The Siege of Limerick (1690)

Patrick Weston Joyce

649. The Irish now took the Shannon for their line of defence and concentrated their forces at Limerick and Athlone. William marched towards Limerick. Douglas attacked Athlone with 12,000 men; but after a siege of seven days he was repulsed, and joined the king at Limerick.

650. On the 9th of August 1690, William encamped at Singland just outside the walls of the old city, with an effective army of about 26,000; the Irish army of defence numbered about 25,000, only half of them armed. The city was badly prepared for defence: the French general Lauzun said "it could be taken with roasted apples"; and deserting his post, marched to Galway and embarked for France.

651. William was deficient in artillery: but a great siege train was on its way from Dublin, with heavy cannons, plenty of ammunition, and other necessaries for a siege.

652. When general Patrick Sarsfield came to hear of this, he determined to intercept the convoy. Marching out silently at dead of night at the Clare side, with 500 picked horsemen, he rode to Killaloe, fifteen miles above Limerick, and crossed the Shannon at an unguarded ford a little above the town (Sunday night, August 10th, 1690).

653. Turning south-east, and having given his party a brief rest, he came on the convoy on the next night towards morning, beside the ruined castle of Ballyneety near the village of Oola. All were asleep except a few sentinels, and the attack was a complete surprise. When the party of horse dashed in among them there was little resistance, and in a few minutes Sarsfield had possession of the whole train. He caused the cannons to be filled with powder and their mouths buried in the earth; a fuse was laid to magazine and cannon; and the whole train was blown up in one terrific explosion. A part of William's army heard the ominous rumble in the distance, and too well divined what it meant.

Sarsfield, successfully eluding a party sent out too late to intercept him, made his way safely back to the city. This brilliant exploit greatly raised the spirits of the besieged.

654. Notwithstanding this disaster, king William, sending to Waterford for more heavy cannon, pressed the siege. The men worked at the trenches, which, in spite of the most determined opposition, were advanced within a few feet of the walls. The cannons made a great breach near St. John's Gate; and through this it was determined to make an assault.

655. In the afternoon of the 27th of August 1690, a storming party, leaping up from the trenches, entered the breach, supported in the rear by 10,000 men. They fired their muskets and threw their hand grenades among the defenders: but were met by a terrible fire from all sides, front and flanks. Nearly all the front ranks were destroyed, and the rest showed signs of wavering; but thousands of resolute men pressed on from behind, and the Limerick men, now sore pressed, began to yield in their turn.

656. From every convenient standpoint the citizens viewed the terrible fight, but could see little through the thick cloud of smoke and dust. When they became aware that the assailants were prevailing, they rushed down in crowds from their secure resting-places, and seizing every available weapon, joined eagerly in the fray. Even the women—more active still than the women of Derry—rushed to the very front, and regardless of danger, flung stones and bottles and missiles of every kind in the very faces of the assailants.

657. The Brandenburgh regiment, fighting steadily, had advanced to the Black Battery and were swarming round and over it; when suddenly the magazine was exploded, and battery and Brandenburghers were blown into the air in horrible confusion.

658. For four hours this dreadful conflict raged, and a cloud of smoke and dust, wafted by a gentle breeze, reached the whole way to the top of a high hill sixteen miles off. The assailants, unable to withstand the tremendous and unexpected resistance, at last yielded, and turning round, rushed back through the breach in headlong confusion.

King William had witnessed the conflict from Cromwell's fort; and having seen the repulse of his best troops, he returned to the camp deeply disappointed. Over 2,000 of his men were killed or wounded: the loss of the Irish was comparatively small.

659. William raised the siege, which had lasted three weeks, and returned to England, leaving general De Ginkel in command; and on the 31st of August the army marched away from the city.

The heroic defenders of Limerick had, almost without ammunition, repulsed a well—equipped veteran army directed by a great general who had never been foiled before.

660. In September 1690, Cork surrendered, after a fierce struggle, to the Williamite general John Churchill, afterwards the celebrated duke of Marlborough; Kinsale followed; and this ended the campaign of 1690.