One of the leaders of those who stormed the Bastille in Paris in 1789 was Joseph Kavanagh from Carlow. However some records also say that he was from Clare, others that he was a native of Ferns in County Wexford and still others that he was of Irish extraction living in Lille, France. Kavanagh was working as a cobbler in Lille just over 200km north of Paris near the Belgian border. He moved to Paris shortly before the outbreak of the revolution.
By 1787 France had a growing population and had been hit by poor harvests during the previous few years. It had a budget deficit following its involvement in the American war of independence. The bourgeoisie and the peasants felt excluded from the political system and the French monarchy was unable to adapt to the changing circumstances. In 1788 there were crop failures in many parts of France leading to food shortages and further rises in food prices. The finance minister Joseph Necker who had tried to introduce reforms and was generally trusted by the people was dismissed on July 11th 1789. His dismissal combined with reports of troops being assembled outside Paris led to insurrection in the capital.
Groups of militia were organised and Joseph Kavanagh was appointed leader of one of those groups. In order to obtain arms Kavanagh and others led their militia to the Bastille which was regarded as a symbol of royal tyranny. They stormed the bastille and released the six prisoners being held there. Following the victory he was honoured as a hero. He was the subject of a contemporary pamphlet ‘Les Exploits Glorieux du celebre Cavanagh’ which stated: ‘the nation should not leave forgotten this brave patriot who so influenced the course of events on July 14 and surely determined in large part the fate of the Bastille, the taking of which was becoming very difficult, to say the least’. One of those released from the Bastille was Francis Xavier Whyte who was born Dublin in 1730 and had served in the French army. However on the night of his release he stole a horse belonging to a citizen who had given him shelter and he was promptly returned to custody.
Joseph Kavanagh later became an influential police officer. He served during what became known as the Terror. He was one of those involved in the massacre carried out at La Force Prison in 1792 during which some Irish prisoners were murdered. Following the fall of Robespierre on July 27th 1794 and his execution the following day those who had taken part in the Terror were arrested. Joseph Kavanagh seems to have escaped arrest as his name does not appear on any list and he disappeared from circulation.
The storming of the Bastille took place in the year 1789 On This Day.
Bastille Day Celebrations, 1889 by Marine Corps Archives & Special Collections on 2009-08-24 09:31:51
Image taken from page 27 of ‘A Franczia rémuralom torténete a legujabb forások felhasználásával
Photo by The British Library