Bere Island is said to be one of the best preserved military landscapes in Ireland. The island features the remains of a road constructed by the forces of Sir George Carew ahead of the 1602 Siege of Dunboy, two remaining Napoleonic Martello towers and signal tower, along with seven gun batteries and extensive fortifications built by the British Admiralty and in use during World War One.
The Siege of Dunboy 1602
The first known military presence on Bere Island was in 1602 when ahead of the Siege of Dunboy, British forces under Sir George Carew, landed at Lonehort Harbour at the eastern end of the island, marching across to its western shores which looked directly onto Dunboy, the stronghold of Gaelic chieftain Donal Cam O’Sullivan Beare.
French Armada 1796
In December 1796, under the command of Theobald Wolfetone, a French Armada made an attempted invasion of Ireland via Bantry Bay. The invasion was thwarted by ferocious winter storms, a longboat from one of the vessels landed on the eastern end of Bere Island on a site known locally as Tra na bhFrancach (the French Beach). The longboat and her crew were captured, the longboat was kept at Bantry House until the 1940s and is now on display in the National Museum in Dublin and is the oldest surviving vessel of the French Navy.
Following the attempted invasion, and realising the strategic location of Bere Island, as an entry point to Ireland, and eventually England for foreign invading forces, the British constructed four Martello Towers on Bere Island, one at the site of the present day Lonehort Battery, one where Rerrin Redoubt is now located and one each on Ardagh and Cloughland hills. The towers at Cloughland and Ardagh still remain. The towers were completed by 1805, and were part of a network of towers and signal towers around the Irish coastline.
In March 1898 further fortifications began on Bere Island, when the British War Department issued a compulsory purchase order for the eastern end of the island. Islanders living in this area were allowed to remain, but as tenants of the War Department and could be evicted with 24 hours’ notice. This area became known locally as ‘inside the red line’ which referred to a red line marking it on maps. The island nurse was issued with a daily pass to permit her to pass through the military checkpoint located at the red line, in order to treat patients at the other end of the island. Islanders treated ‘crossing the red line’ as crossing an international border, which in effect it was.
Following the compulsory purchase order, seven gun batteries were constructed on Bere Island, along with a barracks, stores and recreation facilities which included a cricket pitch and pavilion, running track, squash courts and a tennis court. The British also installed electricity in their fortifications, which was run by generators, and also supplied islanders’ houses in the east end with electricity, with the result that homes in this part of the island had electricity since the early 1900s, long before the rural electrification scheme of the 1950s.
The large coastal artillery guns for the gun batteries were brought by sea from Cork to Bere Island, and then transported by horse and cart to their destination. Over 500 men were employed during the construction process of Fort Berehaven. The primary aim of the gun batteries was to protect the British fleet which lay at anchor in Berehaven Harbour. These were steam powered ships, and when undergoing routine maintenance, they were effectively sitting ducks.
Bere Island has witnessed and played a part in many historic events. In 1865, the cable laying ship, The Great Eastern anchored at Berehaven to load up with coal and supplies before making her Atlantic crossing. In 1917 the US Navy used the sheltered waters off Bere Island as a safe anchorage whilst protecting the Atlantic convoys during World War One. The USS Oklahoma, USS Utah and USS Nevada were regular visitors to Bere Island, with their crews coming ashore and playing baseball at the British Admiralty Recreation Grounds. These three ships were later sunk during the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941.
With the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1922. A condition of the treaty was that Britain retained control of three deep-water ports in Cork Harbour, Lough Swilly and Berehaven, which became known as the Treaty Ports. Fort Berehaven, Bere Island was handed back to the Irish Government on September 26th, 1938. The final detachment of British troops left the island four days later on September 30th, thereby ending a continual British military presence on Bere Island since 1798.
The island’s military links continues to this day with the Irish Defence Forces who use the former Fort Berehaven as a training base.