Crown forces

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The French fleet had slipped past the principal Royal Navy squadron blockading Brest, but their departure had not been unobserved. Earlier in December, Captain Sir Edward Pellow’s frigate squadron and local spies had seen increased activity at Brest and anchored at Falmouth to notify the Admiralty that the French were about to take to the sea. Two of Pellow’s frigates later encountered the man-o’-war Droite de l’Homme (74 guns) and raked her with fire; she struck her colours before the storm broke her stern, with the loss of over 1,000 lives. Lord Bridport’s Channel Fleet, anchored at Spithead outside Portsmouth, was scrambled but returned to port owing to a strong westerly wind.

Admiral Kingsmill’s Irish frigate squadron, the ‘Irish Watch’, based in their home port of Cork, was not strong enough to confront the French. On Christmas Eve, Kingsmill ordered Flag Lt. Pulling to the Bantry area to see what was happening. Pulling boarded a cutter and peered at the fleet through his telescope; in the closing darkness and dense haze he couldn’t see any flags or pennants but concluded that ‘I am certain [they] were not English ships’. The Cork squadron went on to take the Ville de L’Orient, armed en flute, with 400 hussars on board, which was towed into Kinsale as a prize amid great excitement.

The British army in Ireland was caught off guard. ‘We had, two days after they were at anchor in Bantry Bay, from Cork to Bantry less than 3,000 men, two pieces of artillery, and no magazine of any kind, no firings, no hospital, no provisions, etc,’ reported an English account. The commander of the British army in Cork, Lt. Gen. Dalrymple, now headquartered at nearby Bantry House, wrote that they were hopelessly unprepared, and even with 8,000 troops in Cork would not have confronted the French: ‘our numbers will probably fall so short of the enemy, that a diversion is all to be expected’.

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