Derry gave freedom of the city to John Borlase Warren who defeated the French at Tory leading to the capture of Wolfe Tone

The revolutionary fervour of sections of Irish Protestantism during the United Irish rebellion of 1798 has been the subject, often controversially, of debate ever since the failed republican uprising which took its lead from American and French examples over 200 years ago.

By Kevin Mullan
Wednesday, 14th October 2020, 7:25 pm

Presbyterian Ministers of the time like William Steel Dickson certainly did support the fledgling Irish republican cause that was espoused by the Society of United Irishmen, as did his celebrated co-religionists William Drennan and Henry Joy McCracken amongst others.

In fact nine of the eleven men who resolved to unite the people of Ireland and maintain a balance against English influence in order to preserve liberty and commerce at the first meeting of the United Irishmen in 1791 in Belfast were Presbyterians.

The others were Wolfe Tone and Thomas Russell, Anglicans from Dublin and Cork respectively.

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Wolfe Tone

But despite the early involvement of all degrees of Irish Protestantism - Prelacy and Presbytery both, though mostly the latter - and the role played by Presbyterian leaders in the uprisings in Down, Antrim and Dublin from May 1798, this involvement must also be acknowledged as the action of a minority.

The view of Derry Protestants, for example, appears to have been unanimously loyalist judging from the attitude of their political leaders on the Corporation at the time.

One measure of this can be witnessed in the fact that not only did Derry not rise - it had one of the lowest levels of compensation claims for lost property in Ireland (three claims) for example - but following an eleventh hour failure to land a French expeditionary force in Donegal, the Corporation nailed its colours firmly to the mast.

Revolutionary France - at war with Britain since 1793 - had been persuaded by Wolfe Tone and others to lend its support to the rebels.

So in August 1798 over 1,000 French soldiers commanded by General Humbert landed in Mayo. After some success and the declaration of the “Republic of Connaught” Humbert’s force was defeated at the Battle of Ballinamuck in September 1798.

But it was when Jean-Baptiste-François Bompart’s attempt to land a further 3,000 soldiers at Lough Swilly in October 1798 was spectacularly defeated by Sir John Borlase Warren that the Corporation decided to bestow the freedom of the city on the victorious commander.

The Bompart expedition may have been the sting of the dying rebel wasp after the rising had earlier been subdued in Ulster, Leinster and Connaught but Derry’s gratitude towards the naval commander’s decisive defeat of the forces of the First French Republic was heightened by the fact that had Bompart succeeded in landing at Lough Swilly his first design would surely have been the city.

Warren’s victory came after the furious Battle of Tory Island on October 12, 1798 between French and British squadrons off the northwest coast.

During this action Warren’s squadron inflicted 700 casualties, captured seven ships and 2,400 prisoners, including the United Irish leader Wolfe Tone, who would later be taken prisoner at Buncrana when the ship upon which he had travelled with the French, the Hoche, eventually surrendered.

Warren led the squadron aboard his flagship HMS Canada. He was aided by Edward Thornbrough (HMS Robust), Michael de Courcy (HMS Magnanime), George Countess (HMS Ethalion), Charles Herbert (HMS Amelia), Graham Moore (HMS Melampus), Thomas Byard (HMS Foudroyant) and Philip Charles Durham (HMS Anson). The vanquished French fleet - some captured, some scattered - was led by Bompart, accompanied by Wolfe Tone in French naval dress, aboard the Hoche.

The other commanders of the French fleet were Martin-Antoine Lacouture (Sémillante), Mathieu-Charles Bergevin (Romaine), Louis-Léon Jacob (Bellone), Jean-François Legrand (Immortalité), Adrien-Joseph Segond (Loire), Desiré-Marie Maistral (Hoche), Léonore Deperonne (Coquille), Nicolas Clément de la Roncière (Embuscade), Jean-Pierre Bargeau (Résolue) and Jean-Marie-Pierre Labastard (Biche).

Five days after the Battle of Tory, the Mayor of Derry John Darcus on October 17, 1798, summoned a Common Council meeting and according to the Corporation minutes told the Council he had called them together to consider the propriety of giving the freedom of the city to Sir John Borlase Warren.

He suggested bestowing “the freedom of this City to the several captains who fought under him and defeated the French Fleet the 12th October 1798.”

It was: “Ordered that the freedom of this City be presented to the said Sir John Borlase Warren in gold box the value not to exceed thirty guineas.

“Also to the several captains of his Majesty’s ships who fought so Gloriously under him, be each of them admitted to their freedom - Common Council.”

The minutes of the Corporation show that once again at a pivotal moment in Ireland’s history, as in 1689, Derry had made its stand. During the Siege its citizens had remained staunch supporters of an earlier European revolutionary, William of Orange, who in 1688 had launched his successful invasion of England to establish “a free and lawful Parliament.”

A century later, however, they were having no truck with those other European revolutionaries, the French republicans.

This was in contrast to some of their countrymen in Down, Antrim, Belfast and Dublin, although the city was once more embroiled in a wider European revolutionary war.

Not long after Mayor Darcus recorded the Council’s, this time loyalist attitude for posterity, Wolfe Tone would be temporarily held in Derry Gaol before being transported to Dublin where he was court-martialled and where he died in custody at the age of 35 on November 19, 1798.