James II’s Irish Campaign (2)

Eleanor Hull
James II’s Irish Campaign | start of chapter

So far as James’s prospects of regaining his crown were concerned, his Irish career closed with the battle of the Boyne. He never returned, and in spite of a regular correspondence with his friends in Ireland, his future designs seemed more likely to prosper if conducted through Scotland or directly with England. But the Irish fought on under better leadership, and they emulated at Limerick the feats accomplished by their opponents at Derry.

After the Boyne, where cavalry support had been withheld from the hard-pressed foot until too late, the main body of the French foot made an orderly retreat, covered by the Irish dragoons, who fought a rearward action till they reached the Pass of Duleek, where they turned and offered battle.

But William “thought it more prudent to halt and suffer them to march away,” being probably as anxious to assist his father-in-law’s escape from Ireland as he had been to aid his flight from London. To have had James on his hands as a prisoner would have created an embarrassing position, considering the nearness of their relationship. He permitted the King to “be his own messenger as to what had happened to him at the Boyne.”[9]

The rapid surrender of the Southern towns contrasts strangely with their resistance when, just forty years before, Cromwell had stood at their gates. They may have remembered their fate when they defied the Protector. Drogheda, Wexford, Kilkenny and Carrick, Clonmel, Duncannon, and Waterford surrendered one after another or were abandoned. Dublin, which in March had given a royal welcome to King James, now, on July 6, received King William.

The wonderful rally made at Limerick after the disheartenment that followed the retreat from the Boyne proves the truth of Sarsfield’s exclamation:

“Low as we now are, change Kings with us and we will fight it over again.”

By an almost simultaneous movement the army converged on Limerick, and Tyrconnel and Lauzun, who were playing a double game, and doing all they could to induce the leaders to submit to William, were no less chagrined than William himself at the sight of the great concentration of troops before the city.

Having no confidence that a treaty with the English would be carried out, the Irish were resolved to “put their backs to the walls of Limerick and there engage in a regular fight for the whole kingdom,” and gentlemen, burgesses, and farmers gathered from all parts “to share in the glory of that day.”[10]

The city was weak and ill fortified, without ramparts save “some miserable little towers without ditches,” but though the men who defended it were poorly clad and without money they were fighting for all that they were and all that they had. The siege of Limerick and battle of Aughrim were the final important contests of Irish Ireland.

Tyrconnel, who had been left in charge when James abandoned Ireland, “sank prodigiously,” as Berwick tells us, “after the battle of the Boyne, being as irresolute in his mind as he was unwieldy in person.”[11]

But it was not only that Tyrconnel was past his prime; he had made up his mind not to oppose the Prince of Orange in his conquest of Ireland. He shipped away his wife with all his own wealth and the King’s treasure to France, there to spread untrue news of the defeat of the Irish army, and to discourage Louis from sending reinforcements. “Lying Dick Talbot,” as he might now be well called, had made his terms with William, “leaving to Providence the restoration of their King.”

When the officers unanimously rejected his advice he appointed a Frenchman, M. Boisseleau, as Governor of Limerick, with the Duke of Berwick, Dorington, Sarsfield, Luttrell, Wauchop, and Maxwell as commanders, and sent off the rest of the forces to Connacht. He himself withdrew to Galway, thirty miles off, to arrange for the shipping of the French brigade to France, they having declared that they would stay no longer now that the King was gone. On August 9, the city of Limerick, having refused to surrender on William’s summons, was invested and the siege began.

The great exploit of the early part of the siege was Sarsfield’s capture of William’s convoy of guns which was being drawn up towards his camp for use in battering the walls. News was brought that they had arrived within seven miles of the camp and Sarsfield, who had held the passes of the Shannon the whole winter against William’s army, and knew every fordable spot, determined that they should go no further. With five hundred dragoons he passed the Shannon at dead of night and, following up its course, recrossed at an undefended ford near Killaloe, some miles above William’s camp. Quietly and noiselessly, guided by Rapparees, they pursued their way, till they came where the convoy of great cannon was stationed. Overpowering the guard, they piled carriages and wagons, ammunition and provisions, into one heap, filling the guns with powder and digging their mouths into the ground. Then, after fixing a train to the powder, they vanished into the darkness. A few minutes later, when a party of Orange soldiers sent out by William was drawing near to the spot, a terrific explosion was heard, the guns being actually blown into the air and the whole heap destroyed. Some of the guard who had slept that night “awoke in another world.”

