In 18th century Ireland, Britain was a brutal oppressor. The penal laws of 1695 stripped the native Catholic population of many of their basic rights, from land ownership to voting entitlement. War and famine were regular features of the period, with tales of death and wanton destruction common place.
Yet from these unlikely depths of despair, a man emerged who can be described as the ‘Englishman who loved Ireland‘. A most unlikely man, given his role in the occupying army of the period, but a man who demonstrated a deep appreciation, even love, for Irish history, language and heritage. He played an active role in saving that history from permanent loss, at at time when most disparaged or entirely ignored the subject.
On top of his academic achievements, he somehow found time to have four Irish wives and fourteen children! That man is General Charles Vallancey, and this is his story.
On paper, Charles Vallancey was the most quintessential Englishman imaginable, yet some accounts say he was born in Flanders, France to a family of noble blood. He was schooled in Eton but Charles’s parents died when he was young. Fortunately a guardian and benefactor stepped in, his uncle John Preston who saw to a noble upbringing for his unexpected charge. Preston’s role as a Captain in the tenth regiment may have been what led Vallancey to join the army, as he took a place at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, serving with the Royal engineers.
By the time his training was complete, he appeared to the outside world a well-heeled, ‘born to the manor‘ British gentleman of caricature. He served for a time in Gibraltar where he demonstrated a growing skill in draftsmanship by producing a highly detailed map of the ‘rock’ that sits in the British Library to this day.
He was sent to Ireland in the mid-1750’s to assist with the ongoing major military survey of the country, and County Cork was a regular base. It was in North Cork, Mallow, that his first wife died in 1760, an incidence that would recur on two more occasions in Vallancey’s extraordinary life. While stationed in Mallow, Vallancey undertook repairs to the parade ground in Limerick which were much admired, and work in many other Irish counties followed in what would be a busy and distinguished career.
Charles Vallancey designed and built Queens bridge in Dublin, which still stands to this day (now known as Meave’s bridge or Mellows bridge). He carried out works on Ross castle in Killarney where he was temporarily based, and made reports on Dublin’s Grand Canal, the Leinster aqueduct and the Boyne navigation. He extensively surveyed Charles Fort in Kinsale, where he would spend three years between 1757 and 1760 making improvements and modifications to the sizable star shaped fortress. He furnished the war office with a plan for the defenses of Dublin, when unrest erupted in Ireland in 1798.
Complimenting his practical work, he published numerous books and articles on subjects like military fortification and field engineering. Many contained his own skilled designs and drawings, emphasizing the many talents of a well rounded character. So far, so typical for the diligent English Army Officer, who completed his work with a professionalism and productivity that was exemplary, and a skill, quality and level of detail in his mapping and designs that was rare.
But it was in Cork Harbour that Vallancey truly left a permanent mark. He was summoned by the Lord Lieutenant in 1781 to inspect the defenses of Cork Harbour, Waterford Harbour and the Shannon Estuary, following on from his role as overseer of the first small Spike Island battery in 1779. By the time he arrived, the instruction to survey had turned into an order to ‘improve the entire defenses as quickly as possible’. The American Revolutionary War was raging and Britain’s fight against the combined American / French forces was not going well. Cork Harbour was the main supply port for the war effort, and it had to be protected. Lieutenant Colonel Vallancey was the right man for the job.
He shared the view of Roman General Vegetius, who proclaimed in the 4th century that “To have peace you must prepare for war”. He wanted to make Cork harbour an Empire stopper, an impregnable coastal military collective so fierce, no navy would dare risk an assault. This would require money and momentum, and an article published in Paris in 1781 greatly helped his cause. Claiming to be written by an influential French man, the letter stated there was to be an attack on Cork harbour, as suggested by none other than American founding father Benjamin Franklin. Franklin had stayed on as United States Minister to France from 1779 to 1785, and the letter alleged that he proposed the best way France could aid the American cause was by cutting off the significant reinforcements and provisions that departed from Cork Harbour.
