King James and William

Following his dismissal from the English throne, James II fled to France in December 1688 and was replaced by his son-in-law William of Orange, who was declared king in February 1689. In March of that year James arrived in Ireland with a small French army. His appointment of Catholics to the more important positions of authority in Ireland had resulted in most of the towns falling into the hands of Catholics, or Jacobites as they came to be known from there on. The main exceptions to this were the two Ulster towns of Derry and Enniskillen, both of which strongly supported King William.

Derry was attacked by the Jacobites and it would have been surrendered to them had not thirteen Apprentice Boys rushed down and closed the gates of the city against the invading force. The Jacobites them made several assaults on the city walls, but they were poorly armed and were unable to take the town. They then decided on a siege that would starve the inhabitants into submission and a boom was even erected across the River Foyle to prevent any provisions being brought in by sea. King James himself visited the scene for a period but, disheartened with the progress, he returned to Dublin. The citizens of Derry were now in dire straits as the siege continued right through the spring and summer months, but eventually a ship broke through the boom on the river and brought much needed provisions to the starving inhabitants. The siege had lasted 105 days and the relief came on Sunday 28th July 1689. This was a massive boost for the Protestant cause and the Jacobites were humbled into lifting the siege and retreating southwards.

A few days later the Williamites scored another major victory over the Jacobites near Enniskillen. Schomberg and a Dutch army then landed in Ulster and in a short time the Jacobites were driven completely out of the northern province. King William himself arrived at Carrickfergus on 14th June 1690 and, following a triumphal parade through Belfast, he advanced southwards to meet King James. The opposing forces met at the Boyne on Tuesday 1st July 1690 (later rectified 12th July). William’s army on the north bank was made up of English, Dutch, Germans, Danish mercenaries and French Huguenots while the Jacobite army on the south bank consisted of Irish and French. A chance shot from the French wounded William in the shoulder but he was able to continue.

The result was a decisive victory for the Williamites, but was not a rout, as the Jacobites retreated in good order and were able to continue the struggle west of the Shannon for the next year. King James, however, did not wait to see the end of the battle but rode at speed back to Dublin where he was confronted by Lady Tirconnell, who politely asked him who had won the battle. His reply that ‘my cowardly Irish ran away’ evoked the very appropriate retort from the good lady ‘then I see your majesty has won the race’. James then departed for France and his Irish supporters were left to fight his battle for him. The defeat at the Boyne was a major blow to the hopes of King Louis XIV of France and was actually celebrated by a Te Deum in Vienna and the lighting up of all the windows in the Vatican.

Tyrconnell would gladly have made terms with the Williamites but the Irish, now inspired by Patrick Sarsfield, decided to fight on and try to hold a line west of the Shannon. Sarsfield was the grandson of Rory O’More of 1641 fame and was reputed to have called across to the Williamite victors at the Boyne “change kings and we will fight you over again.” The Irish retreated to Limerick where they prepared for a siege. The French leader St. Ruth, however, was scathing of their hopes of defending the city, remarking that the walls “could be knocked down with roasted apples.” Sarsfield was not to be discouraged, however, and did sterling work in strengthening the weaknesses in the walls as William’s army approached.

The siege began in early August 1690 and William’s forces were having difficulty in breaching the walls against the determination of the stern defenders. A siege train was sent from Dublin to William’s assistance but a local rapparee named Galloping O’Hogan, one of those dispossessed during the Cromwellian Settlement, discovered where they were to encamp before approaching the city. He warned Sarsfield of the danger and, leading the Irishman and a party of his best troops secretly out of the town during the night, crossed the Shannon and surprised the English camp at Ballyneety. O’Hogan had done his homework well and had also discovered that the password for the night was “Sarsfield.” Riding in, Sarsfield was challenged by the sentries but gave them the historic reply “Sarsfield is the word and Sarsfield is the man.”

With his selected troops he overcame the waggoners and sentries, piled all the guns and munitions in a huge heap and then blew the lot sky-high before returning safely within the walls of Limerick. The explosion was seen miles away, even by William himself who, having now failed dismally in his assault on the city, then made the excuse that the winter rains had made his attack impossible and returned to England, leaving General Ginkell to continue with the siege, which now continued right through the winter months.

The English also attacked Athlone, where the heroism of an Irish soldier, Sergeant Custume, created a legend in Irish folklore that still exists. That part of the town on the eastern side had been vacated to the enemy, who then attempted to cross the stout wooden bridge to the western bank, but were thwarted in their efforts by the courage of Custume and a dozen of his men in pulling down the planks of the bridge in the face of heavy fire from the Dutch cannons. When the smoke cleared, six men fell dead into the Shannon but six more took their place and completed the job as the bridge collapsed in the face of the enemy. Superior numbers, however, meant that even the Connacht side of the town would eventually fall, and so the remainder of the Irish garrison retreated to Limerick. Today, the military barracks in the town of Athlone is named after Custume, in commemoration of his heroic action in pulling down the bridge, probably the most courageous and most daring act ever recorded in Irish history.

In May 1691, St Ruth was given complete charge of the Jacobite forces and decided on a full scale open battle against the Williamites. He selected his ground well at Aughrim, Co. Galway and on 12th July 1691, the battle commenced. The Irish fought superbly and with a determination hitherto not experienced by the Williamites. Victory was in sight when tragedy struck with St. Ruth being struck by a cannon ball and fatally wounded. The resulting confusion threw the Irish into disarray and, not having been made fully aware of what St. Ruth had planned to do, they were overcome by superior forces in what was later described as “the bloodiest battle in Irish history.” Had Sarsfield been in complete command a different result might have been expected. The remaining Irish now retreated back to Limerick and were pursued by Ginkell, who renewed the siege of that city, in what was termed “the second siege of Limerick.”

Sarsfield was now in complete command of the Irish and continued to hold out gallantly. However, it was obvious that he would eventually have to surrender to vastly superior forces and so he agreed to peace terms on the 3rd October 1691 when the ‘Treaty of Limerick’ was signed. The terms of the Treaty were quite generous, that is if they had been adhered to. Some 15,000 Irish soldiers were allowed to go abroad and join the armies of Louis XIV of France, while many others even joined the armies of William. The departure of Sarsfield and so many others to France has ever since been called “The Flight of the Wild Geese”, and all of these soldiers would fight gallantly in the armies of Europe in later wars. Sarsfield was killed at the Battle of Landen and, as the blood flowed from his fatal wounds, he was heard to say “would that this had been for Ireland.”

The Penal Laws were also to have been relaxed according to the terms of the Treaty of Limerick, but this clemency never materialised and, even in some cases, they were pursued with even greater vigour than before. No wonder it has frequently been stated that ‘the Treaty of Limerick was broken even before the ink was dry on the paper on which it was written.” The “Treaty Stone” still stands in Limerick city as a reminder of the treachery of those who signed it on behalf of King William, who could never have approved of the conduct of those acting in his name. He urged some restraints, but his death in 1702 removed even that tiny ray of hope, as the Catholics of Ireland moved into the most dreadful chapter of their long suffering history.