French invasion of Ireland fails through winter storms

Richard Cavendish remembers the events of December 19th, 1796

The attempted French invasion of Ireland, seen as a natural extension of the war of the new republic against Britain, failed dismally when the fleet with 14,000 men under the command of General Hoche, was scattered by winter storms and was unable to make land at the designated invasion point, Bantry Bay, in County Cork.

The abortive invasion was part of a French strategy to capitalise on the increasing unrest and resistance in Ireland to British rule, co-ordinated by the nationalist group, the United Irishmen. The gradual moves to conciliation in the early 1790s to remove some of the measures discriminating against Roman Catholics in Ireland - such as the Catholic Relief Act of 1793 - had failed to quieten the broader demands for Catholic emancipation - the right of Irish Catholics to serve in parliament or the higher offices of state.

Rural unrest had been met with the Convention Act cracking down assemblies that challenged the status quo, and a series of incidents - including the arrest of a French agent in Dublin, and the flight from Ireland of Theobald Wolfe Tone, the chief organiser and publicist for the United Irishmen - convinced the French that now was the time to strike. It was a strategy which uncannily echoed the abortive attempt of the Spanish exactly 200 years earlier, to send another Armada to Ireland to gain the support of Irish rebels there - an initiative which was similarly wrecked by bad weather.

General Hoche's fleet of forty-three ships which had set sail from the French port of Brest on December 15th, 1796, was accompanied by Wolfe Tone - he and the battered fleet returned to France. Two years later, following the outbreak of a general insurrection by the United Irishmen, which was concentrated in Wexford, the French launched two further expeditions. The first, under General Humbert, actually made landfall in County Mayo but was forced eventually to surrender; the second - with again Wolfe Tone accompanying 3,000 French troops - was intercepted off the coast of Donegal by the British Navy. Wolfe Tone was sent for trial in Dublin and condemned to death for treason, but committed suicide before the sentence could be carried out in November 1798.