‘A Lofty Arch’: West Cork and the Battle of Trafalgar

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In her travel book, Rambles in the South of Ireland During the Year 1838, Georgiana Chatterton tells us that during her stay at Castletownshend, she also ‘rambled through the noble woods’ of the area which ‘fringed the margin of the deep blue sea.’ Long before the Wild Atlantic Way came into being, Chatterton and other tourists came to appreciate the natural beauty and man-made curiosities of the so-called ‘Haven Coast’ of West Cork.

Much like today’s traveller, on her walk along the coast near Castletownshend, Chatterton encountered ruins of old castles, picturesque scenery, and an unusual but significant monument.

Sometimes we caught glimpses of the distant rocky headlands which render this part of the coast so magnificent. At the summit of one, is a lofty arch, erected to the memory of Nelson by a party of officers. It is formed of large stones without cement, and, I was told, was entirely constructed after church one Sunday […] This wonderful arch, however, forms a fine object in most of the views about Castle Townsend [sic], and as I first saw it towering above the mist which concealed the base of the mountain height on which it stood, its appearance was supernatural.

The monument of which Chatterton writes was erected following the British victory over the combined French and Spanish fleets at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805. A tiny watercolour sketch by the monument’s architect, Captain Joshua Rowley Watson (1772-1818), has recently been donated to the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork. Depicting the dry-stone arch (which reputedly measured 12’ x 7’), the watercolour gives us an idea of the picturesque view Chatterton so enjoyed.

Captain Joshua Rowley Watson R.N., Nelson’s Monument, Castletownshend (c.1815), 11.5 x 7.3 cm. (Image Credit: Courtesy of Crawford Art Gallery, Cork).

Although now no longer standing, the arch is also referred to in Ordnance Survey correspondence from 1845. These record the following inscription that was inscribed on the monument:

This arch, the first monument erected to the memory of Nelson after the battle of Trafalgar, was sketched and planned by Capt. Joshua Rawly [sic] Watson R.N. and built by him and 1200 of the Sea Fencibles then under his command (assisted by 8 masons). It was erected in 5 hours on the 10th November 1805.

This inscription offers us telling insights into the significance of the monument as the first of its kind, erected only a few short weeks after the event it commemorated and a still shorter time after news must have reached West Cork. It also tells of local feeling at Castletownshend in the aftermath of the Battle of Trafalgar and the presence and number of Sea Fencibles in the area during this time.

One of some twenty-one such divisions in Ireland, these were a local naval militia under the command of Captain Watson tasked with coastal defence during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). It should be noted that over 3,500 Irishmen fought on the side of Admiral Horatio Nelson at Trafalgar, 632 of whom were from Cork. Below is a meticulously researched painting by the Cork-born artist Daniel Maclise (1806-70) depicting the scene as Nelson lay dying on the deck of HMS Victory, which had at least 94 Irish among its crew.

Daniel Maclise, The Death of Nelson (1859-64). (Image Credit: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons).

We hope that this will add to the richness of knowledge that exists about our extraordinary coastline and spark interest in its layers of complex history. By drawing on such varied sources as academic and amateur paintings, travel literature and official correspondence, we at Deep Maps have begun to assemble a fuller picture of the diverse traditions associated with the West Cork coast and the richness of its histories, communities, practices, and concerns.

Deep Maps Research Assistants Orla-Peach Power and Breda Moriarty Inspecting the  Watercolour of Nelson’s Monument by Joshua Rowley Watson, Currently on dDisplay at the Crawford Art Gallery, Cork (Image Credit: Michael Waldron).

For those interested in learning more about this monument, a History Ireland article from earlier this year by Dennis Kennedy is a very good start – it also contains a wonderful photograph of the arch taken by Mr Coghill on 21 October 1896 and originally published in the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society.