The Shamrock & the Hexagon

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 3 (Autumn 1996), News, Volume 4

The focus of the Bantry Bay Summer School, held at St Goban’s College 1-5 July under the genial auspices of Jenny McCarthy, John A. Murphy and Sean Ó Coileáin was the fate of over fifty ships and 15,000 seasoned French troops which almost landed two centuries ago, one of the great might-have-beens in Irish history. The French failure to land owed as much to the absence of decisive leadership (due to Hoche’s having strayed from the main fleet) and poor seamanship as it did to the appalling weather. An equally inept British fleet had failed to intercept them. If the French had landed, their Vendée-hardened troops would surely have taken Cork, or even Dublin, and the shape of the war between Britain and France would have been decisively reordered.
The intriguing counterfactual of an Ireland under French rule was adverted to frequently. Hugh Gough (UCD) noted three salient points: the French aim was to attack Britain not to rescue Ireland; if successful, they would have established a French-style republic closely linked to France—in effect a docile puppet government drawn from the United Irishmen and the Catholic Committee; their services would not have come free—heavy taxation would have quickly ensued, perhaps creating intense anti-French feeling in Ireland, as had happened in Holland and the Rhineland. Tom Bartlett (UCD) noted an additional possibility—that Ireland would have become a pawn in peace negotiations, most likely traded by France for one or two lucrative sugar islands in the West Indies.
Kevin Whelan (Boston College) observed how the French near-miss had altered United Irish strategy. Prior to Bantry Bay, all their energy had been directed to ensuring a French invasion and convincing their followers (and perhaps themselves) that this was inevitable. After, the emphasis shifted in favour of an indigenous insurrection, involving a refocusing of recruiting and organisation on Dublin and Leinster rather than Belfast and Ulster. Because this occurred simultaneously with the dragooning of Ulster (itself a ‘get tough’ policy by Dublin Castle in response to Bantry Bay), its significance has not yet sufficiently been appreciated.
David Dickson (TCD) stressed that south Munster was experiencing novel social and economic tensions in the 1790s. When juxtaposed with the inherited character of the region the ingredients for revolt were present but United Irish organisation was late in the region and lacked strong local leadership. This lethargy was due to the absence of an indigenous tradition of opposition reformist politics in Cork City, out of which the radical leadership in Dublin, Belfast and Wexford, for example, evolved. Tom Dunne’s (UCC) presentation contrasted Tone with Micheál Óg Ó Longáin, poet and United Irishman. He stressed that Ó Longáin’s poems were essentially closet productions addressed to a future rather than a present audience unlike Tone’s sharply focused pamphlets. But Dunne did see a common dynamic in Tone and Ó Longáin’s shared (Jacobin and Jacobite) belief in ‘a world turned upside down’.
John Tyrrell (UCC) reconstructed the weather pattern of December 1796 using several ships’ logs. His mediations on weather and political destiny were a powerful reminder of contingency in historical events. The big mistake of the French was to hang around off Mizan Head for the full fleet to regroup instead of landing immediately. But if the French sailed out of Irish history, they sailed straight into Irish myth. Gearóid Ó Crualaoich (UCC), on popular beliefs and perspectives, and Nicholas Carolan (Irish Traditional Music Archive), on the song tradition, explored this intersection of memory and politics.
The lively contributions from the floor, the magnificent setting between mountains and sea, and the warmth of the Bantry accueil ensured that this was a memorable event.

Kevin Whelan

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