Siege of Athlone

Margaret Anne Cusack
start of chapter | Chapter XXXIII

Hostilities commenced on 7th June, with the siege of Ballymore Castle, in Westmeath. The Governor surrendered, and Athlone was next attacked. This town is situated on the river Shannon. Its position must be thoroughly understood, to comprehend the heroic bravery with which it was defended. It will be remembered that Athlone was one of the towns which the English of the Pale had fortified at the very commencement of their invasion of Ireland. That portion of the city which lay on the Leinster or Pale side of the river, had never been strongly fortified, and a breach was made at once in the wall. Ginkell assaulted it with 4,000 men, and the defenders at once withdrew to the other side; but they held the bridge with heroic bravery, until they had broken down two of the arches, and placed the broad and rapid Shannon between themselves and their enemies.

St. Ruth had arrived in the meantime, and posted his army, amounting to about 15,000 horse and foot, at the Irish side of the river. The English had now raised the works so high on their side, that they were able to keep up an incessant fire upon the town. According to their own historian, Story, they threw in 12,000 cannon balls and 600 bombs, and the siege cost them " nigh fifty tons of powder." The walls opposite to the batteries were soon broken down, and the town itself reduced to ruins.

The besiegers next attempted to cross in a bridge of boats, but the defenders turned their few field-pieces on them. They then tried to mend the broken bridge; huge beams were flung across, and they had every hope of success. But they knew not yet what Irish valour could dare. Eight or ten devoted men dashed into the water, and tore down the planks, under a galling fire; and, as they fell dead or dying into the river, others rushed to take the places of their fallen comrades, and to complete the work.

St. Ruth now ordered preparations to be made for an assault, and desired the ramparts on the Connaught side of the town to be levelled, that a whole battalion might enter abreast to relieve the garrison when it was assailed. But the Governor, D'Usson, opposed the plan, and neglected the order. All was now confusion in the camp. There never had been any real head to the royalist party in Ireland; and to insure victory in battle, or success in any important enterprise where multitudes are concerned, it is absolutely essential that all should act with union of purpose. Such union, where there are many men, and, consequently, many minds, can only be attained by the most absolute submission to one leader; and this leader, to obtain submission, should be either a lawfully constituted authority, or, in cases of emergency, one of those masterspirits to whom men bow with unquestioning submission, because of the majesty of intellect within them. There were brave men and true men in that camp at Athlone, but there was not one who possessed these essential requisites.