It was an obvious and accurate point, entirely plausible, and the British could not ignore the possibility. Vallancey would get the backing he desired to create something of significant scale, far surpassing the small battery he had installed on Spike Island years in the late 1700’s.
Having completed his initial review, he was critical of the existing harbor defenses and their deterrent capability. Soon he erected the harbors then largest defensive position at Dogs Nose. It housed some twenty two guns and fourteen mortars. The mortars were new to the harbor and had significant range. He renamed the fort as ‘Fort Carlisle’ in honour of the then Lord Lieutenant. Vallancey would also improve the Roches Point and Rams Head battery, addressing defensive deficiencies, and coupled with the impressive battery they gave some measure of the protection desired at the mouth of Cork Harbour.
But a clear issue emerged – the reality that the high speed of many modern war ships meant they could clear the outer harbour forts in as little as ten minutes. If a significant fleet made the run at the same time, they could sail past the outer defenses and cripple any batteries on Spike Island and elsewhere.
Ships of the line had grown to become enormous operations, with 74 guns and as many as 700 men onboard the French Temeraire class warships. Initially, Vallancey believed the outer harbour defensive ring should do the heavy lifting, but the more time he spent in the harbour, the more he viewed Spike Island as central to the cause.
Nothing less than a power status symbol of military might would do, enough to make even empires tremble.
He proposed a much larger fort than the then modest battery of cannons in the early 1780’s, but it was not to be. The 1783 end of the American Revolutionary War brought a change in priorities. The Spike Island battery was dismantled within a few years, and the harbors other defenses fell into disrepair.
But Vallancey was not to be outdone, remaining convinced of the need for Cork harbor defenses despite the end of the war. He knew truces were temporary, in a world of growing navies and global expansion. In 1790 he convinced the then Lord Lieutenant, John Fane, 10th Earl of Westmorland, to construct a significant fort on Spike Island. With the lease on the other harbour forts expiring, Spike Island and Cobh fort were to be the primary line of defense for Cork harbour. The first Spike Island fort was a not inconsiderable 10 acres in size, and by the turn of the 18th century it was considerably complete and armed, if not quiet ever at its full potential.
In the mid- 1790’s Charles Vallancey was proven entirely right about the need for fortification, when the French attempted two invasions of Ireland. They did not attempt to land at the well defended Cork Harbor, despite its sheltered confines being the ideal landing point for a large military force. The French believed the harbour was much better armed and reinforced than it actually was, a result of flawed French intelligence. So despite work being ongoing, Vallancey’s revamped Cork Harbour forts were already performing their deterrent function.
His foresight and persistence had been proven correct, so when he lobbied for an even more significant structure to be erected, there were few objections. By the turn of the 19th century, Napoleon was now marching his way across Europe, seemingly unstoppable in his ambitions. War with France was an existential threat for Britain – France had three times the population of Britain, not on a par as in modern times. There would be no expense spared at creating the safety and protection needed.
The eventual fort inspired by Vallancey, which started construction in 1804 under the watch of Charles Holloway, still stands tall to this day. It is 24 acres in size, cost well over a billion in today’s money, and was the Empire stopper that Vallancey had envisaged. It required millions of bricks, thousands of laborers, an army of two hundred horses and several decades to complete. The eventual defeat of Napoleon removed some of the impetus to complete it, so it was in the 1850’s that convict labor brought the fort to fruition.
By then it was and remains a military superstructure, one of the largest military fortifications in the world. It could fit two modern sports stadiums comfortably inside its walls, with only behemoths like the Pentagon in America beating it for size.
The genesis for this mega-fortress, a place that has taken its position among the worlds military elite, was in the mind and persistence of General Charles Vallancey.
Vallancey had achieved much at Cork harbour, and accomplished a great deal in his career as an author, publishing several volumes on engineering. He had left a permanent mark as an engineer across the island of Ireland, a mark still visible to this day in the bridges and forts he designed and built.
