Oh, if these false teeth could only talk, the tales they could tell us about the glory days of the Wild Geese in France and the end of that era during the French Revolution. The teeth were discovered still in the mouth of their owner in a London churchyard during a recent excavation for a new Eurostar terminus. They belonged to Arthur Richard Dillon (1721-1806), a member of that most renowned of Wild Geese families in France. He was a famous ecclesiastic in France, and the son of one of the first famous Dillons in France, the Honorable Arthur Dillon, who led the first Dillon’s regiment to serve with the famed Irish Brigade in France.
The elder Arthur Dillon was born in Roscommon in 1670. He led his regiment to France in 1690 – though he was not yet twenty years old - as part of the brigade commanded by Justin MacCarthy (Lord Mountcashel). He would serve France until 1730, fighting in Spain, Italy, and Germany, and his sons would serve France through the Revolution sixty years later. Dillon's regiment fought on the American side at the Seige of Savannah during the American Revolution.
(Right: the flag of Dillon's Regiment)
Arthur had five sons, with Arthur Richard, owner of the false teeth, being the youngest, born in St. Germain-en-Laye in 1721. The first four sons were all soldiers and served in the Irish Brigade, with the two eldest eventually returning to Ireland to take possession of the family estates. The third and fourth, James and Edward, would both die in command of the family regiment, with James dying in command at that most famous of all battles of the Irish Brigade, the victory at Fontenoy in 1745.
Arthur Richard followed that second likely route of influential Irish families of the day: the priesthood. When his brother James died leading his regiment to victory at Fontenoy, Arthur was the recipient of royal beneficence in return as Louis XV arranged to have Arthur appointed Vicar-general of Pontoise. He rose steadily in the Church thereafter, becoming Bishop of Evreux in 1753 and then Archbishop of Toulaouse in 1758.
Like many of the high Church officials in France in that time, Arthur was perhaps more absorbed with temporal matters than he was religious. He was active in promoting the improvement of road, bridges, canals and other public works. He became a leading figure at the court of Louis XVI and was described by his relative, the Countess de Boigne, as “more gay than episcopal.”
At some point during these years his teeth failed him and he acquired the porcelain dentures that were recently discovered in London. It is believed that he purchased them from a Parisian dentist named Nicholas De Chemant. Museum of London archaeologist Natasha Powers said: "These unique artefacts reflect a pivotal time in dental history with the adoption of new materials and methods of manufacture.”
(Arthur Richard Dillon, right)
When the French Revolution came, and everyone in France had to choose between loyalty to the royal family or the new state, Dillon remained loyal to the crown. Given the historic connections of his family to that crown, and the favors he had received from them personally, that is easily understood.
Dillon managed to escape the guillotine fate suffered by many of the Wild Geese in post-revolutionary France and made his way to London. There he continued to refuse to accept the reconciliation of the Church with the French government of Napoleon, also refusing the Pope’s order that he resign as Arch-Bishop. He did reconcile with the Church before he died in 1806 and was buried, along with his recently discovered dentures, in St. Pancras graveyard.
More information on Dillon and the Irish Brigade:
Irish Brigade & Dillon's Regiment commemorative items
The Irish Brigade at Cremona
200-Year-Old Dentures Go On Display In London