A recent article in the Saturday edition of the Irish Times about Irishmen serving in the British Army sparked a vigorous debate in the following weeks in the letters pages of the paper. The correspondence reflected an ongoing debate in Irish society about our relationship with our nearest neighbour, Britain.
It has led me to consider how emigration to Britain has scattered men from Athy all over the globe and my thoughts were certainly turned in that direction recently when conducting some research in the National Archives in London. I came across references to Athy men who had served in the Royal Navy in the early 1800s. What was of particular interest was that a number of these men had served in Lord Nelson’s fleet which was triumphant at the Battle of Trafalgar against the French in 1805.
In the records I came across the details of two men from Athy who served in Nelson’s Navy at the Battle of Trafalgar, one was William Molloy who at the date of the battle was aged 30 and Barney Dempsey who was aged 18. Both of them were serving together on the ship HMS Spartiate. The ship originally called ‘Sparti’ was one of nine ships captured by the Royal Navy from the French at the Battle of the Nile in 1798. In November 1805 under the command of Francis Laforey it was part of Nelson’s Fleet which was chasing across the Atlantic a French Fleet under Admiral Villeneuve. It became involved in the Battle of Trafalgar on 21st October 1805. The ship itself was at the rear of the Fleet and was not involved in the first few hours of the battle, however it eventually entered the battle in the company of HMS Minotaur where they found themselves up against four French and one Spanish ship. The English ships performed very well and apparently the rate of fire of both Spartiate and Minotaur was so strong that the French ships ultimately fled, leaving the Spanish ship Neptuno alone to fight against the two British ships which was soon captured it.
The casualties of HMS Spartiate were very light with three killed and twenty wounded. The ship returned to England for Nelson’s funeral with Captain Laforey being the flag bearer walking behind Nelson’s coffin. Interestingly the ship's flag was discovered in England last year and sold for a substantial sum of money at auction, being the only surviving Union Jack flag from the Battle of Trafalgar.
Dempsey joined HMS Spartiate on 10th July 1804 as a ships boy. The ships boys were usually between 12 and 18 years of age, often from poor families. Some had been convicted of petty crimes and may have found themselves in service in the Royal Navy at the direction of a Judge, though in Dempsey's case he was a volunteer. They were generally engaged in very menial work on ships such as cleaning, assisting the ship's cook and looking after the live animals which were kept on ships to feed the men. At the time of his service on HMS Spartiate Barney was 18 years of age and presumably he was at the end of his career as a boy and thereafter could have expected a promotion to sailor. He had served a number of ships before joining Spartiate including the Salvador and the Neptune.
While Barney Dempsey had clearly served a number of years in the Navy on a number of ships, William Molloy’s naval experience seems to have been limited at the time of his service at the Battle of Trafalgar. Although 30 years of age he was listed as a 'landsman'. A landsman was a person who had not been to sea before and had no experience of the Royal Navy. He may have been, as many men were at the time, a victim of the press gang. Essentially the press gang were a group of men from a ship who would use force to compel men to serve in the Navy. Life in the Royal navy was harsh and the conditions and pay were far better in merchant ships. Generally the Navy sought to impress men between the ages of 18 and 45 years of age with seagoing experience, but many 'landsmen' were impressed and it is quite possible that Barney Dempsey was an unwitting victim of a press gang at a port somewhere in Britain.
Both men survived the battle but their subsequent fate is unknown to us. At the time of the Battle of Trafalgar approximately twenty per cent of Royal Navy men were Irish and in some way it is not surprising that two young men from landlocked Athy found themselves at the centre of the greatest naval battle in history.