“Bluster on One Side… Sound Preparation on the Other” is Jerome Devitt’s entry to the 2014 Alan Villiers Memorial Lecture Postgraduate Essay Competition. Jerome is a PhD student at Trinity College, Dublin.
Although historiographically underexplored, the Royal Navy played a continuous and central role in the deterrence and suppression of insurrectionary movements in Ireland between 1840 and 1870. Varying from a relatively “light touch” forms of deterrence to far more overt projections of naval power, the Royal Navy (RN) became accepted by the Irish Executive as one of the key elements in the provision of the internal security of Ireland. The actions of four main organizations, of progressively more menacing potency, resulted in frequent deployments of the RN along the coasts of Ireland; namely, the Repeal movement of Daniel O’Connell in the early 1840s, the agrarian Ribbonmen throughout the three decades in question, the ‘Young Ireland’ Rebellion of 1848, and finally, the far more substantial Fenian Conspiracy of the late 1860s. It is the contention of this paper is that an analysis of the RN’s use against the earlier, and less potent movements provides the framework upon which the later –anti-Fenian naval counterinsurgency was based, and as such illustrates the RN’s Irregular Naval Warfare capabilities.
Traditional naval historiography is divided roughly between Mahanian and non-Mahanian uses of force; blue-water (action on the high seas between large opposing fleets) as opposed to brown-water (littoral and irregular uses of navies). Dr. Carlos Alfaro Zaforteza asserts that one of the primary roles of nineteenth-century Mediterranean Navies was in the suppression of ‘internal’ revolts, a counterinsurgency function in which navies joined and to which duty they “contributed in a substantial way”.i In Spain, for example, threats from revolutionary radicalism and Carlist absolutism saw their navy became “an indisputable instrument of national security”, a position analogous to that of the RN in nineteenth-century Ireland.ii He identifies four specific ways in which navies contributed to the suppression of internal insurrection such as the provision of:
- Logistical Support (Troop transport and strategic mobility, Supply, and communications)
- Blockade to isolate the revolt
- Deterrence against foreign intervention
- Direct Action
The first three categories are demonstrably applicable in Ireland, but “Direct Action” was limited to occasional, but potent shows of naval power and armament.ii
Late 1840s – Repeal, Famine and Young Ireland
The concurrence of the Repeal Movement, Ribbonism and the Young Ireland Rebellion within a decade demonstrated the versatility and responsiveness of the RN in Ireland, shifting its resources from the provision of famine relief to aiding in the suppression of internal rebellion during the outbreak of July 1848.
As a Flag Captain, Alexander Milne was deployed to Ireland on numerous occasions and to fulfil starkly different functions. In January 1843, for example, he hoped to enjoy the fleet’s upcoming summer cruise, with the possibility that “perhaps we may attend the Queen if she goes to Ireland”.iv By the end of 1844, however, he would return aboard the HMS Caledonia to Queenstown, providing the dual role of naval deterrence and the gradual integration and familiarization of the Navy to the locals that would become so much a part of British counterinsurgency in Ireland. His ship, with a full complement of 950, was anchored 300 yards from the Queenstown in full view of the locals. The object of this visit, he supposed, was to “overcome the Repealers here” a project which he expected to last several weeks, or “if Dan [O’Connell] is not obedient & quiet, may be for months.”v This clearly establishes the role of the RN in both a constabulary and a deterrent role in Ireland in this period.
