An officer and a gentleman - how Arthur French spared bloodshed in Enniscorthy in 1916
Colonel George Arthur French was the right man to end the Rising in Enniscorthy, his grandson tells our reporter
Published 25/02/2016 | 02:30
With its thousands of casualties and city centre devastation, Easter week 1916 in Dublin underlines the brutal truth that most conflicts are remembered in direct proportion to the scale of human suffering they entail.
In that light, events in the capital overshadowed the simultaneous rising in Enniscorthy, Co Wexford that concluded in a far less bloody manner. That it did not end in carnage was in large part due to the humane actions of a local farmer and retired British army colonel who found himself recalled to service in response to the Rising.
Famously immortalised as a key site of the 1798 rebellion, County Wexford rose again in Easter week when local units of the Irish Volunteers took control of Enniscorthy. It was in these potentially explosive circumstances that retired Colonel George Arthur French (1864-1950) received a telegraph from the British War Office instructing him to take command of crown forces in the model county.
Looking back on the events of that fateful week, his grandson Arthur recalls that Colonel French had settled back in the family seat in Newbay after retiring from the army. Considered too old for active service when war broke out in 1914, that changed when the Enniscorthy Rising occurred.
For five days, hopes of victory had been high as 1,000 volunteers mobilised throughout the county. But as the British authorities prepared their response, the potential for heavy loss of life was very real. Another commander might easily have razed Enniscorthy in retaliation, but Colonel French is said to have treated the rebels with courtesy. Crucially, he arranged a military escort for Captains Seamus Doyle and Sean Etchingham to visit Padraig Pearse in Arbour Hill Barracks, Dublin and return with his written order to surrender.
On May 1 1916, Colonel French received their unconditional surrender in Enniscorthy and over the following days 375 people were arrested in Co Wexford, many of whom were subsequently detained in prisons in England and Wales.
"Possibly because he was Irish, and a Wexford man through and through, he was favourably disposed to the people in his community, and they to him," says Arthur.
It's said there were up to 2,000 Crown troops under Colonel French's command, but according to Arthur, it didn't start out that way.
"He had only a handful of cadets from the local army, no more than grown-up boys, but by the end of the week reinforcements arrived as the War Office had promised.
"More were likely on the way and George knew he had to act fast. Had some hardline English commander been in his position, I have no doubt he would have knocked the whole place flat. But my grandfather didn't want to see Enniscorthy blown sky high - he lived there; this was his own community - so he reached a gentlemen's solution with the Irish Volunteers.
"It also helped that the people conducting the Rising in Enniscorthy were well organised. If as a military officer you're dealing with a riot with no visible person in charge, negotiation is impossible. But these were people George Arthur clearly felt he could reason with. They had a chain of command and took responsibility for their actions."
Coming from a long line of military officers, it's not surprising that Arthur also made a career in the British Army. He joined the Royal Irish Fusiliers in 1954 - "I wouldn't consider any other regiment!" - and his first posting was to Kenya. The army life clearly gave him an understanding of his grandfather's actions in 1916.
"I'm enormously proud of him, because he saved bloodshed in Enniscorthy, not to mention the needless destruction of property. Above all, he was a good, honest, decent man.
"He organised a British Legion parade for the soldiers returning at the end of the war, many of whom had fought at the Somme. It must have been very difficult for them when they came back to a changed Ireland, in which many were not well received."
The French family's lineage dates back to the Normans who landed at Bannow Bay, Co Wexford, under the command of Robert Fitz-Stephen.
"My grandmother's family, the Jefferies, migrated from Wexford to South America after 1798. Having done quite well for themselves in Montevideo, Uruguay, her parents returned with a herd of cattle and bought Newbay House in 1869. Annie Elizabeth (Koten) remained in Uruguay for another 20 years before coming to Ireland. She married my grandfather George Arthur in 1899 and Newbay House passed into the French family."
Arthur spent holidays there as a child - his mother had taken her children to Scotland at the outbreak of World War II, and he went from there to school in England - but although he settled in Hampshire, he doesn't consider himself English.
"I'm neither English or Anglo-Irish. In fact, I've got no English blood whatsoever. My mother's family was entirely from Scotland and my father's entirely from Ireland, so I'm half-Irish, half-Scots."
"The Easter Rising was too early in terms of achieving independence for Ireland, so it ended up being a bit of a shambles, but it had to happen," he says. "It was just ahead of its time."