The Battle of Tory Island

Read an extract from Battles Fought on Irish Soil (Londubh Books, 2010) by Sean McMahon

The Battle of Tory Island: 12 October 1798

The last battle of the insurrection of 1798 was fought, not by Irishmen nor on Irish soil but at sea off the stormy waters of Tory Sound. (Tory Island lies seven and a half miles northwest of Horn Head in County Donegal.) The protagonists were the navy of revolutionary France and the better equipped, swifter and larger Royal Navy of Britain. The latter had with some justice praised the ‘wooden wall’ that had long been the British island’s greatest defence. Its blockade of European ports had allowed the British to carry on the struggle with France since the start of the Revolution and the victory of Horatio Nelson (1758–1805) at Trafalgar in 1805would save it from any chance of invasion. France had already made several attempts to land an expeditionary force in Ireland, most notably in December 1796 when Wolfe Tone (1763-98) almost succeeded in an invasion at Bantry Bay, but they failed largely defeated by weather and the British blockade. This last desperate throw had Tone the only Irishman of significance in the battle, acting as gunnery officer on board the Hoche.

The French, unaware that Humbert’s daring attempt in Mayo had collapsed on 8 September at Ballinamuck sent a small fleet of eight frigates led by the battleship Hoche under the command of Commodore Jean-Baptiste-François Bompart from Brest on 16 September. Though they started the voyage in the dark but soon were spotted by a British frigate squadron led by HMS Boadicea. The skipper of which, Richard Keats set two of his ships, the Ethalion and the Sylph to follow the French in hot pursuit while he rendezvoused with the rest of the Channel fleet. There followed a kind of deadly maritime game of chess aggravated by the usual stormy weather of the north Atlantic around Tory Island. Bompart was dogged as he went with full sail up the Donegal coast by Sir John Borlase Warren’s squadron. He ordered as a feint that the leaking Résolue be beached on Tory and flares should be fired but the command was ignored. Bompart had no alternative but to attack to British fleet hoping to force his way through.

At 7.00 on the morning of 12 October Warren ordered Robust to head straight for the Roche while the British Magnanime engaged the Immortalité, Loire and Belltone. This allowed a gap that enabled the Ethalion, Melampus and Amelia to close with the isolated and badly damaged Hoche. She had lost a topmast the day before and when the faster ships saw her condition they fired a few shells seeing that she was drifting low in the steep Atlantic stream. The battle continued with the result that the ships of the fleet were either sunk or captured. The Hoche finally surrendered at 10.50 with 270 of its crew killed or seriously wounded. One prisoner was of especial interest to the government authorities; dressed in the uniform of a French colonel. Wolfe Tone had been advised by Bompart to transfer to one of the faster frigate but with a sense of fatality refused. The prisoners were landed at Buncrana in Lough Swilly, a landlocked sea inlet, still used as a base for the Royal Navy until the final surrender of the Treaty ports in 1938.

From ‘Battles Fought on Irish Soil’ by Sean McMahon, published by Londubh Books.