthy or adventurous officers recruited soldiers into regiments which often bore their names. Although these forces were generally raised for a particular purpose and held an allegiance to one state or king, occasionally they switched sides.

The outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 caused great confusion among the Irish regiments, which found themselves in a dilemma as to whether to support the French Crown, whose assistance to the Stuarts had often led them to France in the first place, or the new Republic. Many officers, some taking their regiments with them, went abroad to join the emigre princes and fight for a return of the Bourbons. Others stayed and fought in the armies of the Republic. Some even went so far as to recruit in Ireland for the British army with a view to fighting in Europe against the new French regime. Instead they were sent to the West Indies where they died of disease in their hundreds.

In their early days the Irish Regiments were recruited in Ireland. Later only their officers were Irish or the sons of Irish. Many started in this career when they fought for James II and then found themselves attainted and hopeless after the Boyne and Limerick. Their country was defeated and, even had they cared to, as Catholics they were not permitted to join the British army.

They left Ireland, officers and men, because the Treaty of Limerick gave them that option, as they believed that a Stuart victory would end the terrible penalties imposed on their homeland and introduce religious freedom, and because there was no future for them at home.

The war between the two kings, William and James, for the throne of England, which had been won by William in Ireland, continued on the Continent. When the Stuarts lost again in Europe some Irish continued to fight for them, going to Scotland with Prince Charles Edward and tasting defeat yet again at Culloden. Others took up the standard of the Bourbons. Either way, the great days of the Irish Brigade were practically over in 1791 when the revolutionary powers in France, who distrusted foreigners in general and royalists in particular, disbanded the remnants of a force which after all had started out as a Jacobite army.

The Irish Brigade in France consisted of numerous regiments which changed their names with the change of proprietor. At various stages, and for various lengths of time between 1647 and 1815, the Brigade, which in the early days at least overlapped with the Jacobite army, included the following regiments : York’s, the Earl of Bristol’s, Lord Muskerry’s (MacCarthy), Lord Mountcashel’s (MacCarthy), Lord Clare’s (O’Brien), Viscount Galmoy’s (Butler), Bourke’s, The Duke of Berwick’s (Fitzjames), Dornington’s, Albemarle’s, Sheldon’s, Lee’s, O’Brien’s, Nugent’s, Lally’s, Rothe’s, Bulkeley’s, Walsh’s, Conway’s, and, even after disbandment, O’Connell’s (which fought for England at one stage), O’Moran’s (defeated in Saint Domingue), and the Duc de Feltre’s (Clark) which served under Napoleon. Throughout practically the whole period there was a Dillon Regiment in existence.

The first Irish regiment of the century to go into exile was probably that raised by the Wall brothers of Waterford, who in 1632 took 3000 men to fight for Louis XIII. The brothers, sons of Gerard Wall of Coolnamuck — Michael, Richard, Edmund and Gerard — were all killed in the service of France. A short time later Charles II of England, a refugee on the Continent during the regime of Cromwell, formed an exile army under the protection of the French which included York’s, Bristol’s, Muskerry’s and Dillon’s regiments.

The real history of the Irish Brigade begins in 1688, however, when James II fled from London to France on the advance of his son-in-law, William of Orange, and four years later when Patrick Sarsfield, 1st Earl of Lucan, and defender of Limerick, took 12.000 men to France hoping to eventually gather an army to launch an invasion of Ireland. The terms of surrender allowed the Jacobites who had fought at the Boyne and Limerick to leave the country, and several hundred women and children accompanied them.

There were now two Irish armies in France, Sarsfield’s men fighting for and under James, although paid by the French, and the 20.000-strong Irish Brigade fighting for Louis XIV and divided into three regiments named after their commanders, Lord Mountcashel’s (Justin MacCarthy), Lord Clare’s (Daniel O’Brien), and Arthur Dillon’s.

Most of this second force had come to France under the bizarre arrangement of 1690 whereby Louis XIV sent a 6000-strong veteran army to Ireland under the Count de Lauzun and the same ships left Cork for France with 5000 Irish recruits.

Within five years, however, more than one third of both Irish armies were injured or dead, the planned invasions of Ireland and of England, which many exiles hoped for, had been abandoned, and Sarsfield himself had been killed at the 1693 battle of Landen in the Low Countries, apparently with the words « Would it were for Ireland » on his lips.

William had now won the war on the Continent and at the Treaty of Ryswick of 1697 Louis XVI recognized him as King of England. As a consequence James was no longer allowed to have an army and the Jacobite force was drastically cut back. More or less abandoned by both James and Louis, some of these 12.000 Irish troops, who had arrived so hopefully to fight for the Stuart restoration seven years earlier, were now either absorbed into various French units or, being unemployed, emigrated to fight for other states. The peace did not last long and the War of the Spanish Succession soon presented numerous opportunities for Wild Geese all over Europe. Peter Lacy of Limerick, for example, entered the army of Peter the Great of Russia, fought in Sweden, Poland, the Crimea and Finland, and rose to the rank of field marshal in 1736.

