Anxiety and defiance as French fleet anchors at Bantry, Co Cork (1796)

There was both great anxiety and defiance across Ireland at the news that French expeditionary fleet had taken anchor in Bantry Bay, Co Cork.

Thursday, 30th December 2021, 10:00 am
The town of Kinsale, Co Cork
The town of Kinsale, Co Cork

One letter from Kinsale, Co Cork, dated December 25, 1796, which had reached the News Letter read: “We are all here in confusion and dread, on account of a report of the French being off our western coast; one time they are really landed, and at another, that they are off either Bantry or Crookhaven.

“Yesterday one of our regiments, the Sligo, marched from this, about about two o’clock, for Bantry; marched in the highest spirits, and desire to meet them. As for my part . . . it does not affect me in the least; for I think it is impossible they could elude the vigilance of our cruizers, being also informed, by judges, that from the winds we have had, they could not attempt this coast without being shipwrecked.

“It is a great blessing, and comfort, that in this little town, we are all unanimous in our wishes for their destruction, and as far as we are able, are determined to oppose them; rich and poor of one sentiment, and on my soul, the declarations of the poor are as sincere and loyal as can be influenced in any town in Ireland. ”

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Cobh, Co Cork

The letter writer from Kinsale added: “We have had the most desperate gale of wind for the whole last night, at S.E. that ever was remembered, which, if they were on our coast, must have dispersed them all. May God, of his His infinite mercy, protect us from them, and that they never may have the power or opportunity of taking from us our Christmas dinners, or any other dinner while England exists.”

The letter concluded: “This moment, twelve o’clock, I have been told an express arrived with an account of . . . six frigates and 48 transports being in Bantry; as yet I do not credit it.”

Meanwhile the News Letter noted that “the daring attempt of the French fleet has produced a spirit of loyalty in the South, which will, we have no doubt, make the invader repent his temerity.”

The News Letter added: “The entire country between Bantry and Cork have offered their services in a mass, the farmers declare their intention of burning all their stock of corn, rather than it should fall into the hands of the enemy.”

Cork City

Some regiments of the line had lately arrived from England, it was reported, these included 1st Fencibles Light Dragoons, commanded by Lord Joceyln, the Roscommon, Armagh, the County Dublin and Galway regiments of militia from Cork and Cobh, the Sligo and Leitrim regiments from Kinsale, the Meath regiment from Youghal, “amounting to nearly 4,00 men, and headed by one of the best officer in the service, Colonel Coote”, had marched “with a degree of courage and zeal to repel the foe”. The Londonderry, Louth and Westmeath Militia were also on the march from Limerick, while the Tyrone Militia, “and several other regiments from various quarters”, were all “in motion towards Cork”. The Downshire Militia had been ordered to Dublin to do garrison duty.

In another letter which had been received by the News Letter from Cork dated December 26, 1796, which read: “Thursday evening an express arrived here, stating that a fleet consisting of 15 sail of large ships, and 70 smaller, were seen off the western coast making for the Bay of Bantry, wind S.E. - next evening another account was received that 13 sail of them had anchored near the mouth of the Bay, not being able to work in, wind N.E. Some hookers that went off were stopped and one which escaped was fired on, the crew made affidavit they were French ships.

“Several corroborating circumstances make it appear, they are an enemy’s squadron; yet many are of [the] opinion they are the fleet expected from Lisbon, the Mediterranean, and the Cape, kept by contrary winds from doubling Cape Clear.”

This letter concluded: “Yesterday evening an account was received of Admiral [George] Elphinstone in the Monarch of 74 guns, and a Dutch frigate being in Crookhaven.”

A further letter on the state of affairs in Cork had been received by the News Letter from Dublin. Dated December 27, 1796, it read: “You have no doubt heard for a French fleet appearing off Bantry in the county of Cork; a fleet was there, and French I believe, consisting of 40 sail of the line, frigates and transports.

“An express arrived here this morning, dated Sunday [Christmas Day, 1796], stating, that on that morning only 10 ships were to be seen, which appeared to be line of battle, and at anchor without the bay about six miles; the remainder supposed to be driven leeward by the violence of the easterly wind.

“On Saturday they sent a lugger to Beer Island [sic], and robbed the poor cottages of cows and sheep, in their usual line of friendship of such occasions.”

The letter from Dublin continued: “The range of loyalty, spirit and zeal, shewn [sic] by the city and county of Cork upon this occasion, from Peasant to the Peer, exceeds anything you can conceive; the entire country have applied to the General and Magistrates, declaring their determination to rise in a mass, and shewing [sic] their great abhorrence of a Frenchman landing in their country.”

The letter concluded: “The Yeomanry of Dublin, 3,500 cavalry and infantry, fully accoutred and disciplined, have offered their services to government to go to an part of the kingdom if required.”