Byrne, Miles (1780–1862), United Irishman, French army officer, and author, was born 20 March 1780 at Ballylusk, Monaseed, Co. Wexford, the eldest son of Patrick Byrne, a middling catholic farmer, and Mary (née Graham). He joined the United Irishmen in the spring of 1797, and although only 17 became one of the organisation's most active agents in north Wexford. When rebellion engulfed his home district on 27 May 1798, Byrne assumed command of the local Monaseed corps and rallied them at Fr John Murphy's (qv) camp on Carrigrew Hill (3 June). They fought at the rebel victory at Tubberneering (4 June) and the unsuccessful attempt to capture Arklow five days later. After the dispersal of the main rebel camp at Vinegar Hill (21 June) Byrne accompanied Murphy to Kilkenny but began the retreat to Wexford four days later. Heavily attacked at Scollagh Gap, Byrne was one of a minority of survivors who spurned the proffered amnesty and joined the rebel forces in the Wicklow mountains. He was absent when the main force defeated a cavalry column at Ballyellis on 30 June, but protected the wounded who were left in Glenmalure when the rebels launched a foray into the midlands the following week. Byrne took charge of the Wexfordmen who regained the mountains and fought a series of minor actions in the autumn and winter of 1798 under the militant Wicklow leader Joseph Holt (qv). On 10 November he seized an opportunity to escape into Dublin city, where he worked as a timber-yard clerk with his half-brother Edward Kennedy.
Byrne was introduced to Robert Emmet (qv) in late 1802 and immediately became a prominent figure in his insurrection plot. He was intended to command the many Wexford residents of the city during the planned rising of 1803. On 23 July 1803 he assembled a body of rebels at the city quays, which dispersed once news was received that the rising had miscarried. At Emmet's request, he escaped to Bordeaux in August 1803 and made his way to Paris to inform Thomas Addis Emmet (qv) and William James MacNeven (qv) of the failed insurrection. In his Paris diary, the older Emmet recalls passing on ‘the news brought by the messenger’ to Napoleon Bonaparte's military advisors. Byrne enlisted in the newly-formed Irish Legion in December 1803 as a sub-lieutenant and was promoted to lieutenant in 1804, but only saw garrison duty. The regiment eventually moved to the Low Countries, and was renamed the 3rd Foreign Regiment in 1808, the year Byrne was promoted to captain. He campaigned in Spain until 1812, participating in counter-insurgency against Spanish guerillas. Byrne fought in Napoleon's last battles, and was appointed Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur on 18 June 1813. With Napoleon's defeat in 1815, the former Irish Legion, with its undistinguished and somewhat unfortunate history, was disbanded. Though a supporter of Napoleon during the Hundred Days, Byrne had not been involved in his return, yet he was included in an exclusion order from France which he successfully appealed. In November 1816, he swore the oath of loyalty to the now Royal Order of the Legion of Honour, and became a naturalised French subject by royal decree on 20 August 1817. Byrne became a half-pay captain but was recalled for active service in 1828, and served as a staff officer in the French expeditionary force in Morea in support of Greek independence (1828–1830). His conduct on this campaign led to his promotion as chef de bataillon (lieutenant-colonel) of the 56th Infantry Regiment in 1830. After five years service in garrisons around France, including counter-insurgency duty in Brittany, Byrne retired from the army in 1835. On 24 December 1835, he married an Irishwoman, Frances (‘Fanny’) Horner, at the British Embassy Chapel in Paris. They lived in modest circumstances in various parts of Paris and remained childless. Though it is unclear when Byrne was awarded the Chevalier de St Louis, having initially applied for it unsuccessfully in 1821, this distinction is mentioned in his tomb inscription, under his Legion of Honour. John Mitchel (qv), who visited him regularly in Paris in the late 1850s, recalled Byrne sporting the rosette of the Médaille de Sainte Hélène, awarded in 1857 to surviving veterans of Napoleon's campaigns.
An early list of Irish Legion officers described Byrne as an upright and disciplined man, with little formal instruction but aspiring to improve himself. He became fully fluent in French, but also learned Spanish and his language skills were a useful asset in various campaigns. Because of his suspected Bonapartist leanings, Byrne was under police surveillance for some time after the Bourbon restoration. He did however cultivate a wide social circle in Paris over the years. Various references throughout his writings testify to an inquisitive and cultured mind. Byrne had intended publishing a lengthy criticism of Gustave de Beaumont's (qv) Irlande, sociale, politique et religieuse (1840), claiming that it misrepresented the 1798 rebellion, but he withdrew it after meeting the author, not wishing to prejudice the reception of such an important French work on ‘the sufferings of Ireland’. A lifelong nationalist, Byrne acted as Paris correspondent of the Nation in the 1840s and was a well-known figure in the Irish community there. He worked in the 1850s on his notably unapologetic and candid Memoirs, an early and significant contribution to the Irish literature of exile. This autobiography was acclaimed by nationalists when published posthumously by his wife in 1863, and a French translation swiftly followed in 1864. Byrne's detailed testimony of key battles of the 1798 rebellion in the south-east and Emmet's conspiracy are written with the immediacy of an eye-witness, and make them an invaluable contribution to that period of Irish history. He died 24 January 1862 in Paris, and was buried in Montmartre cemetery. On 25 November 1865 John Martin (qv) wrote of him: ‘In truth he was a beautiful example of those natures that never grow old. A finer, nobler, gentler, kindlier, gayer, sunnier nature never was than his, and to the last he had the brightness and quickness and cheeriness of youth’ (NLI MS 3042, p. 1373).
Byrne's engaging and dispassionate Memoirs have ensured his special status among Irish nationalists. Because of his longevity he is the only United Irishman to have been photographed. His wife had sketched him in profile in middle age (reproduced in the Memoirs), and the photograph taken almost three decades later shows the same, strong features though those of a frail, but dignified man of 79 years.