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As Storm Barbara breaks on the Irish coast, and with Storm Conor already waiting in the wings, we may well be reminded of the severe winter storms of recent memory. Indeed, last year’s Storm Desmond received a good deal of popular attention on the strength of an RTÉ News reporter’s impassioned coverage of it. These named winter storms are, however, a relatively new occurrence in the Irish (and British) context. They are the result of a collaborative initiative between Met Éireann (Ireland) and the Met Office (UK) to raise awareness of the dangers such storms pose to these islands and to share our technology-assisted abilities to measure their strength and status. If we cast our minds back to a time before such practice – 220 years ago to be precise – we can see that winter storms loom large in our shared history…

December 1796

In December 1796, a severe storm broke on the West Cork coast. A local commentator, the Rev. Horatio Townsend, noted the effects of this “memorable gale” in his Statistical Survey of the County of Cork, which was first published in Dublin fourteen years later in 1810.

At Courtmacsherry, famous for those of large size, there is a second sort of cockle, with a smooth shell, which lives in deeper water, and is seldom found but when thrown in by storms. In the memorable gale of December, 1796, vast heaps of these were driven on shore in a naked state, deprived of their shelly covering by the uncommon fury of the tempest.

Townsend also observes that the people of West Cork, accustomed to such stormy conditions, both prepared for and benefited from their situation. The islanders of Cape Clear, for instance, are said to “secure the thatch of their houses by an interwoven covering of straw ropes, the ends of which, as they hang over the leaves, are rendered steady by depending stones.” Close to Rosscarbery, the “great quantities [of seaweed] driven on shore by the winter storms” were a source of much-needed winter income for the then densely populated region.

During the winter months, they collect with unceasing diligence in all accessible places the weeds, which are torn from the rocks by the violence of the southern gales. When the storm subsides, the dissevered weeds float into the coves and strands, some of which are so abundantly provided, as to afford a very considerable profit to the proprietors of the ground.

Expédition d’Irlande 

The major historical legacy of that winter storm of December 1796 was, however, the scuppering of the attempts at a French landing on the West Cork coast in support of the United Irishmen. Commonly known as l’Expédition d’Irlande, it comprised some 14,450 French soldiers, under the command of General Louis Lazare Hoche (1768-97) of the First French Republic, who mobilized at Brest, Brittany before setting sale in heavy seas – their objective: to land at Bantry Bay and assist in pushing the British out of Ireland.


Carte de la Baie de Bantry (1818), a French map of the south-west coast of County Cork showing sailing route through Bantry Bay, from Victoires, conquetes, désastres, revers et guerres civiles des Francais de 1792 a 1815, published by Panckoucke, Paris.

The context of this event is important to note. The French Revolution had commenced in 1789 and led to the execution of King Louis XVI in 1793. Britain, a constitutional monarchy under King George III, had dominion over the island of Ireland, which was traditionally seen as a backdoor into its nearest neighbour. The United Irishmen, under Theobald Wolfe Tone (1763-98), and the French had shared republican ideals and a common purpose, if not common motives, for this action.

In the worst recorded storm since 1708, the French Armada was quickly scattered in the Atlantic, with only 16 of 43 vessels managing to reach Bantry Bay (Hall 147). Although the severe conditions prevented any significant British intervention, a contemporary caricature of the storm by James Gillray (c.1756-1815) erroneously attributes the failure of the so-called ‘Irish Invasion’ to the the efforts of William Windham (1750-1810), Henry Dundas (1742-1811), William Grenville (1759-1834), and British Prime Minister William Pitt (1759-1806), who can be seen in the clouds causing the rough seas. It also features the men-of-war Le Révolutionaire, L’Egalité, and The Revolutionary Jolly Boat, just three of the “17 ships of the line; 13 frigates; 5 corvettes; 2 gun-boats; and 6 transports” that comprised this French Armada, as noted by Mrs & Mrs S.C. Hall in Ireland: Its Scenery, Character, etc. (1841).


End of the Irish Invasion; – or – The Destruction of the French Armada (1797) by James Gillray. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Coastal Defence

A ship’s anchor from the French expedition now resides at Wolfe Tone Square in Bantry. For some years, an exhibition (1796 Bantry French Armada) in the grounds of nearby Bantry House displayed recovered materials from another of these vessels, the frigate Surveillante, which was scuttled off Whiddy Island. While the French action was ill-timed and could not have faced worse weather conditions – they subsequently returned to France in failure and with great losses – if we return to Rev. Horatio Townsend’s writings, we can learn more about the legacy this historic event left to the region.

The second division of that great French armament, which threatened these shores in 1796, came to anchor on the north-west quarter of [Whiddy] island, and though they remained a long time in expectation of being joined by the rest, it is very remarkable that neither hostile nor curious motives induced them to set one foot upon the shore. Their boats too were often seen rowing about in the bay, probably for the purpose of taking its soundings. – The station they occupied, and the course by which they entered, are commanded by the higher parts of the island, where the principal works for the defence of the bay have, in consequence, been constructed.

Townsend here notes the bathymetric ‘soundings’ the French made of the environs of Whiddy Island, measurements that would have helped them to determine the depth of this part of Bantry Bay and to expand their mapping knowledge of Ireland’s coastline. He also notes, however, that the threat of such actions by the French (repeated in 1798 on the north-west coast of Ireland) found a belated response in the form of coastal defences, such as redoubts and Martello Towers. Indeed, the earliest Martello Towers (cylindrical coastal defences to counter marine attacks) are thought to be those erected before 1806 at Bantry Bay, on Bere Island and Garnish Island respectively.


Martello Tower on Garnish Island (left) and its view of Bantry Bay (right). Photo credit: Michael Waldron

We will have a follow-up blog in the New Year on these distinctive coastal defences but, for now, it is timely to consider the historic impact of December storms along our coastline – whether it is from an environmental perspective or one of political significance – and how we distinguish between coastal defence and coastal protection.

Do you have memories of winter storms along the West Cork coast and the effects they have had on our marine environment or coastal communities? Please share them in the comments below!


See this British Museum record for more on James Gillray’s caricature of the Expédition d’Irlande.

See also:

  • Bill Clements, Martello Towers Worldwide (2011)
  • Mrs & Mrs S.C. Hall, Ireland: Its Scenery, Character, etc. (1841)
  • C.L.F. Panckoucke, Victoires, conquêtes, désastres, revers et guerres civiles des Francais de 1792 à 1815 (1817-21)
  • Rev. Horatio Townsend, Statistical Survey of the County of Cork (1810)