Luke Brennan: Can You Hear The Women Sing?


From top: The women of Paris march to Versailles by by Valentine Cameron Prinsep, 1894; Luke Brennan

Could a song change the world?

One without lyrics, just the banging of a marching drum?

Could it take down a monarchy? Could it cause the beheading of Kings and Queens, while thrusting a cold blade into the dark heart of imperialism?

This week, I read about a young woman who seemed to change the world more than anyone I have ever heard of. I stumbled upon it, reading through letters from an Eighteenth century visitor to Dublin Castle.

An antecedent of mine, Sir John Hasler, who I wrote about here previously (his house in Dalkey now stands as the Queens Pub, which I was glad to hear has now been restored to normal service with a new owner) had been engaged as Gentleman Usher in Dublin Castle.

If there was a ball at Dublin castle, he arranged it. If a visiting Lord arrived, he would tend to their Lady. In this case, in 1773, the visitor was Viscountess Nuneham, daughter in law of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland at the time, the Earl Harcourt.

The Earl Harcourt seemed like a decent skin, he proposed a 10% levy on absentee landlords, which was Ireland’s biggest problem at the time (other than the obvious occupation by a foreign power, but I will come back to that) he served his time in Ireland, then died shortly after by falling down his own well.

His son married his first cousin, which seems like the genetic equivalent of falling down your own well. It seems strange by today’s standards, to marry your cousin, but Charles Darwin did it; if anyone should have known better, it must have been him.

The reasons people marry their cousins tend to be driven by a desire to hold on to family wealth, of titles, or prestige, of a sort. It seems to be what people did with their time before they had Quake or Instagram. It ties in with something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently, Imperialism.

Was Imperialism some sort of mind-virus ponzi scheme that people got sucked into for a few centuries? It seems to have been. A lot of things seemed to be acceptable, which, were, let’s say “not cool”, I say, in the understatement of the millennium.

But anyway, I digress. The interesting thing I found, was a little later in Vicountess Nunehum’s correspondences, in October 1789 she wrote to her husband to give him the bare facts of the French Revolution. She was employed at this stage as a lady of the Queen’s bedchamber, so was on daily speaking terms with the British King and Queen. She writes:

“The accounts from France are very bad ; whether they may get immediately into the newspapers I do not know, and therefore will repeat to you what the King told me.

“When any new Regiment comes to Versailles the Gardes du Corps always make an entertainment for them. Upon the arrival of the Regiment de Flandre, a few days since, this custom was observed, and in a moment of pleasure they threw away the National Cockades, and put on black ones. It is supposed that no objection was made by the King to this proceeding, and it was soon known at Paris.

The next morning more than three thousand women, armed with such offensive weapons as they could collect, marched to Versailles and attacked les Gardes du Corps, who fired upon them and killed four; the confusion soon became general, and the King and Queen were carried off to Paris and lodged in the Tuilleries, unaired and unprepared as it was for their reception.

This is all that was known when the account came away. The King and Queen are wholly at the mercy of the mob, and no one knows what will be their fate. La Fayette would have interceded for them, and only saved his own life by agreeing to what the many headed monster proposed.”

Now, a few things surprise me about this account. Firstly, it doesn’t seem to be the central events of the French revolution as has trickled down to me. My knowledge goes something like this…food riots, storming of the Bastille, beheading of the King and Queen, Liberté, égalité, fraternité. Vive la France. My knowledge of the french revolution is quite limited, I did see the film version of “Les Misérables”, and was under the impression it was about the Revolution. However, that misunderstanding is more to do with my inability to understand musicals than French or history.

You can see in the account above which side our Lady is clearly on, the many headed monster of the third estate (the 98% of the population who had less voting rights than the 2% in power) was attempting to take away the system which kept them in such splendid and entitled surroundings.

She goes on in her letter to say that the King does not seem too worried, he continued to go on a scheduled hunt regardless of the news from France. The implication here, is that the game is up, that the days of monarchies are over, but the king is acting coyly. I am surprised to find that more that 200 years later, history has not yet caught up the British Royal Family.

When I think of imperialism, colonialism’s cousin, I also think of Imperial leather, Imperial soap, or any other adjunct to the British Empire. I’ve been thinking about the 53 countries colonised by Britain. I can’t make out whether the British empire is an extremely well run company, or the world’s most efficient killing machine. Or maybe both.

Regardless, the empire leads back to the monarchy, who seem, for some reason, to be getting away with it. 200 years ago they were grateful they were not being pulled out in the streets and hung. Yet somehow, they seemed to brushed it off as a wobble in perception and got back to enjoying a reality somewhere outside the realms of what seems reasonable. One would think that a truly democratic world would mean this can no longer exist. Checks and balances please universe? Karma?

How and ever. I have a feeling that the central truth in the modern democratic world we are aiming for was born in France during the revolution, possibly forged, or perhaps glimpsed at for the first time. It’s to do with liberty, fraternity and equality. This is the next step past the imperialist monarchist past, into a better future. They say history is written by the victors. I’m not sure if that is why this episode, this march of 3000 women has not yet found it’s way into the central narrative of this bigger than French revolution.

But have a look and get to know this story, it does have a Wikipedia page. What happened in Paris in October 1789 was that in the midst of great hunger, with bread prices rising, a young woman started to beat a marching drum at the edge of a group of market-women and refused to stop. More women joined her.

They then forced a nearby church to toll their bells. The numbers grew, so they began to march. With the bells from several church-towers ringing in, women from more local marketplaces joined them.

They gathered kitchen-blades and home-made weapons, marching on towards the Hotel de Ville, where they demanded not only bread, but arms. The crowd had swelled to as many as ten thousand. Newly supplied, they decided to march through the driving rain, to Versaille.

As they left, thousands of National Guardsmen were intended to block their path, but such was the crowd’s energy, the guardsmen were convinced to join with them, in returning the King to Paris. On arrival, there was many attempts to calm the crowd, but they would not be distracted from their intention. There were skirmishes, attempts to storm Versailles, Marie Antoinette at one point sent barefoot from her room, chased by intruders.

In the end the King left Versailles, it denuded him of his royalist collaborators and he remained in Paris as a virtual prisoner until his execution.

As to whether it was worth it? banging that marching drum?

Too early to tell.

Luke Brennan is an Ireland born, Portugal-based writer and entrepreneur and regularly appears on Broadsheet on the Telly

Painting via Mary Evans Picture Library

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