Sarsfield is the hero of the siege of Limerick. Tyrconnel would readily have omitted him altogether from his list of officers, but for the fury of the soldiers, of whom he was the idol. As it was, his name was placed last. Sarsfield laid the plans and inspired the besieged. Berwick tells us that he was a gentleman by birth with an estate of nearly £2,000 a year, a man of amazing stature, “utterly void of sense, very good-natured, and very brave.”[12] He had served in France, and as a lieutenant of lifeguards in England. He was to his countrymen the ideal of the fearless and dashing officer, and the exploit of the guns so much raised his reputation that scheming men like Luttrell, by constant flatteries, came near to turn his head, making him believe “that he was the greatest general in the world.”

Tyrconnel, on returning from France, brought him the title of Earl of Lucan from the King. But, as in Derry, the valour of the townspeople was undermined by the treachery of their commanders. The chief traitor was Colonel Luttrell, a capable but utterly unscrupulous officer, who bent his energies to aiding William and overthrowing Tyrconnel. Though a personal friend to Luttrell, Sarsfield was not so “void of sense” as to be ignorant of what was going on, and he gave a short answer, threatening to expose the cabals of these dangerous incendiaries if they did not mend their ways.[13]

“Never,” says Colonel O’Kelly, “was a town better attacked and better defended than the city of Limerick. William left nothing unattempted that the art of war, the skill of a good captain, and the valour of veteran soldiers could put in execution to gain the place; and the Irish omitted nothing that courage and constancy could practise to defend it.”[14]

The siege ended in a terrific assault on August 27. A large breach having been made in the wall, the foreign troops, composed of men of ten nationalities, forced their way within the walls, fighting for every inch of ground they gained, and under a storm of fire pouring on them from all sides at once. They were obliged to retire, leaving nearly two thousand of their men wounded or dead behind them.

William called a council of war and ordered another attack next morning, but his men refused to move, even though he offered to lead them in person. “Highly incensed,” he broke up the camp, ordered the troops into winter-quarters, and with Prince George of Denmark and the Duke of Ormonde departed to England, hastened by reports of an intended landing by James on English shores.

William, like James, took ship at Duncannon. His losses had been very severe. The Danes, a force of nearly seven thousand men, lost forty-five officers. It was probably the worst repulse that William had experienced in the course of his wars. His retreating army carried away between four and five thousand sick and wounded, besides over four hundred men burned accidentally to death in hospital. When this dreadful accident occurred, the Irish troops, who were in hot pursuit, stopped short, and “rushing into the flames, saved the lives of their enemies at the hazard of their own.”[15]

The French also suffered severely, in one French regiment only six officers remaining in condition to do duty, seventy-one having been put out of action; the cost of the war to France had been over £18,000,000 sterling, besides the arrears due to the army.

The French official report of the fighting says of the Irish:

“The Irish soldiers have not only fought, but endured with extraordinary patience all the hardships of the siege, which have been very great; they have been almost constantly under arms and they were in want of the greater part of the necessaries of life as well as of medicines for the sick and wounded.”

Their officers, also, are said to have “signalized themselves extremely.”[16] No one was so disappointed at the result of the siege as the two Jacobite conspirators, Tyrconnel and Lauzun, who from the safe shelter of the walls of Galway were watching for the fall of the city they were bound to defend; on hearing of the raising of the siege, these inseparable friends took ship to France, each anxious to be first in throwing the blame of the disaster on the other; but Tyrconnel, by a “bountiful distribution of the King’s gold,” succeeded in outwitting the French general, who barely escaped a second internment in the Bastille, while the Viceroy secretly allied himself with the English interest at the French Court, though outwardly still holding to James.

Meanwhile, things had not been going well in Ireland. Berwick had made an abortive attack on Birr with an immense army, and Churchill, the future Duke of Marlborough, and renegade follower of James, had landed on the south coast, reducing Cork and Kinsale in a few hours.

There was no regular government, for the ill-defined authority put by Tyrconnel into the hands of the young Duke of Berwick, who showed himself little fitted for responsibility and only intent on amusing himself, was not recognized by the Irish gentry, who tried to set up a senate in his place.

But treachery was working everywhere; even in the senate a large party of Tyrconnel’s adherents was secretly working for William, though many of them were Irish Catholics. These men of the “New Interest,” as they were called, had purchased lands on James’s accession from the Puritan owners, and they thought they had a better chance of retaining their acquisitions by submitting to the new Government. They dreaded the restoration of the old Irish race as much as the Puritans had done, fearing that the re-establishment of James’s authority might lead to the sacrifice of their newly-acquired estates.

