Na Glúnta Rosannacha, a history of the Rosses, meaning The Generations of the Rosses, by Niall O Donaill was written in 1952. One of the historical events it deals with was the 12th October 1798 Battle of Lough Swilly or what is called in the Rosses in Irish Lá An Briseadh Mór/Lá An Briste Mór, meaning the day of the Great Defeat. The French call it La Bateille d’Isle de Toraigh or the battle of Tory Island. It is also referred to as the Bompart Expedition as Jean Baptiste Francois Bompart was the French Naval Commander on that expedition. The French also refer to it as the Third Irish Expedition, the first being Bantry Bay in 1796 and the second being the Texel, Holland in 1797. The Bompart Expedition was an attempt to land a French army numbering 2900 men or thereabouts in Ireland to come to the assistance of the United Irishmen an Irish revolutionary movement at the end of the 1798 Rebellion. It was part of the same Third Irish Expedition as General Humbert and Napper Tandy but Humbert and his Irish allies had already been defeated at Ballinamuck in County Longford a week before the Bompart force sailed and Napper Tandy had gone back to the continent on the Anacreon before the Bompart was on route.
Theobold Wolfe Tone the leader of the United Irishmen had travelled with the Bompart Expedition on the Hoche. General Jean Hardy commanded the French soldiers and Sir John Borlase Warren was the British Naval Commander in charge of the British Fleet on their Flagship “The Canada”. The French squadron had one schooner “La Biche”, a man of war their flagship called “the Hoche”, and seven frigates. L’Hoche was named after Lazard Hoche the leader of the Bantry Bay Expedition of 1796 and the second in command at Texel and the great friend of the revolutionary Irish but by 1798 dead at the age of 28. The English squadron although one less in number had a stronger force being made up of four heavy ships, of men of war class/ships of the line, and four frigates. And, of course, the British were not carrying soldiers whose safety had to be a major concern for Bompart. Often in Na Glúnta detailed and attractive description is used to explain events and happenings. In others such as in the piece below events are dealt with in a purely factual, with a minimum of detail. The battle occurred in a heavy swell and the French Flagship L’ Hoche’s 80 odd canon fire power was reduced since she had to close her lower gun ports to stop the seawater coming in as the heavily laden vessel pitched and plunged in the heavy swell. The French knew they were beaten and implored Wolfe Tone to board their fastest vessel, the schooner Biche, to escape capture and likely execution and thereby live to fight another day. The Biche long, narrow beamed and well clothed with sail, the French believed, could out sail the heavier British ships and could not be caught. And the French were right as the Biche never looked back until she was home in Brest. L’Hoche was captured and towed into Lough Swilly, repaired and became ‘The Donegal’ when sailing under the British flag. It reputedly carried the Duke of Wellington to Spain and the Peninsular Wars and historic immortality. The French Officers were taken to Lord Cavan’s quarters in Buncrana were they were given breakfast. Wolfe Tone was recognised there by Sir George Hills (or his brother according to Sir George Hill), suffered the minor indignity of having to eat alone separate from the other French Officers, then paraded through Derry on horseback in chains and eventually sent to Dublin where he was court martialled for treason and sentenced to death by hanging notwithstanding his remonstration to the Court that he should be shot like a soldier. Tone cut his own throat with a shaving blade (or maybe a penknife according to his son William’s account) on the 11th November 1798 the night before his planned execution in an almost botched attempt at suicide, ‘ I am but a poor anatomist’, to cheat the hangman. He did cheat the noose but died eight days later from his self- inflicted wounds. …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..
- Ag imeacht do Napper Tandy as na Rosa bhí Wolfe Tone ar a bhealach ag teacht. Ach ba seo fear. ‘An mbeidh sé le rá liomsa gur imigh mé nuair a bhí na Francaigh ag troid chatha mo thíre?’ Lá an Bhriste Mhóir ar an Fharraige adúirt sé an focal sin, ar aghaidh na Rosann ó thuaidh.
As Napper Tandy was leaving the Rosses Wolfe Tone was on his way coming. But this was a (great) man. ‘It will never be said to me that I fled leaving Frenchmen fighting for my country’s battle? The day of the Great Defeat on the Sea – he said those words, out north from the Rosses.