These roles, however, were only partly achieved by maintaining a distant physical threat. It also involved interaction with locals – gentry and working class alike. Apart from the standard duty of keeping a “good look out in case of any outbreak” the deterrence was supplemented by sending the ship’s band ashore twice a week to play for the locals, an activity that “brings all the families for miles around.”vi The ship, he opined, was “a great sight among the Paddy’s & on one day we had upwards of 1000 people on board.”vii This trend of opening up the ships to visitors, later expanded upon, reinvigorated the process of familiarization that was supplemented by the financial benefit to the local economy of the visit. On 12 December 1843 a party of local gentry were invited on board by Admiral Bowles and were treated to a gun exercise to demonstrate the efficiency and power of the ship. Milne described the events of the day in a letter to his brother: “down we went to the Lower deck, & much to the amazement of the party, the exercise of the guns, cutlasses [&] Firemen was gone through, & they went away highly delighted.”viii Here, the importance of allaying the fears of the Gentry, who themselves felt under threat from the Repeal Movement proved just as significant as the aim of deterring the Repealers themselves.ix
The onset of the Irish Potato Famine of the late 1840s saw the Admiralty become every more closely involved in the logistics of famine relief. Writing to his father Milne noted, “We are all busy here [in Queenstown] with meal for Scotland and Ireland”.x By 30 March 1847, Milne found himself spending considerable time organizing relief logistics noting, “Several large steamers are embarking large quantities of seed for Ireland.”xi This deployment included up to eight vessels by February 1848, with Lucifer at Sligo, Alban at Galway, Rhadamanthus and Zephyr at Cork with the tender Gypsy, and the Avon, Bloodhound, and Adventure servicing the “West Coast” from Shannon, as well as numerous other smaller civilian vessels.xii With rebellion looming in mid July, these vessels were liable to be converted to full RN usage wherein Lord Auckland wrote to Lord Lieutenant Clarendon suggesting that, “As the provision steamers may be released, Admiral Mackay (Commanding at Queenstown) should put a gun in each of them and make them useful,” highlighting the fluidity with which the RN operated in Irish waters.xiii
The actual deployment to Ireland in anticipation of, and during the 1848 “Young Ireland” rebellion itself was considerable, but was along a somewhat different strategic line. (See Table 1 below) First Lord of the Admiralty Auckland explained his strategic thought process to Irish Lord Lieutenant Clarendon in May advising that “It should be occasionally felt that they might be anywhere on the coast at a very short notice, but they should not be seen too often . They will lose their effect if they become cheap and are invited to every soirée.”xiv This punctuated appearance was particularly focussed around the appearance of the “Summer Squadron” which included the more visually potent ‘Ships of the Line’ (See Table 2 below). In order to produce the largest deterrence effect possible Sir Charles Napier was advised that before leaving for his squadron’s ordinary exercises off shore he should perhaps make “an announcement of a speedy return, or [ensure] his appearance on other parts of the coast”.xv Rather than limiting Admiral Napier, however, Auckland argued that this course “may be as useful to you [Clarendon] as his [Napier’s] continued presence in one place.”xvi When the outbreak did eventually occur, Auckland was willing to mobilize yet more resources to help Clarendon, to the point that he was willing to consult the Government to secure the additional funding necessary to mobilize additional resource.
The eventual deployment demonstrated the scale of the resources allocated by the Admiralty to Ireland, and to a degree support’s Jan Morris’ assertion that “The British for their part were almost over prepared for them [the Young Irelanders].”xvii Auckland operated along the principal that “the wants of Ireland must be regarded before any other quarter” and that Clarendon “should be consulted before any change is made”.xviii Although the Admiralty was besieged with requests for naval support “from Hong Kong to Nicaragua” and even from the Mayor of Liverpool, Auckland seems to have viewed its irregular naval warfare role in Ireland as central, to the point that despite the risks associated with a fleet crossing to Ireland in a strong South-West gale, Napier rushed to Clarendon’s aid at a time when “few men would have weighted anchor”.xix Thus it is argued that the RN’s role in the late 1840s far surpassed Jan Morris’ monolithic description of the RN in Ireland in this period – such as the inhabitants of Wexford being “cowed by the presence of British Warships off-shore”, and illustrates a far more nuanced set of strategic and internal security considerations.xx Auckland had outlined his view that “there is much of bluster on the one side and there will be sound preparation on the other”, a view that is borne out in the archival record.xxi
Table 1 – Additional Royal Navy Ships in service in Ireland in 1848xxii
|Name of Ship||Guns||Tons||Horse power||Troop Carrying capability|
Bold indicate initial deployment in the “Conveyance of Provisions, reintegrated into military duties in 1848.
