21 December 1796: Theobald Wolfe Tone, Chef-de-brigade in the French Army, arrived off the southern coast of Ireland on this day. He was on board the 80 gun Ship of the Line Indomptable [above] of Captain Bedout. He had sailed as part of a huge Military and Naval Expedition launched by the Directory in Paris to overthrow British rule in Ireland and establish a Revolutionary Government. The expedition consisted of seventeen ships of the line, thirteen frigates, five corvettes, two gunboats and six transports, having aboard 13,975 land forces, 45,000 stand of arms, and an ample supply of money and clothing.
However during the passage from France a great Storm had scattered the Fleet and only a remnant had re-assembeld by the time they reached the vicinity of Cape Clear. Most importantly of all the Commander of the land forces, the dashing General Hoche was missing.
Wolfe Tone recorded in his Journal that:
…this morning, at daybreak, we are under Cape Clear, distant about four leagues, so I have at all events once more seen my Country; but the pleasure I should otherwise feel at this is totally destroyed by the absence of the General, who has not yet joined us, and of whom we know nothing.
The instructions given before departure allowed the Fleet just five days grace off the Irish coast before the Royal Navy would be upon them and the game up. Wolfe Tone was fully aware that delay was fatal and chaffed at the enforced wait that now ensued.
We are now, nine o'clock, at the rendezvous appointed; stood in for the coast till twelve, when we were near enough to toss a biscuit ashore; at twelve tacked and stood out again, so now we have begun our cruise of five days in all its forms, and shall, in obedience to the letter of our instructions, ruin the expedition, and destroy the remnant of the French navy, with a precision and punctuality which will be truly edifying.
The Command of the Expedition now fell to General Grouchy but he hesitated to proceed with so small a force and without the presence of Hoche. However Tone was under no illusions that if this spirited General ever did turn up he would not hesitate one moment.