The Irish Brigade, however, continued to fight for France and some regiments distinguished themselves, notably at Cremona in 1701, where Daniel O’Mahony of Dillon’s saved the French army ; at Luzara where several thousand Irishmen died at Blenheim, at Ramillies and at Malplaquet. Four regiments of the Brigade — Dillon’s, Roth’s, Lally’s and Fitzjames’s — fought at Culloden, having been dispatched by Louis. After the defeat they were treated as French rather than as rebels and returned to the Continent.

In 1745, however, the Irish Brigade had its greatest triumph — Fontenoy. The Irish troops are said to have cried, « Cuimhnigidh ar Luimneach agus ar fheile na Sacsanaigh » (Remember Limerick and Saxon faith), as they marched into battle and saved the day. On hearing of the defeat of his son, the Duke of Cumberland, George II is reported to have said, « Cursed be the laws which deprive me of such subjects ».

It is ironic that in these battles which raged across Europe, and now had little or no connection with the Stuart cause, Irishmen in the French army were fighting Irishmen in the imperial army. Casualties were enormous and recruits from Ireland declined dramatically as the Stuarts went from one failure to another and the French executed General Lally. Occasional desertions from the Austrian force filled the gap but with the decline in Jacobite prospects towards the end of the century, only the officers in the brigades tended to be Irish.

Death of General Dillon at Lille - 29 April 1792
Death of General Dillon at Lille – 29 April 1792

In 1756 a regiment of the Irish Brigade was sent to India to protect French interests against the British. Its commander was Thomas Arthur Lally, the French-born son of Sir Gerald Lally of Tullynadala, Co.Galway, whose lands had been confiscated in 1691. Known in France as Lally Tollendal, Lally was first a member of Dillon’s but later formed his own regiment and served with distinction in many battles, including Fontenoy, before being appointed commander-in-chief of the Indian expedition.

Régiment de Lally
Régiment de Lally (1757)

After much initial success he was defeated at Wandiwash and taken captive by the Limerick-born English commander, Eyre Coote, at Pondicherry. Back in France, after a time as a prisoner in England, he was beheaded by the French for having lost them India. The judgment against him was later reversed through the efforts of his son, Trophime Gerard, and the aid of Voltaire.

In 1779 Dillon’s Regiment, with some members of Walsh’s and some French, was sent to the West Indies and to America where they fought well but during this whole period the Brigade was being gradually disbanded. It was dissolved, although other regiments later appeared, by a decree of the National Assembly in 1791- At this stage France was in turmoil and the Brigade itself was split between royalists and republicans.

The story of the Dillons illustrates how many noble Irish families fared during the century. James Dillon of the Dillon family of Costello-Gallen of Cos Mayo and Roscommon, was born in 1600 and left for France with the second flight of Wild Geese after the Cromwellian campaign in Ireland in which he had served on the Irish side. He formed the first Dillon Regiment, rose to the rank of major general in the French force, and fought in the Flanders campaign. His regiment was disbanded when he died in 1664.

His kinsman the 7th Viscount Dillon, Theobald, fought with James II and was outlawed by the English in 1690. His second son, Arthur, who was born in Roscommon in 1670, went as a colonel of a new regiment of Dillon with Lord Mountcashel’s Brigade in 1690. He served in the Spanish, German and Italian campaigns and rose to the rank of commander-in-chief of the army of the Rhine. He was close to the Old Pretender, Jacques III, and involved in several schemes for a Stuart restoration. He was created Comte Dillon by Louis XIV in 1711 and Earl Dillon by the Old Pretender in 1721. He died at the Stuart court in St Germain-en-Laye in 1733.

Arthur left five sons, one of whom, Charles, abandoned France and returned to Ireland when he inherited the estates and title of Lord Dillon from his cousin in 1737. He was succeeded as 11th Viscount by his brother Henry, who also resigned his commission as colonel in the French army. Henry married Lady Charlotte Lee and their son Charles conformed to the Protestant religion and was confirmed as 12th Viscount by the English House of Lords in 1788. This branch of the family lived for several generations in England where they inherited Ditcheley (one of the grandest houses in England, now a centre for Anglo American studies), from the Lees, but they returned to Ireland in the 1950s and lived in Co.Louth until 1983. The present Lord Dillon was born in 1973 and lives in London.

