Gales that scattered revolutionary plans


"Never," said Alexis de Tocqueville of the French Revolution, "was an event so inevitable, and yet so completely unforeseen." And it was far from welcome in the rest of Europe.

Royalty was upset at the treatment meted out to Bourbon cousins, and the ruling classes had an uneasy feeling that this revolting rot might spread were they not to nip it in the bud.

The French, for their part, wished to pursue their Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, sans interference, and regarded the other continental powers and Britain as a threat. Thus it was that the new republic found itself at war with nearly everyone.

In Ireland, however, Theobald Wolfe Tone saw all this foreign "ruaille buaille" as an opportunity. Acting on the axiom that any enemy of Britain must be Ireland's friend, he went to Paris early in 1796, to persuade the French that an excursion to Ireland might be worth their while.

As it happened he was pushing a door already almost open, because the French had already been considering an invasion of the British Isles. Ireland was an obvious place to start, and Tone's assurance that they would receive a friendly welcome from the locals was a bonus.

It was an attractive plan, but no one had bargained for the Irish gales.

December 1796 was not a pleasant month. Ferocious blizzards left many people dead in Paris and London, and the western approaches were in a constant state of stormy turmoil.

It was in such conditions that a fleet of more than 40 ships with 15,000 men aboard set sail from Brest for Ireland. They were under the command of Gen Hoche, and by Christmas week some of his ships had already anchored in the temporary calm of Bantry Bay.

Unfortunately, the gales and rough seas throughout the voyage had caused Gen Hoche and his flagship to become separated from the others, who then had to wait at Bantry for the arrival of their leader. Moreover, the shelter afforded by the bay proved only temporary.

Another storm blew up that was even fiercer than the one en route: the French ships dragged anchor, and in due course the entire fleet was swept out into the Atlantic, and the invasion had to be abandoned.

Had not the weather intervened in this dramatic way, it is conceivable that the venture might have been successful. There was only a small English garrison at Bantry, and only 10,000 British troops throughout the island.

With a 50 per cent numerical advantage, and a sympathetic native population, the French might well have taken over and changed the entire course of European history.