- Ar an 12ú Deireadh Fómhair, 1798, troideadh an Briseadh Mór – nó ‘Cath Loch Súilí’ mar thug na Sasanaigh air. Casadh an Hoche agus a mionchúrsóirí ar Chabhlach Loch Súilí an mhaidin sin taobh thiar de Thoraigh, amach go maith san fharraige. Bhí na longa Francacha ag bualadh aniar as an aigeán agus na longa Sasanacha ag cúrsáil anoir. Tháinig an teangmháil leis an lá gheal.
On the 12th October 1798 the Great Defeat was fought – or The Battle of Loch Swilly as the English called. The Hoche and her light frigates met the Lough Swilly Fleet that morning west of Tory Island well out into the sea. The French vessels were coming in west from the ocean and the English vessels were cruising from the east. The engagement occurred at day break.
- Rinneadh míthrácht go minic ar chúrsa an chatha seo. Ar an ábhar sin is cóir a rá nach raibh na cabhlaigh ag béal Loch Súilí nó i mBéal Thoraí in am ar bith den lá. Troideadh dhá aicseán: cath an Hoche ar maidin siar ó Thoraigh, os coinne Chnoc Fola amach: cath na gcúrsóirí tráthnóna siar os coinne Árann.
There has been much misreporting on the course of the battle. For that reason it should be said that at no time were the fleets at the mouth of Lough Swilly or in Tory Sound at any time in the day. There were two actions fought, the battle of the Hoche in the morning west of Tory Island off Knockfola, and the battle of the frigates in the evening to the west off Aranmore.
- Sir John Warren a bhí i gceannas ar longa na Sasana. Nuair a thit sé isteach le scuadrún na Fraince, dúirt sé, bhí na Rosa san aird theas-thiar-theas, cúig léig uaidh. B’ionann sin is go raibh sé tuairim ar chúig mhíle dhéag as Árainn nó Uaigh – ar na hoileáin thiar a bheireadh lucht loingeas na Rosa san am – agus go raibh Toraigh ar a chlíbhord thoir. Tráthnóna lae an bhriste chuir Stiubhart Dhún Fionnachaidh scéala chuig Lord Castlereagh go bhfaca sé cath tréan á throid an mhaidin sin, ‘amach ó Thoraigh,’ ach go raibh na longa comh fada siar i bhfarraige is nár aithin sé na scuadrúin óna chéile le gloine láidir.
Sir John Warren was in command of the English vessels. When he engaged with the French squadron, he said, the Rosses was at a point five leagues to his south west. That was to say that he was approximately 15 miles from Aranmore or Owey, the western islands so called by the seafarers of the Rosses at the time and that Tory was on his eastern gunwale. The evening of the defeat Stewart of Dunfanaghy sent word to Lord Castlereagh that he saw a battle fought that morning, ‘out from Tory Island’ but that the ships were so far out in the sea he could not identify the squadrons from one another with strong glasses.
- An oíche chéanna sin scríobh tuairisceoir in Inis Mhic Duirn cuntas do Faulkner’s Journal ar an bhriseadh. Bhreathnaigh sé féin agus captaen loinge an cath as sean teach solais Árann, dúirt sé. ‘Amach ó Stacaí Uaighe’ a troideadh an chéad aicseán. Bhí gaoth aduaidh ann agus theith na cúrsóirí siar-siar-ndeas. Troideadh cath an tráthnóna os coinne theach an tsolais, fá dhá léig den chladach.
The same evening a reporter wrote from Rutland an account of the defeat for the Faulkner Journal. He said that himself and a sea captain viewed the battle from the old lighthouse on Arranmore. It was out from the Owey Stags the first action was fought. It wind was from the north then and the frigates fled west-south-west. The battle of the evening was fought opposite the lighthouse about two leagues from the shore.
- ‘Bhí lá glan ann agus d’aithin mé gach urchar beagnach dá ndeachaidh i gceann. An méid nach ndeachaigh i gceann chonaic mé iad ag déanamh sciod-ar-uisce san fharraige.’
It was a clear day and I recognised every cannon ball almost that struck the target. The ones that did not hit the target I saw them water skid on the sea.
- Chruinnigh cathlonga na Sasana timpeall ar an Hoche i dtús teangmhála. Chomhraic sí ar feadh na maidne iad, go dtí go raibh a crainn briste, a seolta ina scifleoga, a stiúir caillte, a taobhanna ag tarraingt uisce, a ceithre fichid gunna as gléas, agus a hiomluchtóirí ina ndramhaltach i gcosair chró. Bhí Wolfe Tone i gceannas ar bhataire de na gunnaí. Throid sé, dúradh, mar bheadh sé ag tnúth lena bhás.