Arthur’s third son, James, was killed at Fontenoy at the head of the Dillon Regiment, and the fourth son, Edward, next colonel of Dillon’s, was killed at Lauffelt two years later. The fifth son was a cleric who became the rich and famous Archbishop of Narbonne, architect of much of the city. Henrietta-Lucy Dillon, Madame de la Tour du Pin, his grand niece, had interesting things to say about his household where she spent much of her youth :

In my earliest years [she writes in her Memoirs] I saw things which might have been expected to warp my mind, pervert my affections, deprave my character and destroy in me every notion of religion and morality. From the age of ten, I heard around me the freest conversations and the expression of the most ungodly principles. Brought up, as I was, in an Archbishop’s house where every rule of religion was broken daily, I was fully aware that my lessons in dogma and doctrine were given no more importance than those in history and geography.

A life-size portrait of the archbishop hangs at Newbridge House, Donabate, Co. Dublin. It came to the Cobbes, owners of Newbridge, several years ago when Isabelle Dillon, aunt of the present Lord Dillon, married into the family.

Arthur, the younger son of Henry, 11th Lord Dillon, and brother to Charles, the 12th Viscount, became colonel and proprietor of the regiment in 1767 when he was only 17 years old. He served in the American War of Independence and in the French West Indies and was elected deputy for Martinique in the National Assembly. He is reputed to have saved France at Valmy in 1792 when the Austrian army was poised to move on Paris.

Although an aristocrat and prominent among those who argued against the execution of Louis XVI, he escaped the early days of the Terror but was arrested in 1794 and brought before the Revolutionary Tribunal. Charged with conspiring against the national safety, attempting to destroy the National Convention and plotting to restore the monarchy by rescuing the Dauphin, he was found guilty and guillotined.

This Arthur Dillon left two daughters. The first, by his marriage to Lucie Rothe of the Kilkenny family who formed Rothe’s Regiment, became the Comtesse de la Tour du Pin and author of the celebrated Memoirs. His second daughter, Fanny, by his marriage to the Comtesse de la Touche, a first cousin of the Empress Josephine, married General Bertrand, one of Napoleon’s officers who accompanied him to St Helena and remained with him until his death.

A relative of these Costello Gallen Dillons, Theobald Dillon, born in Dublin in 1745, emigrated with his family to Orleans when his father’s bank failed. He joined the Dillon Regiment, served in America and reached the rank of general in the French service when the Irish regiment was amalgamated into it. He was murdered by his own troops during a mêlée in Lille in 1792 when panic set in over a report that the Austrian army was advancing.

Meanwhile Theobald’s uncle, Robert Dillon, had set up as a banker in Bordeaux and established himself at Château Dillon, or Terrefour, which he bought in 1753 and where he lived in much splendour for several years. Wine is still produced at the château by the Lycée Agricole de Bordeaux, and while the chais are in full use the château itself is totally abandoned and has been delapidated for some 15 years.

Robert’s son Edward, known as ‘ Le Beau Dillon ‘, was born in Bordeaux in 1751, entered Dillon’s Regiment and saw service in America and the colonies. He frequented the court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, and Richard Hayes reports that his relationship with the doomed queen was rumoured to have been more than platonic. On the outbreak of Revolution he joined the émigré princes abroad and with his brothers tried to form a new Dillon Regiment to fight the republican army, which included the recently disbanded Dillon Regiment, led by his cousin Theobald.

When this attempt failed, Edward Dillon and other royalist Irish officers attempted, with some success, to raise a force in Ireland to serve against France as part of the British army. He commanded this regiment until 1810 and on the Restoration became a French ambassador. He and his two brothers bore the title of comte because their father had been admitted to the French nobility.

Several other Dillons also served in various French armies, including the Earl of Roscommon, the engineer James Vincent Dillon, who built the first Pont des Arts in Paris, and Peter Dillon, who was guillotined by the Revolutionary Tribunal in Nantes.

A privately published history of the Dillons in France has been written by the Marquis de Certaines, whose wife is Bridget Dillon of the Terrefour family. He lists seven noble Dillon houses with French connections. The family of the Lords Dillon of Costello Gallon, descendants of the Jacobite Arthur Dillon who led the regiment to France with Mountcashel in 1690, are Lords Dillon in England and Comtes Dillon in France ; the descendants of the Terrefour Dillons, of Edward ‘ le Beau ‘ Dillon and his brothers, are the Comtes Dillon de France ; the Dillons of Lismullen, Co. Meath, are represented by the Dillon-Cornecks ; the Dillons of Balgeeth are represented by Vicomte Jacques Dillon who lives in Paris ; the Lords of Roscommon have died out, as have the Barons Dillon of Clonbrock.

