Things were starting to edge out of control in Ireland, as 1688 came to an end and 1689, a year promising bloodshed, began.
Richard Talbot held most of Ireland in the name of James II, now in France, exiled from England by the duo of William of Orange and his wife Mary, soon to be a dual monarchy. Their supporters, or future supporters at any rate, in Ireland, were to be found in the north, based largely around the resistance of Londonderry and a few other positions.
With Talbot’s continual calling up of militia, arming of Catholics, reported ignoring of crimes committed against Protestants and essential dismissal of Mountjoy from the country, the Protestant settlers of Ulster began to get a bit more active when it came to their own security. By mid-January, amid the raising of militia and attempts to arm themselves, a council of Protestant gentry was established to act as an erstwhile leadership of this loose movement, at least until the new administration in England saw fit to send someone else. They met at Hillsborough, County Down, just 12 or so miles south of Belfast. It would be an exaggeration to call them a government, but they were a firm indication that the Protestants of Ulster were unwilling to roll over for Talbot. By now, the garrison that had been allowed into Londonderry in the name of the Dublin administration and James II had turned against Talbot, putting the town in a state of near rebellion again.
Even here, things did not need to end in war. With William of Orange so totally victorious in England and in the process of getting Parliament to proclaim him King, there was a belief among some that Talbot would have no choice but to give in to the new government, being hopelessly outmatched in nearly every department. But Talbot had committed himself and the administration he led to the cause of James, who was already making preparations to leave France and come to Ireland. If the Protestants of the north would not acquiesce, Talbot was resigned to pressing the issue with force of arms.
Somewhat surprisingly then, considering that situation, it can be said that it was the Protestants who struck the first blow, or at least, tried to. Carrickfergus and its castle, on the east coast, had been held by Talbot for a while now, and was garrisoned with troops loyal to him. On the 21st of February, the Hillsborough council made an attempt, of which few details are recorded , to take control of this position from Talbot.
The attempt, whatever its make-up and execution, did not succeed. The Protestants were ill-armed and ill-trained, in no position to attempt a military attack on a fortified position like Carrickfergus, that had seen off bigger and better armies in its time. Receiving news of what had happened at Carrickfergus, and hearing reports on the unprepared nature of the northern militia, Talbot decided to time had come to act more forcefully than before.
He turned to Richard Hamilton, a high ranking army officer who had spent most of his career fighting in France before returning home and gaining a position in the King’s army in Ireland. Hamilton had actually come to Ireland nominally on the behalf of William of Orange, as an intermediary for discussions pertaining to Talbot’s surrender. However, Hamilton had Jacobite tendencies, and abandoned this mission almost as soon as he arrived in Ireland, tying himself firmly to the cause of James II.
Talbot gave Hamilton command of a force of roughly 2’500 to 3’000 troops. A core would have been made up of units of the standing army, the rest from the more recently activated levies. Hamilton was to march north and bring Ulster to heel, with promised reinforcements to follow, perhaps from the sizable army that James II was reportedly preparing. In the course of this campaign, Hamilton would lead his army through three notable engagements.
Hamilton, lacking the negative qualities of Antrim, sent off as soon as possible, moving with enough speed that the Hillsborough council was caught badly unprepared. Hamilton was active in the province by the first week of March, heading straight north from Drogheda, even as the Ulster Protestants began openly proclaiming William and Mary as their sovereigns. His overall campaign goals are not recorded in great detail, but owing to the movements of his army, we can surmise that he was to travel to all of the major points held by Protestants, and take them if he could. That road led through Newry, to Hillsborough, on to Coleraine and from there, over the River Bann and direct to Londonderry.
Even now, Talbot attempted to make a peaceful conclusion to the affair, offering the northern “rebels” a pardon if they would abandon their enterprise and the cause of William. But they refused, predictably. Intelligence from sympathisers in Dublin indicated that Hamilton’s army lacked ammunition and well-trained leaders, and the north was the only place of serious resistance in Ireland at that moment. Protestant leaders felt they simply could not lay down their arms.
On the 11th of March, Hamilton’s army reached the town of Newry, County Down. Up to that point, no fighting had taken place: what Protestant manned garrisons and urban centres that had been in the way had been abandoned, or burnt by their own defenders. The Hillsborough Council and the forces they claimed to control were scattered all over, and with little sign of coordinated leadership.
A response to Hamilton’s march was eventually created. A force of militia, of an uncertain size but probably in or around the same size as Hamilton’s army, placed itself in his path at Dromore, County Down, just a few miles south of Hillsborough. Commanded by Lord Mount Alexander and Sir Arthur Rawdon, it amounted to the first force in Ireland that could claim to be a Williamite Army. On the 14th of March, Hamilton engaged them.
The resulting fight was so brief as to not really deserve the title of “battle”, it being more of a skirmish that was decided at speed. Historically, what happened there is better known as the “Break of Dromore”. Hamilton’s dragoon (mounted infantry) units engaged and drove back their Williamite counterparts, after which Hamilton ordered a general advance of his infantry. The Williamite force fled the field in disorder. The War of the Two Kings had definitively begun, and it began with a Jacobite victory.
