Marie Jean Paul Joseph Roche Yves Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, the famous Frenchman who became an American general, had a pet project during the American Revolution. It never came to fruition, but if it had, it could have been a game-changer in European history. He wanted to launch an invasion of Ireland, and eventually England, bringing the American Revolution to Europe. Lafayette has often been called “the hero of two worlds,” referring to the United States and France, but this plan could have extended that to Ireland as well, an island with a long history of failed rebellion against English rule. He would go on to be a supporter of Irish independence movements throughout his public life, and one cannot help but wonder what impact this plan had on those decisions. He would have used the French military for the invasion, creating a two-front war for the British that would hopefully bring a swift end to the conflict. Ultimately, the plans fell through and were abandoned, the idea never being seen as overly practical. But it was one that was vigorously pursued by the Marquis, with an extensive number of letters written advocating for and planning the attack. This is the story of that plan, with the details gathered from those letters. It is a story in correspondence.
The year was 1779 during a year-long stay in France that Lafayette hatched his idea to invade Ireland. It first appears in his writings in a letter to the Comte de Maurepas, an advisor to the king of France, dated March 14, 1779. Writing from Paris, Lafayette had recently returned to his home country and was committed to gaining support for the American cause. This plan of his was a part of a greater one to weaken England and bring the war directly to it. He wrote of an invasion of England by sea that, “the risks . . . are much diminished by the possibility either of rounding Scotland or of returning by way of the Irish Channel or, better yet, by making the grand tour of that island.” It was already becoming clear that any conflict directly involving England could get Ireland involved as well. Therefore, it would make sense to purse an invasion of the island. Lafayette knew that there were advantages to be had there, specifically in the people.
In the same letter he noted that they must be prepared to handle the inhabitants of the island with respect. They could be of great use. He wrote of the importance of “treating the inhabitants in a manner appropriate to their character; by knowing their language, their prejudices, their passions, and their customs; by distinguishing from the rest of Ireland . . . the four Presbyterian counties that are more disposed toward the Americans; finally, with some aplomb and the right approach, it would perhaps be possible to sound out their dispositions.” The Irish could be of use to their plan, though they would have to take note that not all Irish thought the same. Religion was a concern, a story that is far from unique in Ireland. But the seeds had been planted. Lafayette was officially discussing an invasion of Ireland.
He brought up his grand plan to Benjamin Franklin in a letter dated March 22, 1779, saying that “it is certain that the Coasts of England & Scotland are extremely open & defenceless.” It was too good an opportunity, and Ireland was involved as well. In another letter to Maurepas, in which he also expressed joy that Franklin was on board with the plan after they had met in person, Lafayette also made an interesting point. There were Irish soldiers and officers already in the French army, a result of the failed Jacobite revolt in Ireland a century earlier. Naturally, one would think that they would be obvious candidates to be part of the invading force, having the opportunity to become conquering heroes. But Lafayette would have none of it. He wrote that “I would be very much annoyed were anyone to think of using Irish soldiers or even Irish officers. Among the many drawbacks . . . I would only mention one here: that this would ruin our affairs with the Protestants and particularly with the Irish Presbyterians without in the least diminishing the indifference of the Catholics.” Lafayette obviously knew that religion was a sensitive issue in Ireland. He thought the presence of Irish soldiers would anger the Presbyterians he already acknowledged were key to success of the mission. Catholics would be more likely to support the plan regardless and if anything was gained from them as a result, it would likely not be enough to counter the damage done. It was a balancing act that Lafayette had to attempt in order to keep the necessary support up if the plan were to be carried out and gives an insight into just how well Lafayette understood the complexities of what he was proposing.
Lafayette apparently felt that planning was going well. In a letter to Franklin dated May 19 from Paris he wrote, “They say Ireland is Rather in Motion; do You think a corps of two thousand men with four thousand spare arms might not Crowd awround them Many lovers of Liberty, and Many ennemies to the English tyrannical government?” This was clearly not a theoretical exercise or a grand, ambitious dream existing in his mind. Clearly, Lafayette was taking this seriously, and apparently others were as well.
Just four days after his letter to Franklin, Lafayette wrote to the Comte de Vergennes. Apparently, they had talked about his idea and Vergennes had made suggestions, which Lafayette made sure to implement. He apparently did not trust the Americans in Paris enough to charge anyone with commissioning these plans except, ironically, Edward Bancroft, later revealed to be a double agent. Lafayette wrote that he convinced Bancroft to undertake the task of going undercover as an English merchant and to embark for “Dublin, Londonderry, and other important places.” The plan was to rile up Revolutionary feelings in Ireland to get the populace involved in the invasion. Once again, Lafayette warned about the risks that religion would pose in Ireland, saying, “It would be very misguided to rely only upon the Catholics in Ireland. After the Revolution has broken out we can make use of them through the Priests.” The goal would be to have Protestants, specifically Presbyterians, in the northern counties of Down, Antrim, Derry, and Donegal, who were friendly to the Americans and in favorable locations, lead the way.
