The Bantry Boat

Published in Artefacts, Issue 4 (July/August 2018), Volume 26

By Lar Joye

 

This is a 222-year-old admiral’s barge that originally belonged to the French frigate La Résolue, a flagship commanded by Rear Admiral Neilly as part of the fleet bringing a French army to invade Ireland at Bantry Bay in December 1796. Thirty French warships and fourteen transport ships sailed from Brest with a fighting force of some 20,000 French soldiers and the United Irishmen leader, Theobald Wolfe Tone. The United Irishmen hoped that the invasion force would liberate Ireland, while the French hoped to gain a decisive back door into Britain.

In one of the many ‘what if’ moments of Irish history, however, bad weather scattered the ships and La Résolue lost her masts in a collision. Lt. Proteau was sent in this barge to find another ship to tow the frigate to safety, but instead he and his crew were driven ashore and captured. The French fleet slowly limped back to France. For the British government this was seen as Providence, but the reality was that the Royal Navy had failed to detect the large invasion fleet, and the United Irishmen were invigorated by such a propaganda coup.

The boat became a prize of war and was handed to the local Irish militia commander, Richard White of Bantry House. There the barge remained until it was donated to the National Museum of Ireland in 1944. From 1977 to 2002 it was displayed in the National Maritime Museum, Dún Laoghaire, before undergoing conservation at the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool. Now it is on display in the ‘Soldiers & Chiefs’ exhibition at the National Museum, Collins Barracks. Since 1986 the vessel has served as the prototype of the Atlantic Challenge class of replica vessels, in which young sailors compete to demonstrate their skills in seamanship.

Lar Joye is Heritage Officer, Dublin Port.

 

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