The aftermath was bloody for the Williamites, with Hamilton’s cavalry and infantry inflicting several hundred casualties during the rout. Dromore fell easily, and after that Hillsborough, the council having fled, along with anyone else who was smart enough to see what was coming. The surrounding area places like Lisburn, Antrim Town and Massareene, were wide open to attack, and Hamilton took them all with ease, his advance slowing as he had to deal with prisoners, plunder and his own diminishing amount of supplies.
The Williamite forces, now under the command of Rawdon alone, Alexander having fled to England, was forced to retreat all the way to Coleraine, on the north coast before they could re-organise. There, they received resupply and reinforcements, swelling their numbers greatly as more and more militia units hurried to their cause.
Hamilton was obliged to keep going, and by the 27th of March had reached the walls of Coleraine. But any effort to try and take the town was stillborn. Hamilton had cannon and maybe had the numbers to try and make a serious go of it, but by then he was in chronic short supply of foodstuffs, and his army was in no fit state to be attempting such an assault. Some of the Protestant scorched earth tactics were clearly working. Hamilton spent a day exchanging fire with Coleraine, perhaps just trying to scare the garrison into surrendering. It didn’t, and Hamilton was obliged to fall back.
So, both sides had experienced a success and a failure. In better territory to re-supply his army, Hamilton considered his next move. To attack Coleraine was impossible. To withdraw was, at that point, unnecessary. Instead, a different path to Londonderry would be attempted, further south down the Bann’s course. The river formed a natural barrier protecting the eastern border of County Derry, and the Williamites were desperate to stop the Jacobites from making a crossing, having stopped them from gaining the strongest such point at Coleraine. There were other ways to Londonderry, but they would have required a march almost back to northern Leinster: Ulster still had all of the geographical advantages that had so shaped the Nine Years War and Eleven Year Wars.
Bridges were thrown down and the western bank defended at numerous points, but the Williamites had too little troops to really affect the strongest possible defence. Using captured boats the Williamites had left behind, Hamilton was able to get troops across just north of the village of Portglenone on the morning of the 7th of April. A brief attempt from the nearest under strength Williamite unit was made to force the vanguard of this fording back, but failed after a brief skirmish. Hamilton got the rest of his army across. The Jacobites were over the Bann, and the road to Londonderry lay before them.
The Williamites, realising that Londonderry was their best defensible position and desperate for any kind of help to come to them from England, made the difficult decision to effect a military withdrawal of Coleraine, committing themselves totally to the defence of Londonderry above all other points. A large migration of both militia and civilians was heading in that direction now, preparing for a decisive clash between the two ideologies. The Williamites burned whatever they were leaving behind.
This first true Jacobite campaign could thus be called a success, albeit with some niggling doubts attached. Hamilton and his army had pressed far into Ulster and driven the fledgling Williamite movement back, talking numerous towns and positions of importance, securing a path into the Protestant heartland and setting things up nicely for the advance on Londonderry. But it had never really been firmly tested, and the example of what had happened at Coleraine indicated that the Jacobites still had much to learn about fighting a war. The Williamites were beaten back, but were far from defeated. Both sides had learned a few things and nothing was decided yet.
A more political drama had been unfolding to the south. On the 12th of March, just two days before the Break of Dromore, James had arrived in Ireland, landing with a small fleet of ships at Kinsale, where he was met by Richard Talbot. There was some disappointment with the amount of men that James had brought with him: probably no more than 2’000 men (some sources claim it was three times that), far from the legions that many Catholics expected. Talbot outlined the situation in Ireland to the King, and also detailed the finer points of Hamilton’s campaign, as the two men set off for Dublin. James was pleased with how Talbot had dealt with matters since the crisis had started, conferring upon him the title of Duke of Tyrconnell, but could not help but be concerned at the general state of affairs, especially the large amount of unarmed, poorly trained men, and the extent of resistance in the north.
James took his time getting to Dublin, entering the city with a grand procession on the 24th of March, just a few days before the repulse outside Coleraine. Once set-up in the capital, James issued some proclamations, increasing the value coin to help deal with financial matters, summoning a Parliament to the city that would meet in May and sending out a call for all who were able to assist him in his war with William of Orange to make themselves available.
For now, things were rosy for James, his entrance to Dublin met with wild celebrations. Hearing of the problems around Coleraine, he ordered elements of his force, headed by French officers, to head north in order to reinforce them. On the 8th of April, the day after Hamilton gained a foothold on the west side of the Bann, James made the decision to head into Ulster himself and take personal command of the war effort, believing that Londonderry would surrender to his mere presence. He set off soon after, heading straight up the middle of Ulster as opposed up the east, passing through Armagh, Charlemont and Dungannon, reaching Omagh by the middle of April, soon meeting up with the rest of the forces that would fight under his banner.
Now, five months after its gate had been famously closed to representatives of King James, Londonderry would have to decide what to do when the King himself appeared.
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