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Picture: The Battle of the Boyne by Jan Wyck circa 1693

An unusual situation - my ancestor moved to France to continue fighting after his father Christopher the O'Meighan was killed at the Battle of the Boyne. His son Guillaume born in 1721 in France married a French woman Charlotte Therese Boitel. Guillaume died in 1766 and his widow and infant son Jean Joseph joined the rest of Christopher's family in Kilcoran, just west of  Cahir in County Tipperary. Either Jean Joseph or his son Robert moved to nearby Castletownroche in County Cork because neither of them would have inherited the Kilcoran farm. I am descended from Guillaume, Jean Joseph, and Robert. Very unusual for a family to return to Ireland like this at that time once they had left. Plus see the end of the story to see why I am lucky to be here writing this.

This is the story

My Ireland Heritage (by Way of France)

We Irish have survived through wars, famines, and many other trials and tribulations. But I would like to write of a few very unusual happenings in the lives of my Meehan ancestors as I traced their history, leading up to my grandfather, John Joseph Mehigan who emigrated to America in 1886.

In my research I have discovered some thirty-eight variations in the name Meehan, which is the Irish clan O'Miadhachain. By way of introduction I have traced my ancestors back to St. Molaise, a Meehan and the patron saint of the Meehans, but more directly to Nicholas the O’Meighan.  Nicholas commanded the Army of O’Rourke in the Rising of the 1640’s under Owen Roe O’Neill. He also fought in the siege of the Manorhamilton castle to overthrow the treacherous overlord Sir Frederic Hamilton who had a nasty habit of hanging a “Papist” each day before breakfast. Nicolas’ son Christopher (born about 1637) married Margarita O’Reilly (daughter of Hugh O'Reilly of Meath, granddaughter of the Baron of Dunsany, niece of Owen Roe O'Neill, and grandniece of Myles "the Slasher" O'Reilly) and they had five sons - James Anthony (1675), Charles (1676), Rourke (1680), Patrick Molaise (1683), and William Alexander (1685).

Christopher was an officer in the O’Gara Regiment of the army of James II and was killed near Yellow Ford at the Battle of the Boyne on July 12, 1690. After the battle Christopher’s two oldest sons went to France and kept fighting. James (now Jacques) served with distinction in French armies.

Christopher’s widow, Margarita O’Reilly and the three youngest children moved from the Ballaghmeehan (now Rossinver) area of County Leitrim to a farm called Kilcoran, just west of Cahir in County Tipperary, which had been purchased for them by a family friend. James married Elizabeth Russell. One of their children was Guillaume Alexandre de Mehegan, a noted professor, writer, and political activist. This is his story.


Guillaume Alexandre de Mehegan

For reasons I will explain, I believe Guillaume is the ancestor of the Castletownroche Mehigans and my direct ancestor. He was a writer, a scholar, and a political activist who as we will see even ended up serving some time in the Bastille.

Guillaume became famous as a writer and historian. He served as Professor of French at University of Copenhagen in Denmark. He was reportedly given to flowing language and lofty vocabulary in his writing and speech (something I see in my own children and grandchildren). As an influential intellectual writer in France (probably comparable to William Buckley in 20th Century America), it is interesting to note that Chevalier Guillaume de Mehegan focused his literary eye on cultural topics, such as art, women's education, religion, decadence & idolatry, and history. Reportedly the nouveau chic Parisians did not appreciate his viewpoint. And thirty years after his writings, the French nation launched one of the most hideous assaults on civilization to that point in human history. Three volumes authored by Guillaume de Mehegan were the first books ordered by Thomas Jefferson for his library, which is now housed at the University of Virginia.

Guillaume was sent to The Bastille in 1752 for his book Zoroastre which Inspector D’Hémery, Surrette Police, described as an “atrocious libelle against religion, which he dedicated to M. Toussaint”.

From The Bastille by Denis Bingham (1909) pp139-142

CHAPTER V. 1750 RESSEGUIER — ABBE MEHEGAN — LA BEAUMELLE — MILON— DAMIENS— FRERON— ABBE DE FORGES

Among the other Abbes arrested at this epoch was the Abbe Mehegan, who appears to have been a rather dissolute ecclesiastic.