But for all this effort, what was to mark out Charles Vallancey as truly exceptional from centuries of British soldiers based in Ireland, before or after, was a sudden and unexpected interest in the history, language and antiquities of Ireland, his unchosen but adopted home. During his spare time, of which there can not have been much given his achievements, he read voraciously on the subjects of Irish history, myth and legend, and he did so at a time when these subjects were being almost entirely overlooked.
He was diligently collecting information on ‘old Ireland’ that may have been lost forever, but for his appetite, and this most British of occupying soldiers translated texts from Gaelic, collected Irish artifacts, and delved into previously dark corners of Ireland’s distant past.
He was smitten with the story of Ireland’s history and language, and published several books on the subject, which included the six volume Collectanea de Rebus Hibernicis, his Essays on the Irish languague, Grammar of the Irish language and historical works like Ancient history of Ireland (proved from sanscrit texts) and Vindication of the ancient kingdom of Ireland. He would follow up his writing and publishing by joining respected societies like the Royal Irish Academy, the Hibernian society of antiquarians and the Dublin society, where he would go on to be made Vice-President.
He was awarded an honorary LLD by the University of Dublin in 1781 and elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in London in 1784, and the Royal society in 1786. It was at the Royal Society in particular that he drew credit and fame, making improvements to the Dublin societies botanical gardens, arranging their natural history museum and establishing both a veterinary school and a farming society.
By all accounts Vallencey was described as a ‘handsome, energetic and sociable’ man, dedicated to the cause of preserving and telling Irish history when most overlooked the subject. He was a forerunner of the cause of national historical preservation, and despite his chosen Irish subject being deeply unfashionable and easily dismissed, Vallancey was unperturbed.
A significant achievement was his involvement in the return from France of the ‘Great Book of Lecan‘, a late 1300’s Irish origin document that contained Irish genealogical information as well as historical, biblical and hagiographical material. The document was presented to the Royal Irish Academy in Paris in 1787 after huge work by Vallancey to secure its return. It was a triumph for an Englishman whose primary function was supposed to be ensuring British occupation of Ireland was enforced and maintained.
It should be noted, and sadly it is too often stressed in modern accounts, that much of Vallencey’s historical deductions and writing on his adopted Irish subject was fanciful to be kind, and downright inaccurate and damaging to be cruel. He existed in a period before formal archaeology, when ‘antiquarians’ and ‘rock breakers’ concerned themselves with artifacts and manuscripts and visiting sites, deducing what they could in often-haphazard fashion from unreliable sources. Much of what Vallency wrote was open to ridicule, particularly as the decades progressed, and he received plenty from his critics. This is something of a travesty for the well-meaning General.
Perhaps it was the highly detailed drawings he completed of the ancient banquet hall of Tara, or his sketch of the Crown of the High Kings of Ireland, each produced without a verifying source as to their accuracy, which pushed some commentators over the edge. Or linking Irish Celtic tradition to other long lost civilizations, theories not uncommon but now debunked. Vallencey’s inaccurate claims and a lack of formal research and investigation were typical of the time, and while these trespasses should be noted, they should not detract from a highly commendable interest and achievement that was at odds with the attitude of most of his British contemporaries.
For most of his ilk, British history was one of the few, if not the only, history worth recording on the global stage, and had Vallancey not pushed the agenda, it may have been decades more before useful research on Irish tradition was underway. Artefacts, stories and tradition may have been lost forever had he not undertaken the often thankless work he launched himself into.
Griffith would say of Vallancey that “
“The value of the enthusiasm, energy and fearlessness which he displayed for over forty years, in an unpopular and unprofitable cause, is overlooked. It is forgotten that he was the first man of weight and influence in Anglo-Ireland to espouse the claim of the despised native Irish to an illustrious place among the nations. . . the first champion of the Irish language in the house of its enemies“.