TABLE 2 – Ships of the line of the Squadron Commanded by Admiral Sir Charles Napier (diverted from Summer Evolutions to Cork)
|St Vincent||120 guns|
|Prince Regent||90 guns|
Both the Irish Executive and the Resident Magistrates saw the RN as providing a significant deterrent force in combatting agrarian Ribbonism. Mainly focussed along the Eastern coast, the report of the commander of the HMS Medusa (Coast Guard ship in Kingstown), and the subsequent report from the Earl of Roden illustrated the effectiveness of this policy. The Medusa’s commander, Lieutenant Raymond, undertook a six-day cruise of the East coast visiting, Drogheda, Dundalk, Newry, Newcastle (Castlewellan), Killough, and Strangford. At each point he consulted with both the civil and military heads of the districts to gather intelligence for the Lord Lieutenant. The key event of this cruise was a meeting with assembled Magistrates at Tollymore, the residence of the Earl of Roden, where he heard of night drilling by armed groups of peasantry.xxiii At the request of the Magistrates a “demonstration with great guns (the ship’s long Brass 9 pounders) and small arms” during his return to Kingstown was undertaken.xxiv The fact that Lieutenant Raymond waited for the arrival on board of Earl Roden indicates that this exercise was designed not only to subdue the “peasantry” but also to reassure the gentry (in a similar vein to Milne’s entertainments at Queenstown), and adds a further dynamic to the role of the RN in this period.
The overall impact of this cruise was deemed by Roden to have had such a salutary impact that they hoped such visits would continue. The arrival of the Medusa, he wrote, “seems to have produced a good effect, and the magistrates conceive that occasional visits by the War Steamer at the Ports along the East coast, particularly between Dundalk and Strangford would be most useful.”xxv Although it is somewhat problematic to rely solely on the opinions of the Resident Magistrates for the effectiveness of such measures, their opinions were corroborated in the local press. In what appears to be a continuation of the visits, both the Armagh Guardian and Newry Examiner considered that with “the arrival of a war steamer in Dundalk Bay, […] a [Ribbon] Club in Newry, and another in Dundalk have been dissolved. Several Clubs in other places, have followed a similar course.”xxvi
Interestingly, when considered against the backdrop of pan-European revolutions of 1848, the possibility of foreign intervention does not seem to have played any role in the strategic decision making process. By 1854, however, Irish Under Secretary, Sir Thomas Larcom, wrote to the home office seeking assistance based on the observation that “that over 20,000 men from all the [United] States are already enrolled and ready at a moments notice, to take advantage of the slightest embarrassment of the Government, by means of the approaching European Wars [Crimea], to sail for the invasion of Ireland.”xxvii Although such a plan never materialized, the recurrence of such transatlantic threats in the guise of Fenianism highlights the developing nature of RN irregular warfare in Ireland.
Ireland and the Navy in the Early 1860s
The visit of the Channel Squadron to Ireland in September 1863 presents a perfect example of the RN’s desire to win over the hearts and minds of the Irish and as a part of a gradual normalization of relations between the two. It also marks a shift in deterrence away from the French and towards America (particularly the Irish-American Fenians) who, in the throws of its Civil War presented the possibility, according to the Army and Navy Gazette of a “Federal Invasion of Ireland”.xxviii The visit to Ireland was a part of a broader tour to eleven ports in England, Scotland, and Ireland, designed, in part to demonstrate the innovations of the new Ironclad HMS Warrior whose first commission into the Channel Fleet showed her to be “the most powerful warship in the world [which] acted as a uniquely potent symbol of British prestige and [was] an object of universal interest” with the Warrior attracting tens of thousand of visitors on board over the cruise as a whole.xxix Thus, even in this period the Channel Squadron had a dual military and socio-economic function, similar to that of Milne’s band’s and the Medusa’s shows of naval power.
