By Fergal Browne
In 1778, companies of local militias known as the ‘Volunteers’ or ‘Irish Volunteers’ were founded throughout Ireland in response to the removal of British troops to fight in the American War of Independence. The Anglo-Irish Landed Gentry were nervous about the lack of protection caused by the regular army’s departure, and so began founding their own companies, to protect against invasion but also to defend themselves in the case of any armed uprisings or rebellions. In the Kinsale area a regiment was formed called the Oysterhaven Infantry in December 1779. Regiments of Volunteers were often sometimes known as ‘Yeomanry’ or ‘Yeomen’.
Oysterhaven is a remote coastal village with a sheltered harbour, lying east of the town and harbour of Kinsale, Co. Cork. The threat posed by a potential French invasion at Oysterhaven was clearly felt, given that the unit was based in and designated for that area. Indeed, captured documents would later show that the United Irishmen recommended Oysterhaven to the French Directory as a potential landing point for an invasion of Ireland. There was also likely a memory that during the 1601 Battle of Kinsale, Lord Mountjoy had landed his English army at Oysterhaven Creek, so a precedent had been set for the location as an invasion point.
The Oysterhaven Infantry consisted of 50 men and were commanded by George Daunt of Newborough House, Oysterhaven, holding the rank of Captain. At least one of the other officers is known – Thomas Knolles of Oatlands.
There are no muster books, or any other records left which give the names of any other officers or men. It is possible that some of the 50 men were volunteers, however given that all of the officers were from the landlord class, it is also likely that some of the enlisted men were persuaded or forced to serve.
In September 1798 two blacksmiths based at Oysterhaven were discovered to be manufacturing pikes for use in a rebellion. There was even greater panic in May 1801 when a man was discovered in a skiff off the coast at Oysterhaven. When challenged he claimed to have come from Portsmouth and that he had been on his way to visit his brother in Cork, but that he had missed Cork Harbour due to the prevailing East winds and had been blown down the coast. When his boat was examined, it contained an inscription on the stern – ‘Owen Sullivan, Portsmouth’. The man and his boat were brought before Admiral Gardner, Commander of the Royal Navy Station at Cork, where a search of the boat revealed several charts of the Cork coast and an account of the soundings, or depths, of the coast around Oysterhaven. ‘It will be recollected’, stated the ‘Exeter Flying Post’ newspaper on 4th June 1801, while reporting on the case, ‘that Oysterhaven was reported to the French by the Executive Directory of the United Irishmen as a favourable place to carry in effect an invasion of that country’.
Thomas Knolles, one of the officers in the Oysterhaven Infantry, obviously developed a taste for soldiering, as he later joined the Wexford Militia, presumably when they were based in the area. He held the rank of Captain, a title he used for the rest of his life, and this is how he was named on his memorial tablet in St Multose Church in Kinsale when he died in 1840.
Occasionally relics of the Oysterhaven Infantry come to light. In 1898, Robert Day, founder of the Cork Historical & Archaeological Society published a photo in the society’s Journal of a beltplate from the Oysterhaven Infantry. The beltplate, together with a gorget, had been sent to him by Francis Walton Knolles of Walton Court and had been worn by Francis’ father Captain Thomas Knolles. Meanwhile, in 1907, a catalogue from the Irish International Exhibition, held in Dublin, contained ‘the Gilt Gorget and Oval Engraved Belt Plate worn by Captain Daunt, “Oyster Haven Infantry”’. The Daunt beltplate and gorget were later sold in 1913 when Robert Day’s private collection was auctioned off after his death.
In the early 2000’s two gorgets appeared at an auction in London, containing Oysterhaven Infantry markings, while later, at an auction of historical firearms, a musket was sold with ‘O H I’ carved into the stock – and was believed to have been used by the Oysterhaven Infantry.
All of these items have now been lost again to history or passed into private collections. They bore witness to a time when some dreaded and others dreamed of a French Army marching up the road from Oysterhaven.