D'HEMERY TO BERRYER. " 12th August, 1751. "

I have the honour to inform you that I have arrested the Abbe Mehegan and taken him to the Bastille, in virtue of an anticipated order of the King of the 8th June last. The Commissioner de Rochebrune first of all examined his papers, but found nothing suspicious. This Abbe has, however, acknowledged that he is the author of Zoroastre; he lodged in the Rue de Vaugirard at the house of the widow le Roux. On the 14th August the Abbe wrote a long letter to Berryer in which he explained the circumstances under which his crime was committed. He was dining out, and the conversation fell upon Zoroaster, who was terribly ill-treated. The Abbe defended him, asserting that he had followed the natural religion, the only light capable of guiding him in the absence of the torch of revelation. "I was flattered, and asked to put what I had said in writing." The Abbe then gave an account of how he had laboured for twenty-four hours at his work, and how he was seized with a vertigo of vanity on hearing it applauded. The pamphlet, he said, was printed without his authority; but he admitted having corrected the proof sheets. The Abbe thus concluded a most piteous appeal to be released: "While waiting to appear before you, I hope you will deign to give orders so that I may have a comb, a barber, and some historical works to while away this fearful solitude."

Abbe Mehegan

"Good," wrote the Major of the Bastille on this letter. LANGUET, ARCHBISHOP OF SENS, TO BERRYER. " Sens, 31st August, 1751.

"Madame de Mehegan, (presumably Elizabeth Russel) who inhabits this town, has learned that her son was committed to the Bastille ten or twelve days ago. I believe that the Bastille, like Paris, is under your department. She implores my influence not to demand the release of her son, but, through you, to request H.M. to keep him there until she can take measures to pay his debts; he is very disorderly in his conduct as well as in his writings, as he receives a pension of 1000 livres from the Bishopric of St. Claude. I venture to send you this petition on the demand of a mother who, although very noble and virtuous, has the misfortune to have so wild a son. . . ."A year later Madame Mehegan herself wrote to Berryer, saying: "I have learned with as much pain as surprise that you think of releasing my son shortly from the Bastille. He has no doubt got some of his friends to intercede with you; but permit a mother who has done everything for him, and who has been repaid with the basest ingratitude, who has been plunged into grief and overwhelmed with insults, that it would be well for him to make a more lengthened sojourn in the Bastille in order to give him leisure to reflect on his evil ways." And the mother of the prisoner went on to give a long list of the ill deeds of her son, who, she said, was degraded in body and mind, who sought bad company, who was lost to all sense of decency, and who had ruined her. "Should you release him," she added, "I am not in a position to support him, nor my daughter. I have been obliged to furnish a small room with straw chairs and a little linen." And in fact the poor lady showed that she had been reduced to the most lamentable straits, and she begged hard that the Abbe might be kept in durance vile until the month of February, when some money would be due to him. The Abbe was released on the 18th February, 1753, and we know not what became of him afterwards.

Following is a 19th century French biography of Guillaume as translated from the French original by my daughter, Carole Meehan.

MÉHÉGAN (GUILLAUME – ALEXANDRE DE) (William Alexander), from an Irish family that came to France during the reign of King James II (1685-1689), born in La Salle, diocese of Alais, in 1721.  Devoted entirely to the literary culture, he was called early to Denmark to teach French Literature in the position founded in Copenhagen by King Frederick V; he published a leaflet for an educational class, 1751, and the discussions that he uttered at the start of his lessons, in-4.  He did not delay in going back to France, where he was one of the collaborators on the Journal Encyclopédique.  He wrote a large number of other works. The events of which he wrote were considered under a philosophical point of view, in their moral influence, and were described in a style whose elegant precision leaves nothing to be desired if a luxury of flowery expressions and sought-after images doesn’t give him a tedious brilliance.  This flaw is also more apparent in the other works of Méhégan: his own discussions were not exempt – they looked too much like his books.  On the contrary, in his verse there was more imagination, more color: he only knew how to write poetry if it was in prose and then only when he had to.  The critiques didn’t spare him, but they took it out less on the faults in his manners then on his opinions.  The opinions which he expressed were attacked by various journalists, became the subject of a sharp quarrel between him and Fréron, and led him to being thrown in to the Bastille.  Moreover, Méhégan’s opinions have become indifferent today; he is no longer regarded as a simple literary man and one who never reached the full extent of his talent.  Michel Berr appraised him in a Notice inserted in the Memoirs of the Academy at Nancy.  Méhégan died in Paris on January 23, 1766.

In 1763 Guillaume married another writer, Charlotte Therese Boitel, and they had a son, Jean Joseph. After Guillaume’s death on January 23, 1766, Charlotte and the infant Jean Joseph joined the rest of the family at Kilcoran.

A more contemporary biography, included in the 1779 translation of Tableau de l’histoire moderne, depuis la chute de l’Empire d’Occident jusqu’à la paix de Westphalie by T. Fox is:

WILLIAM ALEXANDER DE MEHEGAN was born at Salle, in Cevenes, in the year 1721. He was son to Sir James Mehegan. Bart., governor of Salle, and lady Elizabeth Russell, both descended from noble and ancient families of Ireland.

