Bantry Bay is remarkable for the descent of two French fleets. A naval battle was fought here between the English and French in 1689, the French having come to the aid of James II.
The French fleet comprised forty-four sail. Admiral Herbert received intelligence that they were coasting near Baltimore. He set out in pursuit of them, and found that they had anchored in Bantry Bay. The Admiral lay off the Bay all night, and next morning entered it. The French weighed anchor, and were soon under sail, and bore down upon the English. When they came within musket shot the battle began by the firing of small and large guns.
The English wanted to engage them closer, but the wind was against them, and they were under a disadvantage. Admiral Herbert then put off to sea with the view of putting his ships into line, and of gaining the wind, but the enemy was very cautious, and kept bearing down on him, so the manoeuvre was foiled. He continued the fight until five o’clock p.m., when the French Admiral, Perrault, stood into the bay. Some of the British ships being disabled in their rigging, Admiral Herbert did not follow him, but set out with his fleet for Plymouth, where he arrived on the 7th of May.
In the action, one captain, one lieutenant, and 94 seamen were killed, and 250 wounded.
The fleets withdrew: Château-Renault returned to Brest on 18 May, seizing on the way seven Dutch merchant vessels bound from the West Indies. Herbert sailed for the Scilly Isles, before reaching Spithead, via Plymouth, on 22 May. For both the French and English however, the battle was equally unsatisfactory. Although the damage sustained to Herbert’s ships was enough to lay his squadron up for two months in Portsmouth (during which time the Irish waters were completely uncovered), Château-Renault failed to press his advantage – much to the dismay of his junior flag-officers, Job Forant and Jean Gabaret. William was also unsatisfied with the outcome; nevertheless, the King created Herbert Earl of Torrington, mainly in recognition of his work the previous year during the ‘Glorious Revolution’. Moreover, the King knighted two of Herbert’s captains, John Ashby who had led the van, and Cloudesley Shovell, and ordered a gratuity of ten shillings a head for the seaman. James, meanwhile, had begun the Siege of Derry, the capture of which would open communications with Jacobite forces in Scotland; three French frigates under Captain Duquesne were assigned to support him. In response, the Scottish parliament commissioned two small cruisers, the Pelican and the Janet to oppose the French squadron, but, on 20 July, they were both taken by Duquesne in the North Channel.
The Allies now began to build up their naval strength in the Channel; the fleet would soon comprise 34 English and 20 Dutch ships of the line, with four frigates and 17 fireships. After rendezvousing with victuallers, the Anglo-Dutch squadrons patrolled south of Kinsale to prevent further French supplies reaching Ireland. However, when the French Brest fleet – now joined by Tourville’s squadron of 20 rated vessels and four frigates – set sail on 15 August, it cruised in the Bay of Biscay, posing no threat to England or English communications with Ireland. The French, therefore, were unable to prevent Admiral Rooke relieving the siege of Londonderry on 10 August, or, forestall Marshal Schomberg’s army from England landing near Carrickfergus on 23 August. With Schomberg’s reinforcements, the Williamite army opposing James in Ireland now amounted to some 40,000 troops.