The plan would be to start slowly in bringing the Irish people into the plan. Bancroft was to at first dismiss any ideas of independence and instead focus on “redressing wrongs and bringing the English government back to reason.” Bancroft was to trust only a few people and make no commitments or obligations to them. Benjamin Franklin was still in on the plan as well, and according to Lafayette suggested that Bancroft go through Ostend and meet a strong opposition member of the Irish Parliament. Lafayette did not trust “these fine talkers and parliamentary virtues,” ironic due to his trust in Bancroft, and apparently told Franklin that if he wanted to reach out to this member of Parliament then so be it, but he, Franklin, would have to do it and be as vague as possible in a letter, giving no detail of what they were planning. Lafayette was being so secretive about this operation that even Benjamin Franklin was only on a need-to-know basis and not given the full picture of his plan, with Lafayette urging secrecy to Vergennes.
The next time Ireland comes up in Lafayette’s letters is in one to George Washington, dated June 12, 1779. He mentioned that “Ireland is a good deal tir’d with english tyranny. I in confidence tell you that the scheme of my heart would be to make it as free and independent as America.” This plan was more than a pet project for Lafayette. It seems to have become a dream of his. And he was again concerned about keeping the plan quiet, as he stressed to Washington to keep his plot in confidence. He went on to mention the intelligence work that he was developing in Ireland, and that he hoped to have more news to communicate in the coming weeks.
On July 1 Lafayette wrote again to Vergennes, this time discussing Ireland as part of his broader idea to bring the war to England itself. He mentioned that Bancroft did not think the time was right yet, but hinted that things were moving in the right direction. Bancroft apparently told him that with 2,000 men and someone who was familiar with the landscape and language, Cork, in the south of Ireland, could be captured and destroyed. He said that Bancroft “made me promise to put myself forward for that proposal, but it is enough for me that the ministry knows about it, and I would prefer to wait then for its decision.” He said he would write to Congress on Independence Day about his plans for England, which presumably would include his plans for Ireland. The pieces were slowly but surely seemingly coming into place.
The greater plan was still an invasion of England. While Lafayette loved the idea of liberating Ireland, striking that blow into the British Empire, the ultimate goal was to bring the war to England itself. He brought in William Temple Franklin, the grandson of Benjamin, to be his aide-de-camp for the invasion which Lafayette himself was going to lead. He continued corresponding with higher-ups, plotting the course for the invasion, and gathering support.
Lafayette wrote to Benjamin Franklin on November 2, 1779, describing reports that Irish patriots were beginning to become emboldened and speaking of Independence while Royal influence in the Irish Parliament was beginning to weaken. He went so far as to say that the speeches being given could be mistaken for acts of rebellion! But the cracks in the plot were beginning to show. What was once such a promising idea may not have had the necessary support. He acknowledged in the letter that the plan was still some time away from being put into action, but that he could not help but be happy that such sentiments were being spread, saying that Ireland had suffered enough under the rule of Great Britain. He asked Franklin if he thought the two sides, presumably England and Ireland, could reconcile and also asked, “do you on the contrary entertain hopes that the Revolution will be soon Ripe Enough?” He then asked if Franklin thought they should continue to go with the plans that they began developing that previous summer. Lafayette lamented that he did not like seeing dukes and lords running this rebellion, and shared that he thought “good Presbiterian farmers”—once again bringing Ireland’s religious questions into the conversation—would be better “than all the Noblemen of Ireland.” He clearly had a very particular image of how he wanted things to go. One can start to sense that he was starting to think that a direct invasion was not going to happen, but that maybe the Revolutionary spirit would grip Ireland next.
He was well aware this whole time that the very question Irish independence was quite a delicate issue. He said so in another letter to Franklin in November 1779, referring to it as “the delicate and tiklish affair of irish independency.” He noted that his “military countrymen don’t know how to Manage Republican interests,” highlighting the difficulty in balancing the relationship between these movements and the interests of a French government that was more focused on making England look bad than promoting independence and liberty for colonies. In a letter to John Adams dated February 19, 1780, Lafayette passed along the news that Ireland continued to stir, something he hoped would not end anytime soon. The plan for the invasion was fading away and the focus was instead on trying to keep the Revolutionary spirit up in Ireland.
Ultimately, Lafayette would never lead an invasion of Ireland. As optimistic as so many of the letters between himself and other officials seemed to be, the issue fell by the wayside. Not only would an invasion of Ireland not happen, but neither would an invasion of England. Lafayette returned to America in 1780 to continue fighting there, and would get swept up in the French Revolution in the years after his return home. But he would not forget about Ireland, continuing to support independence movements there, as he would in other countries, for the rest of his life. He was “the Hero of Two Worlds” and for a while, it looked like this moniker could have included Ireland as well.
Lafayette to Comte de Maurepas, March 14, 1779, in Lafayette in the Age of the American Revolution: Selected Letters and Papers, 1776-1790, Volume II, April 10, 1778-March 20, 1780, ed. Stanley J. Idzerda (Ithaca, NY and London: Cornell University Press, 1979), 238-241.