The story of Napoleon’s Irish horse

Posted on: 5th November, 2018

Category: The History Corner

Contributor: Shane Daly

Shane Daly is a History Graduate from University College Cork, with a BAM in History and an MA in Irish History.

Napoleon Bonaparte is a man that essentially does not need an introduction. However, I’m going to give you a brief one for the purposes of this story. He was a French statesman and French military leader. He is part of our education system and taught to us in school because he was a successful one. He was the Emperor of France, Napoleon dominated Europe and global affairs for more than a decade. He led France during a series of coalitions during the Napoleonic Wars. He won the majority of these battles and in the process built a large empire that ruled over continental Europe. He is considered to be one of the greatest military commanders in history. His wars and campaigns are studied in military schools worldwide. He fought at the Battle of Waterloo, the Battle of Borodino, the Battle of Austerlitz, the battle of Trafalgar, the Battle of the Pyramids and the Battle of Marengo to name but a few. Many of these battles are well-known but what is much less known is that he fought in these battles on a horse that was bought in Buttevant County Cork.

Cahirmee horse fair is an annual event and is one of Ireland’s oldest horse fairs. It has a lineage that stretches back to the days of Brian Boru. It is steeped in history and it attracts thousands of visitors each year. Just over 200 years ago, Napoleon needed a warhorse and Cahirmee had just that. A grey Arabian horse. Napoleon purchased the horse and had it transported to France. Marengo is also a word used to describe a particular shade of grey. Very similar to the coat of his new purchase, which gave rise to the horse’s name. He rode the horse in the aforementioned battles and named the Battle of Marengo in honour of his horse, as it had performed so valiantly.

Marengo, even though long gone, has not fought his last battle yet. There are two ongoing disputes in Cork at present involving the infamous war horse.

Fianna Fáil councillor Bernard Moynihan is of the opinion that returning the remains of Marengo to Buttevant would be a fantastic revenue generator for the North Cork town and boost tourism levels. Anyone who has driven through Buttevant recently might argue that there isn’t enough room for the horse, but that’s a different story for another day.

Speaking to Patricia Messenger on a local radio station Mr. Moynihan said; “The horse Marengo, I have it from several local historians, that we should get this horse back to Buttevant where it was originally sold at the famous Cahirmee Fair. It’s not a far-fetched idea. It’s something I’ve thought through. It has potential for the north Cork area and for tourism.”

However, there are two obstacles standing in councillor Moynihan’s path. The first is that the remains of Marengo currently reside in Chelsea, London at the National Army Museum. They have grown fond of Marengo and would like him to continue his tenancy there. Secondly there has been a rival claim from another North Cork village as to the correct purchase point of the war horse. Residents of Bartlemy, a village essentially around the corner from Buttevant has also laid claim to ownership of Napoleon’s horse. They too would like to wrestle his remains from the Army Museum in Chelsea.

So confident are the people of Bartlemy of being the rightful heirs to the remains, that singer-songwriter John Spillane has penned a song in Marengo’s honour. I include this song below. Marengo is said to have carried Napoleon into famous battles such as the Battle of Waterloo. The horse survived the colds of Moscow, and survived the French retreat from Russia in 1812. Marengo was wounded eight times in battle but lived to be 38-years-old and is believed to be the horse immortalised in paintings such as Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David.

It has also been argued that Napoleon acquired the horse during his campaign between the years 1798 and 1801 in Egypt and Syria. Which is more plausible? You can draw your own conclusions.

The Ballad of Marengo

Napoleon went a riding on his lovely white mare

That was bought for five shillings at Bartlemy Fair

Broken-hearted I’ll wander, Broken-hearted I’ll remain

Since my bonny light horseman

In the wars he was slain.

Since Boney went riding

His Arabian mare,

That was bought for five shillings

At Bartlemy Fair

Napoleon commanded his army to stand

He raised up his banners, so gayly and grand

He levelled his cannons all over the plain

And my bonny light horseman

In the wars he was slain

Marengo, Marengo

The Arabian mare,

That was sold for five shillings

At Bartlemy Fair.

Marengo was but a foaleen she pranced and then she danced

From Ballyreidy to Ballinterry then she set sail for France

In the forge down in Bluebell, she received her first shoe

Her hames and her traces, all shining and new.

Marengo, Marengo

You shining white mare

That was sold for five shillings

At Bartlemy Fair

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