Tuesday 24 April 2018

The Kerryman whose plot may have rescued Marie Antoinette

Amateur historian Pat Neligan's new book draws on one Dingle family's extraordinary connection with the French ­revolution that almost led to the much-maligned queen's secreting away to the shores of Ireland

Kirsten Dunst and Jason Schwartzman play the queen and king in film 'Marie Antoinette'
Kirsten Dunst and Jason Schwartzman play the queen and king in film 'Marie Antoinette'
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

A peek at the famous St James's Church will be on the itinerary for many of the thousands of tourists who throng into Dingle, Co Kerry, this weekend for Feile Na Bealtaine.

The little Protestant chapel is renowned for its ghostly atmosphere, richly sonorous acoustics and has seen talents such as Amy Winehouse and John Grant perform in it.

Unbeknownst to many of the revellers who come to the gigs, the church is also part of an extraordinary seam of local history.

The enormous tombs to the back of it contain the now ossified corpses of members of the Rice family, some of whom rose to the pinnacles of French and Austrian society and were involved in a plot to try to rescue Marie Antoinette from the guillotine.

The history of this storied family and the interlinking sagas they became involved in is vividly described in a beautifully written new book by amateur historian Pat Neligan, The Knave of Trumps: The Life and Times of Count James Louis Rice of Dingle, which will be launched today in Dingle. Neligan deftly sketches out how it was that a family from this remote corner of southwest Kerry rose to such heights.

There might be a popular perception that this period in Irish life - the late 1700s - was defined by poor farmers and the faded gentry of the great houses.

The Rice family belonged to another class altogether. They were a Norman family which had established itself during the horrors of the plantations - at least some of the land held by the family came to it through a family connection with Oliver Cromwell. After the Battle of the Boyne, many members of the family emigrated, becoming soldiers, wine merchants and courtiers, serving the Hapsburgs and Bourbons in the Viennese court. The rise of this Catholic middle class was also facilitated in Ireland by the Protestant aristocracy's contempt for commerce.

The Rice family was notably entrepreneurial, not above smuggling, and it survived the turmoil of the era to become a sort of nouveau riche. There were no facilities for educating young Catholics in Ireland in that era, so members of the family were sent away to study. One of these, James Rice, was renowned as a hard-drinking, swashbuckling young man and he served as a cavalry member in the Austrian army.

Austria, in this period, had ended three centuries of war and had begun the Franco-Austrian alliance, which meant marriage between the two royal houses. After the empress's daughter Marie Antoinette had her "proxy" wedding in Vienna, she had to be escorted by soldiers, including Rice, to Versailles for the French portion of the celebration. Rice was more than a mere foot soldier, however. He would win a seat on the Austrian emperor's privy council and was an incorrigible social climber (he later became a count), who was also well known in Paris.

He was there in the 1780s, after his military career was over. By then the yawning gap between rich and poor in the city had led to riots. Tension built through a series of wars, bad harvests and unpopular taxation plans and in 1789 the French revolution came to pass. Initially it didn't look like Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI would be killed but when it emerged he was plotting the reinstatement of the monarchy, attitudes hardened. She had come to be seen as the embodiment of an out-of-touch monarchy, which would now have to pay the price for the turmoil in France.

Louis was separated from his family and it seemed likely that the royal couple would end up on the guillotine. It was during this period that Rice, now a count, was so appalled by the excesses of the revolution that he hatched a plan, probably acting on the appeal of the Austrian emperor, to rescue the much-maligned queen he once guarded.

His knowledge of military matters made him certain that the first part of his plan - to bribe the guards who watched over Marie Antoinette - would succeed. He ensured financing for the grand conspiracy and was joined in the plot by a small group of Irish friends and relatives. He also bribed the editor of a radical French newspaper to become involved. The plan was that the queen would be brought from Paris to Nantes by horse-drawn carriage and from there she would be spirited by ship, under cover of darkness, to the coast of Co Kerry, much like the smuggled French wine had arrived all the decades before.

The Rice house in the town was prepared for her advent. All that remained was for the queen herself to give her blessing. However, although Antoinette knew Rice from his days guarding her and Rice was a personal friend of her brother, she loathed many of the people the Irishman associated with, according to Neligan. In addition, despite the desperation of her situation, she was loathe to leave her family, who would have perished behind her. She refused to go and was executed on October 16, 1793. She was bravely defiant until the end, telling the priest who encouraged her to be courageous: "The moment when my ills are going to end is not the moment my courage is going to fail me."

James Rice might well have met the same fate. However, he fled the turmoil of Paris and moved to London. He became part of the royalist invading force, fighting on the English side in the Anglo-French war. He struggled between his desire for reinstatement of the old monarchy and accepting the republican principles of the new era.

By the late 1790s, he was back in Ireland and settled in Limerick just in time to see the United Irishman risings and the emergence of Daniel O'Connell. Rice's brother Dominick was involved in facing down a constable who tried to disperse a political meeting in Tralee at which it was decided to work to change anti-Catholic laws.

Count Rice would not live to see Home Rule, however. He died in 1801, with his death being reported in national press all over the western world, including Spain, where he was called "the celebrated Count Rice".

In his book, Neligan calls Count Rice "a leading man, who dramatically strutted and fretted his hour upon the stage".

Over the years, the story of the Rice family entered local lore in Dingle and it was said there was a tunnel leading directly from the port in Dingle to the Rice house. In 2010, the Austrian ambassador Dr Walter Hagg unveiled a plaque on the wall of the Rice House on Main Street that paid tribute to the "courageous and brave" Rice.

Neligan's book sheds more light on Count Rice's extraordinary life and times. "He may have been born in a little parish of south-west Kerry, but unusually he became a true citizen of the world", Neligan said.

"He was a fearless adventurer and swashbuckler in an era which produced such men."

The Knave of Trumps: The Life and Times of Count James Louis Rice of Dingle, by Pat Neligan is published by Spa Well Press. It will be launched today in Benners Hotel, Dingle, at 5pm.

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