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James Bartholomew Blackwell

James Blackwell, professional soldier and revolutionary, was born in Barrack Street, Ennis, County Clare around 1765. Records of his year of birth vary between 1763 and 1765. He was committed both to the cause of Irish independence and to France. As a young boy he was sent to France to be educated at the Irish College in Paris. This was thanks to a scholarship provided by his great-uncle, Dr. Bartholomew Murray. He studied medicine until the age of twenty, then, in 1786 he joined the Walsh regiment as a cadet. It appears that he became friendly with such revolutionaries as Danton, Camille and Desmoulins. Colonel Blackwell is credited with leading one of the most successful assaults during the fall of the Bastille in 1789. By 1792 he had become Lieutenant in a Hussar regiment. In 1794 he was wounded in a campaign in northern France. Around this time he saved the lives of Colonel Wade and his daughter Sophie. Though from Somerset, they were in France when war broke out with England and were suspected of involvement with the enemy. James Blackwell was interpreter at their trial and shortly afterwards he married Sophie.

These were eventful times in Paris. Wolfe Tone arrived there in 1796 to organise military aid for Ireland. Colonel Blackwell took part in two French expeditions to Ireland along with Wolfe Tone and Napper Tandy. The first expedition in 1796, under General Hoche, was wrecked in a storm off Bantry Bay and the second in 1798 surrendered to British naval forces off the coast of Donegal. On their return journey to France, Tandy and Blackwell were arrested in Hamburg. They were extradited to Ireland and Blackwell spent the next two years in Kilmainham Gaol. Following some political intervention he was released and returned to France in 1802. Over four million francs was paid in compensation by the City of Hamburg to the French government, under a threat by Napoleon. In 1803 Blackwell joined Napoleon’s Irish Legion but left in 1804 after a serious disagreement between officers. He took part in the Prussian campaign and survived, though he was wounded in 1806 and again in 1807. He held staff appointments for the rest of the war, and during the Saxon Campaign of 1813 he contracted the illness from which he later died. James Blackwell was one of the most honoured of the Irish Legion officers. His honours include; Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur, Officier de la Legion d’Honneur, Chevalier de St. Louis, Officier de la Royal Legion d’Honneur and Lieutenant du Roi a la Petite Pierre. In 1816 he was appointed Military Governor in Alsace. Unfortunately, he was, by then, in bad health and suffering from a tubercular problem. He later retired to Paris and died there in 1820 or 1825. He is buried in the cemetery of Pere Lachaise. According to the archives of the cemetery, however, his grave no longer exists as it was reused because of total neglect. Though his career was cut short by illness, and he never achieved a superior rank, he is one of the few Irishmen to have held the ranks of Chef d’Escadron (Lt. Col. Cavalry) and Chef de Bataillon (Lt. Col. Infantry).

Descendants of the Blackwell family are still to be found in Ennistymon, County Clare.

Clare County Library would like to thank Nicholas Dunne-Lynch for information supplied in the compilation of this article.

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