Their ancestors had been always zealously attached to the House of Stuart; their descendants adhering to the same family, took refuge in France, when James II sought an asylum in that country. They devoted themselves to the service of the French monarch, obtained considerable preferment, and were decorated with such honorary marks of favour, as are usually bestowed on merit and valour.

The person here recorded was of too delicate a habit of body to pursue the footsteps of his ancestors; he therefore left the career of military glory to his brother, and courted the more peaceful honours of literature. Eloquence became his favourite study. His common conversation was so florid, that it had all the appearance of being studied.

Frederick V, king of Denmark, having founded a lecture for the French language in the year 1751, Mr. de Mehegan composed an oration on the adoption of the arts, which was delivered at Copenhagen at the opening of the public lectures there.

In 1755, he published remarks on the revolutions of the arts, and a small volume of fugitive pieces in verse. These poetic compositions exhibit a new example of the limits that separate the arts which seem to be most closely connected, such as eloquence and poetry. That elegance, so familiar to Mr. de Mehegan, even in iris ordinary conversation is not to be found in his verses, though some of them are not deficient in merit. He was born for prose, and his natural taste soon induced him to return to it.

His memoirs of the Marchioness of Terville and the letters of Aspasia, made their appearance in 1756. The style of their two productions seems to have an air of stiffness and affectation, a fault into which Mr. de Mehegan was generally apt to fall. His nature so far resembled art, that it appeared even in the sound of his voice.

He had cultivated eloquence from his earliest youth, a season at which it is difficult to resist the seductive charms of florid and pompous images. Riches of elocution, harmony and brilliant figures equally belong to the rhetorician and orator.

The style of Mr. de Mehegan wanted only maturity, and that it actually acquired as he advanced in years. That was seen in the production he gave in 1759 on The Origin, Progress and Fall of Idolatry. But the improvement was still more conspicuously displayed in his View of Modern History, printed in three volumes in 1766. Ile died the 23rd of January of the same year, before the book was published. It was however received with universal approbation. The merits of the performance are, however, equal to the success.

Mr. de Mehegan had the passion for glory natural to exalted minds, hut his sensibility was rather too great in that particular. He had the weakness to make a serious reply to the gross criticisms of a journalist when he might have more effectually humbled by silent contempt.

We are indebted for those anecdotes of Mr. de Mehegan to his widow, a lady who, by her mental endowments, justly merited the tender and constant attention of a worthy husband, whose affection terminated only with life. (Interesting comment on Charlotte, who appears to be the source of this biography. I would guess the original French version of this was written before she and Jean Joseph left for Kilcoran the same year Guillaume died.)

Now Ireland Roman Catholic church records from 1766 until the early 1800’s are not available. But starting in 1812 we find baptisms and marriages of Mehigans in the Castletownroche parish of County Cork, specifically in the townland of Ballygrillihan. (Mehigans, several of whom I have met, still live there today.) Here we find Robert Mehigan and his wife Julia Keefe. Castletownroche is just twenty miles south of Kilcoran. There are a number of reasons I believe Robert (a common French name of the time but not an Irish one) is the son of Jean Joseph, the clincher being, as I discovered on my first trip to Ireland in 2008 that the family name is pronounced Me-HEY-gen, which is the FRENCH pronunciation. Also because of other children already born in Kilcoran Jean Joseph would not have inherited Kilcoran and it is logical that he would move to other nearby fertile pastures.  Robert’s great grandson, my grandfather, was also named John Joseph. He emigrated to Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1886.

Thus my Irish ancestry included a side trip to France. Fortunately my ancestor Guillaume did not lose his head in The Bastille or I would not be writing this.

 

 

Additional Information
Date of Birth 1721  
Date of Death 21st Jan 1766  
Father (First Name/s and Surname) Jacques de Mehegan  

Comments

  • I would really like to get in touch with the author if at all possible? My family have lived in an area 12 miles from the battle of the Boyne site since the late 1600's. Our family name going back to 1721 was meighan (can been seen on the family gravestone in Dromin County Louth) but was anglicised to meehan later in the 1700's. 

    Saturday 16th May 2020, 08:47AM
  • Please email me at remeehan@mindspring.com and I'll send you all I have written on this family. I've been to the Ballymeighan/Eossinver/Manorhamilton area several times staying at the Bluebell B&B in Manorhamilton run by Aidan and Kathleen Meehan. Happy hunting cousin. Bob Meehan Dunwoody Georgia USA

    remeehan

    Saturday 16th May 2020, 02:39PM