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Fortifications in the Shannon Estuary and Galway Bay by Paul M. Kerrigan

Fortifications in Galway Bay

The possibility of a landing by an invasion force on the west coast was a constant fear of the British government in Ireland from 1793 to as late as 1812. These fears were realised in August 1798 when General Humbert’s expeditionary force of just over 1,000 men landed near Killala, Co. Mayo. In October that year a larger force arrived off the Donegal coast, to be defeated by a more powerful squadron of the Royal Navy. Two weeks later three French frigates and a corvette arrived off Killala with over 1,000 troops aboard, but learning of Humbert’s defeat, they did not attempt to land and instead returned to France. Humbert’s expedition emphasised the importance of the River Shannon as a line of defence and crossing points at bridges and fords were later fortified.

The west coast was difficult to patrol with naval vessels, and the rough terrain and lack of roads in the western counties added considerably to the problems of military defence. There were numerous landing places available, perhaps the best of which was Galway Bay, with several small harbours and sheltered beaches. Of even more importance, it was estimated that from Galway the advance guard of an invasion force could be in Dublin within six days of landing, the only serious obstacle being the Shannon and its lakes. Galway Bay had been the original objective during the preparations for the expedition to Ireland in 1796, the other landing places proposed being the Shannon Estuary and Bantry Bay, where the French fleet eventually arrived in December 1796. After 1803 and until 1811 French plans for the invasion of Ireland included a landing on the west coast. There was always the possibility of the French or their allies evading the patrols or blockading squadrons of the Royal Navy and sailing into the Atlantic to approach Ireland from the west.

It appears that little was done during the war with the French Republic, between 1793 and 1801, to construct defences at west-coast anchorages or harbours. However, with the renewal of war in 1803 coastal defence was undertaken on a large scale, with the extensive scheme to construct Martello towers, batteries and signal towers; these were under construction the following year. The line of signal stations extended along the west coast, but apart from these and the Shannon Estuary batteries the only concentration of defensive works was the building of three Martello towers at Galway Bay.

A military report of 1797-98 considered in detail the defence of Galway Bay, noting a landing place at the upper end of the bay near Oranmore and other landing places at Ballyvaughan Bay to the west of Finavarra Point, where one of the three Martello towers was later constructed.[8]

The use of gunboats was advocated in the sheltered and shallow-water areas of the bay, co-operating with troops and field artillery on shore to prevent or delay a landing.

Galway Bay 1793-1815
Galway Bay 1793-1815

The report noted the importance of the Aran Islands, which might provide some shelter for enemy shipping, particularly east of Inishmore, and the need to have a garrison on the islands to prevent a landing. It was proposed to establish a garrison at the seventeenth-century fort of Arkin, which had been abandoned as a military post in the early eighteenth century. A line of defence was proposed around Galway, with about twenty redoubts, each to hold fifty men, with heavy guns placed on Mutton Island and Hare Island. The intention was to prolong resistance and deter an invasion force from marching inland towards Dublin or southwards towards Limerick.

In April 1804, eight 24-pounder cannon for the defence of the ‘Anchoring-ground and Harbour of Galway’ were listed with guns for the defence of the Shannon at Athlone.[9] It seems likely that these may have been intended for Mutton Island and Hare Island, which flank the anchorage, as proposed some years earlier. However, Arthur Wellesley on his tour of inspection in 1806 noted that ‘The islands that lie off the town… still remain in their same defenceless state…’ He advocated the construction of a tower and a four-gun battery here ‘to give full security to both town and vessels’.[10]

 

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