The hilltops with glory were glowing
‘Twas the eve of a bright harvest day
When the ships we’d been wearily waiting
Sailed into Killala’s broad bay
And over the hill went the slogan
To waken in every breast
The fire that has never been quenched, boys
Among the true hearts of the West
lyrics from Men of the West
One of the dreams of Revolutionary France was to export their revolution to other nations, foreshadowing Lenin by over a century. An obvious target for their activities was Ireland. Ireland was a Catholic country which had been under English rule for some 650 years at the time of the French Revolution. Despite the long history of subjugation it maintained a religion, language, and national identity that repeatedly led to unrest and rebellion.
With Revolutionary France engaged in a war for survival during the War of the First Coalition, not only would rebellion in Ireland divert Britain’s attention, but, if it succeeded, it would effectively remove Britain from the war. Ireland provided nearly all the beef consumed by the British navy and the naval squadron operating out of Cork devastated French maritime commerce.
Three abortive efforts were made by France to directly foment rebellion in Ireland through the introduction of French troops to serve as a rallying point for rebels. The first occurred in December 1796 and failed utterly, a monotonously repetitious outcome as we will see. We talked a bit about this invasion in our story on the wreck of Surveillante in Bantry Bay. The last attempt ended ignominiously with the route of a small French squadron and the capture of the French 74 Hoche and Wolfe Tone by a British squadron under Sir John Borlase Warren in October 1798.
The second, and most successful, attempt was that led by General Humbert in August 1798. Humbert landed at Killala Bay and rallied Irish rebels. On August 28 they routed British and Protestant Irish forces as what became known as the Castlebar Races. That success took on an air of victory for a while until Humbert was crushed at Ballinamuck on September 8.
The landings at Killala form a central element of the C. Northcote Parkinson novel Fireship, one of the Richard Delancey series. In it, which we’ll summarize in more detail later in the week, Delancey encounters the French 74, Hercule, aground on a sandbar just off the beach and north of the town of Inniscrone, County Sligo. The picture above is a view of Killala Bay, looking west from Inniscrone, the fictional Hercule would have been grounded farther off screen to the right.