The cruise was commanded by Rear Admiral Sir Sydney Dacres who retained its command until the Squadron returned to Irish waters 2 years later. Interaction with the local media was clearly central to the cruise and he explained the logic of the visits to Ireland to the Belfast Express on 12 September 1863. He explained that it was “a most important thing that the fleet he commands should visit every port of Great Britain, because the more the ships are shown, the more they will be understood, and the more they are understood, the more they will be trusted.”xxx This was necessary in the minds of many because few in Ireland at the time had “any idea of the vast size, tremendous armament, and Titanic power of the ironclad ships in the squadron.”xxxi The hearts and minds of any insurgent had been duly primed, therefore, for the full impact that such a fleet would shortly have. The RN succeeded in demonstrating “the ‘iron walls’ provided for the preservation from foreign or alien foes of their homes, their property, and their liberties.”xxxii
Counter-Fenian Operations 1865-68
By employing Zaforteza’s criteria this section will demonstrate the challenges faced by the RN in Ireland in the late 1860s. By considering the RN’s role in the provision of strategic mobility, the isolation of the insurgency through the use of a naval cordon, and the deterrent “presence” during and after the 1867 Fenian Rising itself, it argues that the general policy of the Admiralty and Irish Executive merged the previously discussed role of power projection and social interaction to achieve its goals. The naval cordon, or “Irish Anaconda” as one might tentatively label it, was initially based on a mix between large warships and smaller vessels, but became progressively more constabularized as the decade continued, becoming more dependent on smaller gunboats to secure the coast. In naval terms it shifted its focus from Blue Water to Brown Water functions.
Central to our understanding of this deployment is the degree to which it was envisioned only as one element within the broader counterinsurgency system. Its success, in the opinion of Sir Hugh Rose (Commanding General in Ireland), was dependent on its not be used in isolation. The idea was explained to Liberal Lord Lieutenant Wodehouse who argued that it would be,
a good plan if these steamers, or the gunboats watching the line of coast in question were to make signals to the police & coast guard watching the same coast on shore, should they get a sight of the movements of these Fenian steamers.
The police and Coast guard would repeat the signal to the interior whose troops, stationed so as to be able to make by the shortest lines the points of the coast, where the arms would be disembarked, might seize them.xxxiii
Here, the idea of a coordinated response to the defence of Ireland is first expressed in a coherent manner and despite a patchy implementation, would become the model to be aspired to by successive administrations.
A central responsibility for the RN in the suppression of an internal insurrection was the provision of “Strategic Mobility”. This coverall description embraces the functions of facilitating communications, supply of materiel of war, and transportation for the Army and Royal Marines.xxxiv The RN’s sustained success in this role is highlighted by the single occasion when its provision was uncertain. The rapidity with which troops could be transported to Ireland from Britain was central to all strategic decisions taken by the Irish Executive. In November 1866 a planning meeting between the different branches of the security forces was assured by First Lord of the Admiralty Pakington that he could “provide transport for 5,000 men to be ready at a moment’s notice” a position reinforced by the longstanding Commander-in-Chief of the Army, the Duke of Cambridge, who added that “we can send 10,000 men into Ireland within 24 hours notice.”xxxv However, this reassurance did not last. The Admiralty wrote again to Chief Secretary Naas to revise downwards its capabilities when, with only one regular troop ship available, the Admiralty “cannot undertake to send more than 1,500 men to Ireland at short notice.”xxxvi Naas’ frustration at this Admiralty failure quickly emerged when he complained to Lord Lieutenant Abercorn that “we must know what number of men can be transported to Ireland at a moment’s notice as our demand for troops must be regulated by that.”xxxvii This is the most notable failure for the RN within the coordinated counterinsurgency system, but was not sustained enough to merit a significant reprimand.
