With Humbert’s defeat at Ballinamuck, another moment had arrived where the British government in Ireland could dare to hope that the fires of rebellion had been stamped out in 1798. The news of Nelson’s victory over Napoleon at the Battle of the Nile also arrived around that time, the source of much celebrating throughout Britain and Ireland, the once undefeatable Corsican shown up by the might of royal sea power. But there yet remained one more action of note to fight that year, to prevent the rebellion from bursting back into life again. But unlike everything else that had occurred in Ireland so far in 1798, this battle would take place on the sea.
Before that, there was one other brief French landing. On the 16th of September, nine days after Humbert’s defeat, the French corvette Anacreon, carrying noted United Irishman Napper Tandy and 270 French soldiers, with arms and supplies for many more, landed at Arranmore, Donegal, having managed to dodge a British naval blockade around Dunkirk two weeks before. The force did little more than seize the local post office and hand out proclamations and pamphlets to largely uninterested locals. When the rumours abounding of Humbert’s failure were confirmed, Tandy, who had arrived home with calls for victory or death, reluctantly abandoned his mission and set sail for France. Captured by the British en route, he was found guilty of treason but avoided a death sentence, possibly on the personal intervention of Napoleon. Released into a French exile, he died in 1803, his name memorialised ever after to perhaps a greater degree than his actual deeds deserved.
They would be the last French soldiers to land on Irish soil – ever, as it turned out – but there was one more expedition still on its way, the Brest fleet under Jean-Baptiste-Francois Bompart, an American War veteran, that had departed France on the same day as the Anacreon’s landing. Consisting of the ship of the line Hoche – named after one of the leaders of the failed Expedition d’Irlande – and nine additional frigates, the fleet carried 3’000 men in total, and aimed for a landing on the north-west coast.
The fleet was too big to avoid the notice of ceaseless Royal Navy patrols around French ports and the English Channel, and the Admiralty was soon well aware of Bompart’s mission. Pursued relentlessly, Bompart was delayed in the voyage, trying desperately to throw off the British ships on his tail, feinting towards other French ports and out into the Atlantic, before turning for the north-west of Ireland, finally getting to within sight of the coast on the 10th of October, near Tory Island, off Donegal. The general aim was to land troops in the Lough Swilly area, with hopes that Humbert’s army would be on hand to assist. This, of course, was not to be, but Bompart did not know that.
The plan went to pieces when Bompart caught sight of a large British fleet racing towards him, under the overall command of Admiral John Boirlase Warren, an officer who had gained much fame earlier in the war for his raids on the French coast, and who now found himself the man on the spot when it came to the seaborne defence of the Irish coastline. Having gathered additional ships to join his own squadron, Warren held a decisive advantage in the number of craft he could employ, and Bompart was painfully aware that his own ships, loaded down with men and supplies, were not as fast as they could have been.
Bompart made for open water, Warren close behind him, an engagement initially delayed due to gale-force winds that affected both fleets. On the morning of the 12th, Bompart realised that he could not run any longer, with British ships closing in on all directions, and he ordered his own ships to form into battle lines. The engagement was brief enough for sea battles of the time, lasting only a few hours. The Hoche was forced to sustain fire from a veritable queue of opposing warships, with the racking attacks of the HMS Robust being particularly damaging, the two engaged in close quarters combat. The Hoche managed to give almost as good as it got from the Robust: among the officers engaged was Wolfe Tone, travelling in a French ship again in the hope of bringing revolution back to his native land. But the resistance was ultimately futile, with the HMS Magnaime, Ethalion, Melampus and Amelia all adding more fire to the conflagration engulfing the Hoche, with the French frigates unable to properly defend the flagship. After a few hours of desperate resistance, Bompart was obliged to strike his colours and surrender, having lost over 250 men on his ship alone. He allegedly offered Tone the chance to transfer to a frigate and avoid capture, but Tone refused, believing, or just hoping, that his French commission would save his life.
The other frigates broke and scattered, seeking to escape the net, but the British was thorough in the chase. Four additional ships were added to the captive list with the Hoche, which would sail again in British service, as the suitably re-named HMS Donegal. In the days that followed, the Royal Navy pursuit was maintained, and the French command was obliged to send out additional ships just to try and shepherd survivors of the Tory Island action back to safe ports. In the end, only three frigates would make it back safely: the rest fell into British hands, a significant naval victory that proved the final end of the rebellion in 1798. The French lost seven ships, nearly two and a half thousand men captured and 700 killed, in exchange for which Warren accounted 150 dead on his own side.
When the Hoche was taken into Buncrana, Tone was readily identified among the prisoners, and was subsequently charged with treason. He made no effort to defend himself in his trial, which took place in November. While he asserted his regrets for some aspects of the violence that had engulfed the country over the past five months, he unequivocally declared both his opposition to “British tyranny” and his willingness to use force to overthrow the same. Knowing his fate, Tone requested execution by firing squad, a more honourable way of dying, associated with soldiery, than the scaffold. The request was denied. Tone was determined to die on his own terms, and attempted suicide in prison by slitting his throat. The wound failed to kill him before medical attention was supplied: physically unable for his scheduled hanging, Tone lingered in great pain for over a week before finally expiring on the 19th of November.
In terms of his larger historical legacy, it is fair to say that Tone is easily spoken of in the same breath as Pearse, Connolly, Collins and De Valera, as one of the pre-eminent Irish revolutionaries. He is often erroneously considered to have been the leader of the United Irishmen, and the directing power of the 1798 rebellion. But notwithstanding his constant and sterling efforts to get French military power to land in Ireland, efforts wherein he twice put himself at great personal risk and eventually was captured and executed, his practical accomplishments in the pursuit of Irish freedom were limited. It is in his eloquent writings, his aim for an Irish nationalist movement that transcended sectarian divisions and his never-ending commitment to the fight against the British administration of Ireland that he has fostered a place in historical remembrance as the progenitor of modern Irish republicanism. Tone’s example – more in word than in deed, but they were powerful words – would inspire many in the centuries to come.
The rebellion of 1798 was over. Its death toll, so wrapped up in massacre, atrocity and legalised brutality towards civilians, is difficult to ascertain with any great accuracy. The number of rebel deaths, in combination with civilians, could be anywhere from 10’000 to 50’000, which dwarf government losses of roughly 1’500. Large parts of the country remained essentially unaffected, especially Munster, but substantial areas of the south-east coast would be counting the cost in lives and destruction for decades to come.
And yet still, the fighting begun by the United Irishmen was not over. In the tradition of wood-kernes, Tories and rapparee’s, members of the group and the rebel armies would remain in arms past 1798, dedicated to a guerrilla struggle against their enemies, that will form the subject for the next entry.
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