France commune

Patrick MacMahon, the Irishman who became President of France

The descendants of Patrick MacMahon today operate a French wine estate

*Editor’s note: Peter Garland, MA is the author of the following article on Patrick MacMahon, whose paternal family emigrated to France following the Treaty of Limerick.

Avenue Mac-Mahon, radiating from the Arc de Triomphe, bears the name of Patrick Mac-Mahon, President of the French Republic from 1875 to 1879 – one of the greatest French soldiers, member of a Franco- Irish, former lords of Munster. The MacMahons were wild geese who had resettled in Burgundy.

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Patrick, born in June 1808 at the Château de Sully, attended the French military school of Saint-Cyr. He became a military officer and, in 1830, was one of those who invaded Algeria and seized the city of Algiers.

The handsome Lieutenant Mac-Mahon stands out for his dynamism and his bravery. He receives the cross of the Knights of the Legion of Honor.

Monsieur Fulbert Dumonteilh tells us that Mac-Mahon has the body of a soldier of steel: “His face is soft and calm like an Irish landscape… (Then) We see him pass at a gallop, his sword riveted in his hand; his eye shines… his orders fly like bullets…”

In the summer of 1831, joining the English to repel a Dutch invasion of Belgium, our occupied Franco-Irish received the Cross of the Order of Leopold.

A great expedition is launched against Constantine, the capital of eastern Algeria, where Ahmed Bey ben Mohamed Chérif leads a fierce opposition against the French invaders. Mac-Mahon inspires his Algerian-French troops, receiving a stomach wound from a shell.

The next day he led the assault and appeared first on the ramparts as the French took the city.

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Mac-Mahon in December 1842 was promoted to lieutenant-colonel in the newly formed Foreign Legion.

From 1850, he and his riders carried the French colors to the borders of Morocco.

In 1852, after twenty-seven years of service, including twenty-three in an Algeria burning with incessant battles, Mac-Mahon was promoted to general.

He was recalled from Africa in 1855 to help the French and English fight Russia in the Crimean War.

For so long, Russia has claimed sovereignty over the Black Sea and the Bosphorus. England, joining France, must take Sebastapol, the main Russian naval base in Crimea.

Mac-Mahon is called upon to lead the French attack against a hill at Malakoff. The allies launch a three-pronged assault; MacMahon’s succeeds. Standing on top of the conquered hill, he exposes himself to powerful Russian counter-attacks. Pressed to retire, MacMahon famously replies: “I am there, I am staying there”, “Here I am; here I will stay. He remains, fortunately, discovering in time and having his men cut the wires leading to huge caches of gunpowder with which the Russians intend to blow up the hill.

Sevastopol is taken and the Crimean War is over.

Mac-Mahon is appointed French senator.

He returns to Algeria and completes his conquest.

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Then, in 1859, MacMahon accompanied Napoleon III to fight the Austrian Empire which threatened to invade Sardinia. At the Battle of Magenta, near Milan, Napoleon III was outnumbered but Mac-Mahon, with his Algerian troops, arrived and struck the Austrian flank, forcing them to fall back.

The French win another war. Napoleon III made General Patrick MacMahon Marshal of France and Duke of Magenta (a title still held by his family today).

The French felt they were the undisputed rulers of Europe, but Otto von Bismarck reinforced the Prussian army, including its artillery (the French still relied heavily on cavalry) and developed the railway systems of the German states.

In the Franco-Prussian War which broke out in 1870, MacMahon received constantly contradictory orders from Napoleon III and was defeated, himself seriously injured by the explosion of a German shell at the Battle of Sedan.

His wife, Elizabeth, Duchess of Magenta, flies by his side. Like Cuchulain, he recovers quickly.

Prussia, after having captured Napoleon III, invades France and besieges Paris. The French agree to cede Alsace and Lorraine and pay a colossal indemnity. German troops will withdraw from France as the money is paid.

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The Commune of Paris rebels against these terms and against a French government installed in Versailles. MacMahon suppresses the Commune.

The country remains in chaos between those who lean towards royalty and others who want a republic. Various leaders emerge, all without success.

The French ask Patrick MacMahon to accept the management. He is trusted by almost everyone, with the complete loyalty of the military.

Under his hand, France settles down, reorganizes itself, reimburses the Prussian indemnity two years in advance and resumes a leading role in the world.

Sully Castle

Patrick retired in 1879 to his family’s Château de Sully. Today’s MacMahons have transformed the property in a leading French wine estate.