From a French corvette in 1798, a very important visitor alighted to Co Donegal’s Rutland Island. Napper Tandy was a Dubliner and a scourge of the city’s councillors as he waged war on their corruption. A few years prior had assisted Wolfe Tone in setting up the United Irishmen and agitated for Ireland’s independence. He now sought French assistance in overthrowing British rule and by 1798, via a sojourn in the US and a time in France, had been given command of a ship.
That ship arrived first to the neighbouring Arran Mór and then to Rutland Island. The ship carried guns and ammunition to arm a rebellion. Tandy bore the title general of command in the French service and was dedicated to the French revolutionary ideals of egality, fraternity and liberty.
Once on the island, Tandy and his men immediately seized the post office. There have been more successful episodes in Irish revolutionary history over the centuries but you have to start somewhere. He read out a proclamation but in the words of historian Roy Foster, “got insensibly drunk and was carried back to his ship”.
Tandy encouraged nobody on the island in his revolutionary zeal and the campaign fizzled out almost as soon as it had begun. Word by now had reached Tandy that an expedition by the French general Humbert the previous month in Killala had also failed, so the lack of co-ordination was tantamount to overall failure.
Tandy retreated via Norway to Hamburg but was handed over to the British and put on trial. He was sentenced to death but the sentence was commuted after an intervention by none other than Napoleon Bonaparte. The French emperor implied that the Treaty of Amiens, which brought French and British hostilities temporarily to a halt, was dependent on Napper Tandy’s release. He was released and peace prevailed for a time.
His prowess did inspire a balladeer to pen the quintessential rebel song ‘The Wearing of the Green’.
“I met with Napper Tandy,
And he took me by the hand and he said,
‘How’s poor old Ireland,
and how does she stand?’
She’s the most distressful country that
ever yet was seen
For they’re hanging men and women
there for the Wearin’ o’ the Green.
A report in the Evening Mail of 1802 declared: “James Napper Tandy is upwards of seventy years old. He has grown grey in the service of liberty and humanity … Napper Tandy is a persecuted man ... a ministry that could treat an old man of seventy with more than barbarian ferocity would be unworthy of a great nation.”
Tandy returned to see out his days in France and on his death was a given a military funeral.
Rutland’s original name was Inis Mhic an Doirn and a corruption of that, Inish-macadurn, is also found.
In pre-Famine times, the island had a population of 125. Most lived on the east of the island adjacent to the fast-flowing waters that divides the island from its neighbours Edernish and Inishcoo. Rutland was very unusual for an island, or in fact for towns, in having planned streets, businesses including a fish processing plant, and school. Napper Tandy’s post office derives from this time — 1785. The scheme was the brainchild of the MP for the Killybegs area William Burton Conyngham who was something of a visionary.
Unfortunately, the island’s fate depended on the herring industry and when it declined so did Rutland. The 1837 Ordnance Survey map reveals the fish plant covered with drifting sand.
The last people to live full-time on Rutland were brother and sister Bridget and Hugh McCole. An RTÉ report from 1963 described their departure: “Bridget McCole and her brother Hugh were stranded on Rutland … As the siblings lacked sufficient provisions, their situation could have turned to tragedy. Fortunately fisherman Patrick Duffy made an unscheduled call ... on returning to the mainland he reported Bridget and Hugh’s plight and the pair were taken off the island.”
Today, the island has attracted a number of holiday houses.
How to get there: No direct ferry but inquire at Burtonport.