The Dillon-Cornecks, whose family home is at Château Tellières le Plessis in Orne, west of Paris, are descended from Sarah Millicent Dillon of Lismullen, Co. Meath, a branch of the Roscommon Dillons who married Thomas Corneck of Cornwall in 1815. The Lismullen house was destroyed during the Troubles in Ireland seventy years ago and later partly rebuilt. It is now owned by Opus Dei.

Millicent’s descendant, Robert Dillon-Corneck, lives today with his Australian wife and his daughter in an elegant apartment on the Left Bank in Paris. He has a cottage in Kerry and travels to Ireland frequently. His elder brother, Jacques, lives at Tellières le Plessis.

In the far south of France are other Dillons who are unaware of any connections with the military Dillons. The Baron Patrick Dillon Kavanagh de Feartagh is obviously Irish, with such a name, but his knowledge of his background is scanty. A gentleman farmer and a bachelor, he lives in a rambling old château near Agen, a large town on the Garonne between Bordeaux and Toulouse, with its rooms unchanged since their neo medieval redecoration in the nineteenth century. He is a charming, hospitable, large, Irish-looking man who speaks no English. His brother farms nearby where he lives with his family.

Apart from saying that his ancestor came to France from Ireland at the time of « Mary Stuart », which would indicate an unusual early support for the family, Patrick Dillon Kavanagh de Feartagh knows nothing of his Irish background. Mary Stuart, daughter of James V of Scotland and Mary of Guise, was Queen of France during the short reign of her husband François II (1559- 60) and Queen of Scotland from her birth in 1542 until her son James VI (later James I of England) replaced her. The baron knows his title de Feartagh is Irish (it means ‘ of the mound ‘ and is a common designation) and believes his ancestor first settled at Laval in Mayenne.

The Marquis de Certaines, however, gives a slightly different version. He writes in his family history that Patrick Julian Dillon Kavanagh, Lord de Feartagh, arrived in France at the beginning of the eighteenth century to escape the persecutions of the Catholics in Ireland. Although many of the family papers were destroyed in Ireland and the remainder lost in France during the First World War, the Kavanaghs were ancient kings of Leinster and the genealogist O’Hart thinks, according to de Certaines, that the de Feartaghs could be descended from a Sranch of the family of Sir Moroch Kavanagh who emigrated from Carlow to France after the Boyne in 1690.

In any case Patrick Julian and his wife, who was a Butler, had a son, Arthur (1758-1820), who became commander of the ports for the king. Arthur’s great-grandson, George Arthur, moved to south-west France from Mayenne. He was, his grandson the present baron says, an Olympic champion in fencing and was the representative in France for the Bugatti car company.

The present baron’s mother is Suzanne de Saint-Exupéry and it is through her that the Château d’Arasse came to the Dillon Kavanaghs. Set deep in rolling agricultural land, it has remained untouched for many years. Originally built in 1682, it was burnt during the Revolution and reconstructed in 1847. As the home of the baron’s late grandfather, the Marquis de Saint- Exupéry, whose family acquired it by marriage four generations previously, Saint-Exupéry crests are much in evidence and there is little of the Dillon Kavanaghs to be seen. As in other châteaux in France, many of the walls are decorated with engravings of the French kings.

Coincidently it was at nearby Toulouse that, according to Hayes, the last known sighting of the ancient gold crown of the Kavanaghs occurred. Hayes writes that Nicholas Kavanagh, who was living in Nantes in 1776, whence his father had fled from Carlow after the Williamite confiscations, was regarded in France as the representative of the kings of Leinster. The crown, which the family still possessed, was last seen at an exhibition or museum in Toulouse just before the Revolution. All efforts to trace it have failed.

(1) We express our gratitude to Renagh Holohan and The Lilliput Press for their kind authorisation to publish this extract of : The Irish Châteaux : in search of descendants of the Wild Geese by Renagh Holohan and Jeremy Williams. This essay looks back over centuries of migration between Ireland and France, from the first « flight of the Earls » in 1607 to the present day. Lavishly illustrated with pen-and-ink drawings, the book tells the stories of individual families and their châteaux, which number among the finest buildings in France. Soldiers, slavers, ship-builders, wine-producers, statesmen and entrepreneurs, many have illustrious names and made lasting contributions to their host culture — O’Mahonys, Butlers, Hennessys, O’Neills, Walshs, MacMahons, O’Byrnes, Plunketts, etc. — (order from The Lilliput Press, 4 Rosemount Terrace, Arbour Hill, Dublin 7, Ireland).

Source: Holohan Renagh. The Noble Line of the Dillons, Irish Swordsmen of France. In: Études irlandaises, n°14-2, 1989. pp. 135-142

Persée – The Noble Line of the Dillons, Irish Swordsmen of France, Holohan Renagh, 1989.

Dantonien Journal