The deployment of the RN in Irish waters to deal with the Fenian threat proceed in three phases with the primary aim of isolating the domestic insurgency from Irish-American reinforcement; initial deployment (September- December 1865), a period of expansion and adaptation (up to Autumn 1866), and as an active force to deal with the rising and its aftermath (February-April 1867). General Rose acknowledged the importance of the Navy to Irish security saying that, “If an idea exists amongst Irish-American Fenians of a filibustering descent on the Irish coasts, nothing is so likely to prevent it, as the knowledge that there are ships of war in strategical [sic] stations in the Irish harbours, or landing places.”xxxviii
The initial, limited deterrent force conceived of by Lord Lieutenant Wodehouse would provide “a protection to the Coast and make a fond impression in the south of Ireland if two or three gunboats or other small armed vessels were placed at the disposal of the Admiral commanding on the Cork Station, and visited from time to time the various harbours on the south and south-west Coast.”xxxix In light, however, of the First Lord of the Admiralty, the Duke of Somerset’s opinion that “If any attempt to disturb the peace should occur, vigorous measures at first will be the most merciful”, a larger commitment of naval force was deemed necessary.xl Like the 1848 deployment the Admiralty initially “do not wish to attract attention to the proceedings of the ships on the Irish Coast”, but it soon became clear that the need to “attract attention” to their presence was exactly what was required.xli To achieve this Somerset suggested that he would use the Channel Squadron and “privately direct Admiral Dacres to look in at Bantry bay and Cork accordingly as he may find it convenient.”xlii The fact that the arrival of the Channel Fleet was not a direct order illustrates the ad hoc nature of the initial action, rather than a formalized policy.
This sizable squadron consisted of seven large Ironclad vessels and one additional gunboat, a total of more than 240 guns, and proved a considerable deterrent.xliii While there may have been some reluctance on the part of the Admiralty to formalize this deployment, there seems to have been excitement among the naval officers who, Somerset noted, would “be disappointed if they do not catch some vessel full of Fenians or of arms or of something treasonable as they find Irish Harbours rather dull”. xliv Wodehouse considering the measure a resounding success commented that “from all I hear nothing has disconcerted the Fenians as much as the timely appearance of our ships on the coast.”xlv The intended deterrent nature of the operation was highlighted, however, through his admission to Somerset that “I fear the naval officers will be disappointed in their desire to catch a Fenian, but they are, notwithstanding, rendering a valuable service,” thus tacitly confirming that that the very presence of the RN made it dramatically less likely that any large scale Irish-American landing could be attempted.xlvi
Beyond the initial visit, the vessels of the Channel Squadron were integrated into the sparser coastal deployment, in effecting becoming constabularized. The minutiae were communicated to Wodehouse by Rear-Admiral Frederick Commanding at Queenstown in a commitment of ships and men well above even that initially indicated by Somerset with 6 additional vessels specifically dedicated to the south and southwest coast. (See Table 3) The basic premise was that vessels, despite difficulties that might be anticipated in the winter Atlantic swells, would undertake frequent patrols, and when not on patrol, their presence at station in harbours would prove a deterrent in itself.
Table 3 – Ships of the Line in Irish Waters – 1865
Also, the Gunboats Blazer, Hyena and Sandfly. xlvii
Wodehouse’s intention that “it is very desirable to calm the minds of the timid, and the appearance of ships along the coast ought to have that effect as it shows that we omit no precautions,” seems to be borne out here.xlviii
Fig. A. The Naval Patrols on Southern and South-western Coast, circa Oct 1865.xlix
Unfortunately for Wodehouse, this initial deployment served only to highlight other, more neglected areas, of the Irish coast in areas similarly disaffected by Fenianism.l Attorney General Lawson, perhaps over hasty in his panic, admitted that the Channel fleet provided a “very good protection for Cork and its neighbourhood” but was certain that the cordon needed to be expanded. “We want a sufficient naval force”, he continued “distributed around our coast, so as to render a landing impracticable.”li Explaining the need for further reinforcement Wodehouse wrote again to Somerset to argue that
It would be most unfortunate if any attempt were made to land at or near the ports above mentioned, and no protection had been afforded by the Government.lii
