England expects, with a little help from Nelson’s Irish

Enormous contribution of Irish to Battle of Trafalgar reflected in exhibition

England expects every Irishman to do this duty. Lord Nelson’s famous clarion call to his men at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 did not quite put it that way but the composition of his famous fleet was a much more cosmopolitan affair than the legend suggests.

A quarter of his men who can be identified were Irish, according to the UK’s National Maritime Museum and the UK National Archives.

They have examined the surviving records for all involved in Nelson’s fleet as part of a new exhibition in London which analyses the time in the 18th and 19th century when Britannia really did rule the waves.

Nelson’s fleet consisted of 33 ships and approximately 18,000 men, of whom records survive for about 12,000.


Some 3,573 sailors came from Ireland including 893 from Dublin, 632 from Cork, 187 from Waterford, 154 from Limerick, 116 from Wexford and 112 from Antrim.

There were 94 Irishmen on the flagship HMS Victory on which Nelson lost his life during the battle. There were 77 Ryans, 59 Murphys and 32 McCarthys involved.

Corkman photographed
The archivists were particularly interested in one Irishman, James Spratt, who was born in Mitchelstown, Co Cork, in 1771. He is one of the few survivors of Trafalgar who was photographed when the age of photography began in the 1830s. He had also taken part in another of Nelson's victories at the 1801 Battle of Copenhagen.

Spratt was injured in the leg at Trafalgar. He refused to allow it to be amputated, but in the days following the battle the infected wound became infested with large maggots that had to be removed by a surgeon. The limb was saved, but was permanently damaged and ended up three inches shorter than his other leg.

The Battle of Trafalgar, off the coast of Spain, was the decisive naval engagement of the Napoleonic wars and a huge victory for Britain over the combined French and Spanish fleets. It put paid to any hopes Napoleon had of staging a cross-channel invasion of Britain.

The scale of Irish involvement in the Battle of Trafalgar is not a surprise, according to the National Maritime Museum's curator of naval history Dr Quintin Colville.

Irish provisions
"The contribution of the Irish was enormous, not just about people but about provisions including beef, pork and grain. Huge amounts was coming to Britain from Ireland at the time," he said.

“It was not the case of the press gang. These men were clearly volunteers. They clearly saw the navy as a career... You’ll always see a disproportionate number coming from coastal areas, of whom many were from Ireland.”

The research shows that 10 per cent of Nelson’s navy were from outside the UK as it was then, including Frenchmen and Spaniards fighting against their own countries.

Nelson may have run up the famous signal on the morning of the battle, but in reality just over half of his men (55 per cent) were English. “England expects’ was nationalistic shorthand at the time,” said Dr Colville.

The research is being released as part of a permanent gallery entitled Nelson, Navy, Nation at the National Maritime Museum which will open on Trafalgar Day, October 21st, next week. It will chronicle the relationship between the Royal Navy and the British people between 1688 and 1815.

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times