While scholar EG Quinn summarized Vallanceys well intended if misguided efforts best;
‘… Charles Vallancey who, like Macpherson with his Ossianic forgeries, did more for Irish studies by drawing attention to them, than by any intrinsic value in his own somewhat irresponsible publications’ ( The Royal Irish Academy, a bicentennial history 1785-1985 , 1985).
Monica Nevin was kinder when she said ” General Charles Vallancey was, in many ways, larger than life and although not an Irishman, he bestrode the world of Irish antiquarians for almost half a century“.
Had all British officers been as affable, interested and accommodating of the lands in which they were employed to administer oppression as Charles Vallencey, the annals of Irish history may not be so sullied.
His legacy truly endures in the buildings and bridges he designed and built, the Irish interest books he wrote which drew scholarly attention to an overlooked past, and the family that survived him.
His legacy is only expanded by the fact that he achieved his many accomplishments over his lifetime while caring for four wives, and fourteen children, with the last wife and child entering his life while he was in his late seventies! Productivity indeed. He had endured the loss of three wife’s during his lifetime, but took great comfort in the lives of his children. There are several endearing letters from Vallancey pleading to military authorities for pensions for his unmarried daughters, as he tried to secure their fate. There are also accounts of his great efforts to marry off his many daughters, in high Georgian era drama reminiscent of the novels of Jane Austen, who lived during the same period.
General Charles Vallencey – author, antiquarian, engineer, soldier, husband, father, architect, and unlikely champion of Irish heritage, died in Dublin 1812, having been made a General in 1803. His tomb reports his age at death as 88, a fine age at the time for a man who filled his life with a sense of Arete towards his family, work and private interests.
High among those accomplishments and his enduring legacy is his work in Cork Harbour, and the fortress he inspired on Spike Island would later be termed a ‘sentinel tower of the defenses of the western approaches‘ by Winston Churchill. The whole Cork Harbour defensive system he played a titular role in creating is being considered for UNESCO recognition, a distinction it is certain to achieve if progressed.
The harbours myriad of forts, including the highly impressive works at Fort Camden, Carlise and Spike Island, and the supporting gunpowder trails snaking their way from Ballincollig to stores on nearby Rocky Island, represent a pinnacle of 300 years of military refinement. A defining moment in coastal defensive approaches, culminated in Cork Harbour.
Winston Churchill lost the battle to retain the island in 1938, and Ireland gained control of an asset that is a world class repository of Irish and global history, and a premier tourist destination. It is hard to see the affable Charles Vallancey suffering any displeasure from this outcome.
REFERENCES – FURTHER READING:
This author first encountered this character in Cal McCarthy’s works listed below, and directs the reader the way of these works for the full history of Spike Island and Cork Harbours fortification.
McCarthy, Cal. Cork Harbour. Kildare : Merrion Press, 2019.
Cal McCarthy, Barra O’Donnobhain. Too beautiful for thieves and pickpockets. s.l. : Cork County Council Library, 2016.
McEnery, John Hartnett. Fortress Ireland: The Story of the Irish Coastal Forts and the River Shannon Defence Line. Bray : Wordwell, 2006.
Nevin, Monica. General Charles Vallancey 1725-1812. Jstor – online reproduction of journal. [Online] 1993. [Cited: 03 02, 2022.] https://www.jstor.org/stable/25509044. 123.
O’Reilly, William. Chalres Vallancey and the Miitary Itinerary of Ireland. Procceeding of the Royal Irish Academy. 2006, Vol. 106C.
Bréartúin, Mícheál Ó. Charles Vallancey, 1725-1812: Ginearál, Innealtóir agus ‘Scoláire Gaeilge. s.l. : Coiscéim, 2009.
Post by John Crotty - information related to upcoming release 'Spike Island - The complete history of Ireland's historic island'. Content may be shared with credit to author John Crotty and mention of upcoming release - or - link to page. Full bibliography in back of book.