Belfast in the French Revolution (Book Review)

Belfast in the French Revolution

By Brendan Clifford

Reviewed by Madawc Williams

Whether or not you’re interested in Belfast, you should read this book. It seems that the Belfast newspapers during the time of the Revolution were more interested in French affairs than in Irish affairs, and gave them greater coverage.

The Belfast newspapers are the best contemporary accounts of the matter available in English. As Brendan Clifford mentions, remarkably little of the primary material is available in English. Those of us who do not read French with any great fluency are thus cut off from hearing the leaders of the French Revolution speaking for themselves.

Virtually everything by Marx and by Lenin has been translated, including some very minor works that barely deserved it. Both of them looked back to the French Revolution. Neither of them ever quite defined what they felt about it. And English-speakers have no easy way of finding out for themselves.

Brendan Clifford gives extracts from the Belfast newspapers, which included the first and last English translations of some of the critical debates. He reaches some very interesting conclusions, which I will not attempt to ‘ summarise in this short review. Let me just reprint a quote concerning Napoleon and Robespierre:

“Napoleon, dictating his Memoirs on Saint Helena, was the first to point out the obvious:

“The Emperor … dwelt particularly on Robespierre .. He considered him … as the real scapegoat of the Revolution, sacrificed as soon as he endeavoured to arrest it in its course: the common fate, he observed, of all who before himself (Napoleon) had ventured to take that step.”

The book is available from the Belfast Historical & Educational Association, 33 Athol Street, Belfast, BT12 4GX. It costs £7.50 for 148 printed pages.

Athol Books is now on-line,

This article appeared in May 1989, in Issue 11 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  For more see