The implication here seems to be that, should a landing take place, Wodehouse would have successfully transferred the blame from the Executive to the Admiralty giving him adequate political cover. Somerset was quick to retort that Wodehouse should not “expect from the Navy the internal defence of the country.”liii He also him warned of the limitations facing the navy, namely the impossibility of providing a hermetically sealed cordon around the Irish coast with its numerous possible landing points. Somerset clearly understood the idea that the loyal could be mollified and the disloyal deterred by the Navy when he noted that their action “will give confidence to those who may be alarmed and… may prevent some foolish attempt being made by the idiots – the Fenians,” but warned that “if a serious attempt were made of landing a force by fast steamers, the squadron could not certainly prevent such a scheme.” Particularly because, given the technological limitations of the time, they “have not steam power sufficient if the weather should be stormy, to remain on the coast without risk.”liv
It is interesting to note that the American Fenians were all-too-aware of the problems associated with implementing a full cordon around the Irish coast. E.M. Archibald, British Consul in New York, wrote to Earl Russell in the Foreign Office in September 1865, commenting on an informer’s report of a recent Fenian meeting at which “the difficulty of preventing blockade runners entering Wilmington (North Carolina), notwithstanding the presence of a squadron of twenty vessels of War, was referred to, as significant of the facility with which vessels laden with arms could be run into Irish ports.”lv This indicates not only that this Fenian “Circle” (organizational unit) was aware of the potential developments on the Irish coast, but also that for a deterrence policy to have full effect it needed a far greater allocation of resources. It further demonstrates how the Fenian exposure to the US Navy’s “Anaconda Plan” had informed their understanding of the possibilities and limitations of Ireland’s naval defence.
The adaptation of the deployment resulted, by 1867 of a constabularized force, consisting primarily of Gunboats, which freed the Channel squadron to resume its Blue-water functions, while still occasionally returning to Irish Waters. (See Table 4). The outbreak of the abortive Rising in March 1867 saw the usual flexing of naval muscle with Admiral Frederick ordered that all the vessels under his command should “be shown along the Coast in the vicinity of the places where they may be stationed… [and that] advantage is to be taken of these cruizes to exercise the ships company at target practice. The allowance of ammunition is to be expended during each quarter.”lvi When the Fenian filibustering expedition did finally arrive, albeit in a lone Brigantine in April 1867, the recently rechristened Erin’s Hope managed to elude the naval patrols, but ultimately succumbed to the other elements of the defensive system, both the Coast Guard and Police combing to make the requisite arrests. A close brush with the HMS Prince Consort was enough to convince its captain to return to America without having landed its cargo of arms and ammunition.
Table 4. Disposition of HM Ships on the Coast of Ireland, 12 June 1867lvii
|Patrol area (headquarters)||Name||Class/Description|
|Kingstown Harbour||Royal George||District Coast Guard Ship|
|Raven||Gunboat – Tender to Royal George|
|Kinsale to Mizen (Crookhaven)||Rainbow||Gunboat|
|Mizen to Dursey Island (Bantry)||Research||Ironclad|
|Dursey Island to Bowler’s Head (Kenmare)||Griper||Gunboat|
|Valentia (Later ordered to Killybegs)||Helicon||“Small two-funnel steamer”|
|River Shannon||Frederick William||District Coast Guard Ship|
|Loop Head to Slyne head (Galway)||Hind||Gunboat|
|Slyne Head to Erris Head||Lark||Gunboat|
|On Passage to Queenstown from Belmullet||Sepoy||Gunboat|
Thus ultimately, it was acting as a branch of a broader defensive system, and in line with Zaforteza’s Irregular Naval Warfare criteria, that the RN proved most effective as a counter insurgency force along the Irish coasts, remaining a core element in the suppression of Irish insurgency throughout the rest of the Victorian Period.
i# Carlos Alfaro Zaforteza, . “ Navies, Internal Order and State-building in the Nineteenth Century”, Institute for Historical Research, 25 October 2010.
ii# Carlos Alfaro Zaforteza, “Sea Power, State and Society in Liberal Spain, 1833-68), PhD, King’s College London, 2011 , 139-142.
iii# Ibid., 139.
iv# Milne to David Milne, 22 Jan. 1843, The Milne Papers , 168. (His Brother)
v# Milne to David Milne, 18 Nov. 1843, Ibid., 170-171.
vi# Milne to David Milne, 17 Dec. 1843 , Ibid., 171.
vii# Ibid., 174.
viii# Ibid., 172.