The English warships gathered around the Hoche at the beginning of the engagement. She fought them for the duration of the morning, until her masts were broken, her sails in strips, her rudder lost, her beams drawing water, her eighty guns inoperative, and her occupants trampling on a bed of gore. Wolfe Tone was in charge of one of the gun batteries. He fought, it was said, like he courted his death.
- Rinne sé a éacht deireanach ar muir, an mhaidin sin ar shleasbhord na Rosann.
He carried out his last deed on sea, that morning off the shore of the Rosses.
Niall O Donaill’s reference in Na Glúnta Rosannacha to an account in the Freemans Journal, a Dublin newspaper of that time, 1798, was to an account of the battle given by a Joseph Sproule who witnessed the battle from Arranmore Lighthouse then just opened. Sproule owned a large house on Inishcoo Island and another house on Rutland Island. Both islands are off Burtonport. William Tone in his book about his father, the Life of Wolfe Tone, painted a linguistic picture of the French flagship, the Hoche with his father on board, surrounded and gallantly battling against the odds. Although Niall O Donaill used different language to describe the same event I think that he relies heavily on the image crafted by William Tone of the Hoche fighting to the end out from the Donegal’s coast.
There were with Wolfe Tone and the Bompart Expedition at least three other Irishmen and possibly a fourth. William Henry Hamilton was amongst the prisoners and was questioned by the British on suspicion of being Irish but his fluent French and the fact that he wore an ear ring helped to convince them that he was French and he was later released as part of a prisoner exchange. Thomas Corbett was also with the Expedition. He was one of the founders of the United Irishmen in Belfast and was once editor/manager of the United Irish journal the Northern Star. His brother William came to Rutland with James Napper Tandy almost a month earlier. Thomas Corbett passed himself off as French as well and was later exchanged. He had a lucky escape as the temptation to execute him would be very great on the part of the British. He was a very capable man and had a successful career as a French government administrator later, serving first the governments of the revolution and later the governments of the restoration. He was kept on as they say, as all good people should be. A third man with the Expedition was a called McGuire according to William Tone and he was also exchanged. A possible fourth was called Colonel Waldryn. He said when captured that he was the pilot of the Bompart Squadron and that he was an American although the British had their doubts about that. Waldryn may have spent time in America that would allow him to more easily pass for an American but French records of that time noted that he was from County Armagh. He was recommended to the French as a pilot for the expedition by among others Munroe, presumably the American Ambassador to France, because he had a good knowledge of the Donegal Coast. He was not executed either and eventually released with the other under prisoner exchange.
The Bompart Expedition was for the French and their four or five émigré Irlandais a fairly desperate throw of the dice. The main theatre of war for the French was then, in the Autumn of 1798, Egypt where Napoleon Bonapart had headed with his army in late May/June of 1798. Ireland at this point had become a side show of no great importance to the French although they probably felt a moral obligation to help out arising from their earlier encouragement of the Irish to rebel. Had the Bompart Expedition sailed with Humbert and Napper Tandy in May 1798 when the rebellion commenced in Ireland and succeeded in landing it could have had some hope of success. With 2900 men with Bompart/Hardy men with Savary/Humbert, 100 with Blankman/Tandy and 1000 on the second Daniel Savary trip to Killala that never landed, the total of 5100 men might have had sufficient success in establishing a bridge head to have encouraged the French to send the other 9000 men under General Kilmaine that were held in reserve for the Expedition. The Batavian Republic (Holland) that was allied to France also sent two vessels that were captured as well but it is not clear how many men were on board. The failure of the French to coordinate and ensure that the Bompart/Hardy squadron (it sailed from Brest, Brittany on the 16th September 1798) sailed at the same time as Savary/Humbert ships (they sailed from Rochesfort, Charente Marine on the 6th August 1798) and Blankman/Napper Tandy (the Anacreon sailed from Dunkerque 4th September 1798) is difficult to explain without risking being uncharitable to General Humbert in particular. Of the nine French vessels that sailed from Brest only three made it home safely, the schooner Biche already referred to and frigates Semillante and Romaine. The Bellone, Coquille, Immortalité, Résolue, Loire, Embuscade and L’Hoche were captured. The Romaine probably left one of its anchor in Donegal Bay after trying to put men ashore at Mountcharles who it seems refused to disembark, and same is now on the quay there as an historical feature. All in all, the Third Irish Expedition seemed to have been an expensive failure