Sarsfield, who was himself free from sordid motives, tried to mediate between the factions, but he was a soldier by trade and character and unfitted for delicate tasks of government. He signed every paper that was brought to him, believed everything that was told him, and hastened gladly back to his military camp at Athlone, delighted to find the people who had been represented to him as all at loggerheads apparently pliable and accommodating.

Connacht and the West of Munster still adhered outwardly to James, and the proposed arrival of St Ruth, an officer of great experience, from France with fresh assistance from Louis gave new spirit to the Irish Army. Tyrconnel, now returned, was enjoying the bonfires, balls, and banquets organised by Galway while he waited for hunger to “constrain the obstinate Irish to hearken to the treaty with William so often proposed.” On May 9, 1691, St. Ruth and the French fleet appeared off Limerick, accompanied by the Chevaliers de Tesse and d’Usson, to the joy of the old Irish and the chagrin of Tyrconnel and the New Interest.

Two military events divide the first siege of Limerick from the second. One was the capture of Athlone, a strongly fortified town lying on both sides of the Shannon, and the main pass into Connacht from Leinster. The other was the battle of Aughrim.

General Ginkel had been left by the Prince of Orange in command of his army in Ireland when he left hurriedly for England. After slight successes in various parts of Leinster, Ginkel gathered his scattered forces and on June 19, 1691, he appeared before the town of Athlone with eighteen thousand men. The citadel had been vigorously defended the year before by the Governor, Colonel Richard Grace, one of the Confederates of half a century ago; when he found that the English town, which lay on the Leinster side of the river, could not be defended he had burned it and broken down the bridge. Being summoned to surrender, he had fired a pistol over the head of the messenger, and told him that those were the terms he was out for.[17]

The besieging army had finally marched away. On its return under Ginkel, the ruined English town was entered, after a fierce resistance, on the day after his arrival (June 20), the news bringing up St. Ruth to Ballinasloe, about twelve miles away. St Ruth had, since his landing, been struggling with great difficulties. He had brought very little money, and the clothes sent were so poor in quality that Tyrconnel had to don a suit himself in order to get the officers to put them on.

The common soldiers were nearly naked, having had neither pay nor clothing given to them. Provisions, however, had arrived with St Ruth, in spite of the Viceroy’s assurances to the French King that “an Irish army can live upon bread and water”;[18] but as no boats had been provided, St Ruth was at a loss how to get them up the Shannon to Athlone.

While Ginkel was organizing his army, St Ruth was galloping over the country looking for horses to carry up his provisions, one supply of which was eaten up before he could get up the next. He began to learn that “he had been more credulous than wary in his transactions with James.”

Tyrconnel, though his authority was supposed to be confined to civil affairs, interfered with all the French general’s plans, and had the effrontery to appear at the head of the army which it was his object to betray. Neglect and divided counsels brought about the loss of the town. Ginkel, after bombarding it from the Leinster bank with terrible newly-invented engines, several times attempted to cross the river to the almost ruined town that still held out against him, but the bravery of the defenders defeated all his efforts. As fast as his men threw planks and beams across the broken arches of the bridge, they were pulled down by a soldier named Custume with eight or ten determined companions, working under fire from the enemy.[19] He was on the point of raising the siege when he received a message from the Irish side informing him that the watch that night would be held by raw recruits.

Ginkel took the hint. At the tolling of the Angelus his men, in companies of sixty at a time, took the river with amazing resolution, the stream being very rapid and deep, and the Irish showering down shot upon them as they swam. They repaired the bridge, and two thousand men penetrated into the town, capturing it with much slaughter. Valiant Richard Grace lay dead with other officers among the ruins. General Mackey, praising his victorious army, said that “they were brave men, and the best of men if they would swear less.”

Athlone fell by treachery and carelessness combined. It is said by O’Kelly that the chief traitor was Colonel Maxwell, a Scottish officer, whom Sarsfield had a few days before publicly accused of dealings with the enemy; yet Tyrconnel insisted on giving him a command.

This opening of a way into Connacht produced consternation throughout the country. St Ruth, against the advice of Sarsfield and most of the Irish leaders, drew his army to Aughrim, and there awaited battle, determined to avenge the loss of Athlone or to die.