in terms of ships and men for the French. However, the huge French war machine at the time was inured to its casualties, and when compared with the ship losses at the Naval Battle of the Nile 1798 or the deaths and injuries in that battle and in its four year war with the Ottoman Empire, the cost of the Irish Expedition of 1798 at about 600 could be presented as relatively inexpensive. They could lose that number of men, in a morning, on one of their successful days fighting with the Ottoman Empire or its tenacious allies never mind what they would have lost on one of their more disastrous days. If the Bompart Expedition ensured that many tens of thousands of British soldiers and some of British ships were tied down in Ireland for the duration of the war with Britain that could only be to the benefit of France and the Expedition could be justified in those terms. The British lost no vessels although one or two were badly damaged. The British victory off Donegal probably did not get the respect or acclaim it deserved in Britain. The noise of the victory was drowned by news of the competing success of the Horatio Nelson’s naval victory at the Battle of the Nile (1st August 1798). A greater number of French ships and better ships had been captured or destroyed in that battle than was the case in the Bompart Expedition, 13 in all (11 of them ships of the line) as against 6 (one of the line – the Hoche, in the Bompart Expedition). The crowning glory of the British success at the Battle of the Nile was that Napoleon Bonaparte, already for the British the great bogey man of his age, was as a result of the Battle of the Nile stranded in Egypt, locked in a bloody struggle with the Ottoman Empire that he would not lose but could not win. And he had no ships to resupply his army from France or even to allow them withdraw from Egypt. Still, undaunted, the bogey man was nothing if not driven by blind ambition and back to France he duly came the following year without his army. In Niall O Donaill’s account of Lá An Briseadh Mór he borrowed, as I said, extensively from the description of the engagement of the Hoche given in Tones Diaries entries. The British records suggest that British vessels when they engaged the Hoche subjected it to strafing. Strafing involved sailing past the Hoche at an angle from behind so that, initially they the British could bring almost all of their cannon to bear on the stern or aft part of the L’Hoche causing maximum damage as the cannon balls went right through the ship from stern to bows wrecking much and killing and injuring many within. At the same time the Hoche could only bring its few aft guns to bear on its attackers and had to wait until the enemy vessels came more broadside before the full force off the Hoche’s cannon fire could be brought into action.
The battle involving the French frigates was a running one that took place over a considerable distance from the Stags of Owey (Na Stacaí Uaighe) to the Coast of France. The French frigates put up dogged resistance near the Uaigh Stags (Na Stacaí Uaighe) and that fight was viewed from the lighthouse in Arranmore. The British record of the battle gives the spelling of Owey as Uay. This was the pre 1835 Ordnance Survey spelling that was used on the Mackenzie Chart that the British would have had at that time. Uay would have been a better spelling for the Ordnance Survey than Owey as it equates in sound more accurately to the Irish language Uaigh.
Ná Gluntá Rosannacha is for the Rosses, a significant historical record for a number of reasons. Firstly, because Niall O Donaill availed of a diversity of primary sources, state papers, annals, books, newspapers and archive material to support the case for the historical assertions he made and the measured conclusions he came to. Secondly he accurately, in a structured way, relying on well-established historical research methodology, placed on record the folk memory of the Rosses Generations but rather than defer to the accuracy of that folklore he stressed and tested that collective recall against more concrete evidential sources and against his own unique assessment of what likely happened here in the past. It is not that Niall O Donaill disbelieved folklore, he very much did believe in it, but he also recognised the value of assessing and testing the accuracy of it. And last but not least, he crafted in Na Glúnta Rosannacha an Irish language book to tell that history of the Rosses that had its own intrinsic value in linguistic and idiomatic terms.
In the Upper Rosses, Forbairt Na Rosann/Ionad Teampall Chroine Community Groups, An Mhachaire Le Cheile and Rosses CDB we are the local organisers in a national language plan for the Gaeltacht (Pleán Teanga do an Ghaeltacht) whereby we seek to make people in the Rosses aware of their Irish language heritage and other cultural aspects associated with that heritage. As part of that process Forbairt would like to translate parts of Na Glúnta Rosannacha so that Na Glúnta will be available to a wider readership. The Pleán will be implemented in conjunction with other local community groups, the local schools and others that share similar ambitions to contribute to the process that I referred to.
Written by Seán Bonner, Meenmore, Dungloe (26th October 2017)