Ireland’s Wars: Enniskilliners

The town of Enniskillen, located in modern day County Fermanagh on the River Erne, was one of the only places, outside of Londonderry, that showed harsh resistance to the Irish government of Richard Talbot in 1688. Protestant dominated, when notice was received requesting that the town prepare to quarter a detachment of Talbot’s infantry troops, a group of town leaders made the decision that Enniskillen would not acquiesce. They were fearful, as with other places in the north, of Catholic led massacres and subjugation. While not the defensive bastion that other places were in Ulster, Enniskillen could still claim to have decent, recently erected, walls, and a drawbridge system over the Erne that could offer greater protection. What it didn’t have was much guns or powder.

Despite this weakness, Enniskillen was able to stay free of Talbot’s troops. The small amount sent to occupy the town in mid December of 1688 found the citizenry armed against them, and made no effort to press the point, withdrawing to a nearby position at Maguiresbridge, a few miles east. Seeking to effect a greater level of organisation to their resistance, the leaders of the soon-to-be-dubbed Williamite movement in the town elected Gustavus Hamilton, a former army officer who had been forced to leave the military because of Talbot’s anti-Protestant purges, to the governorship. The town and its rudimentary militia were buoyed by the resistance shown by Londonderry further north, but continued to refuse to allow a “Popish” garrison to be placed into the town, even after Lord Mountjoy was able to get some of his soldiers placed inside Londonderry.

Enniskillen went about preparing for a siege, shoring up the defences of the town (which included breaking the ice on the River Erne, which was actually crossable in winter), gathering forage and sending out requests for aid to all quarters, not least William of Orange. However, things remained relatively quiet as 1689 began and Winter turned to Spring. The Jacobite focus was not on Enniskillen, but on places like Coleraine and Londonderry, urban centres of greater strategic importance. Which is not to say that Enniskillen was strategically unimportant, simply not seen as having the desirability of capture that other places had.

Hamilton, now set up as governor of Enniskillen, did have things to deal with all the same. The loose association of Northern Protestants that was defeated by Richard Hamilton in the course of his first campaign clashed with Enniskillen, which remained somewhat aloof from higher command, a situation replicated later in the year after Robert Lundy’s assumption of a commander-in-chief role of all Williamite forces then active in Ulster. Lundy sent messages requesting that the forces within Enniskillen withdraw and form up in Londonderry: Enniskillen refused to budge. The town soon became a waypoint for a mass of refuges moving towards Londonderry, especially from the Cavan area, with the local militia growing in size from a number of these who decided to stay and fight it out. At the very least, the resistance of Enniskillen could provide some relief for Londonderry, with the Jacobites forced to divide their forces in order to deal with the more southerly town.

The next proper Jacobite threat to Enniskillen came in the form of Piers Butler, the Lord Galmoy, an experienced Irish politician and soldier. Galmoy had been given orders to take a small force of men and disrupt communications between the Protestants of Ulster and Protestants further south by patrolling the border region of Ulster and Leinster. But in actuality, he went further, launching an expedition into the Cavan region that was driving many of the refugees northwards. Approaching Enniskillen in mid-March, he sent the town a call to surrender to him. Naturally, the town refused.

By the 24th of March, Galmoy had reached the small town of Belturbet, roughly 25 kilometres from Enniskillen. From there he launched a siege of Crom Castle, a position just east of Lough Erne. Crom was held by members of the Enniskillen garrison, and constituted their most distant outpost. Notwithstanding this, Hamilton soon organised a relief effort of a few hundred men and horse, who marched by land and sailed down Lough Erne in different groups. A brief firefight drove the besiegers of Crom off, who had allegedly tried to scare the castle into surrendering by the appearance of fake guns. Galmoy and his small army fell back to Belturbet.

Lundy, in Londonderry, still sent messages urging the defenders of Enniskillen to fall back to the coast, as other garrisons had done. Again, the Enniskillen garrison refused to do so. They had seen the fate of Dungannon and Sligo, and feared that Lundy’s apparent plan would be to the detriment of the overall Protestant position in Ulster. Some reinforcements from various Protestant garrisons that felt the same way swelled the size of Hamilton’s available troops, to the extent that, by April, he felt ready to take the offensive.

Rather than get caught defending a siege, as Londonderry had done, Hamilton was determined that any enemy force coming near Enniskillen would be fought off. To that end, he sent out raids on numerous positions in and around Enniskillen, and sometimes a bit further, to disrupt Jacobite movements and attempts to impose a ring around the town. These raids were formed of highly mobile cavalry units for the most part, maybe with a few small units of light infantry to back them up if possible. They couldn’t hold ground for too long or take on highly fortified positions, but they were more than capable of dealing blows to the Jacobite military in the surrounding area.

While not quite a true guerrilla force as some sources like to make them out to be, these units still exemplified some of the best aspects of such tactics: striking fast and at speed, and only seeking a fight when the engagement suited them. Often, the Jacobite garrison that were the target of such movements would flee at the approach of Williamite troops, rather than face an uncertain engagement, especially as the size and disposition of the Williamites was often exaggerated. At Trillic, Augher, Clones and large parts of Cavan and Monaghan, the Enniskillen forces – soon dubbed “Enniskilleners” – swept away small, isolated Jacobite positions, and were able to seize guns, powder and foodstuffs wholesale.

Perhaps the first notable moment of actual combat between the Enniskilleners and the Jacobites occurred on the 8th of May. That day, a Colonel Lloyd, who had led some of the excursions around Enniskillen already, rode with a force of men towards Ballyshannon, a point on the western coast near the border of Ulster and Connacht. Ballyshannon was besieged by a small force of Jacobites operating out of Connacht and Lloyd commanded some of the only troops capable of helping. At Beeleck, a few miles east of Ballyshannon, the two opposing forces met. The Jacobites had taken up a strong defensive position between the Erne and bogland, but Lloyd was able to induce panic in their ranks by moving his troops through the bog with the help of a local guide. Unable to readjust their lines to deal with this flanking attack, the Jacobites fled south, apparently with some semi-serious loss of horses. It was less a battle and more a breaking, not dissimilar to the Break of Dromore earlier in the war.

At the end of May, Lloyd led a titanic raid into the surrounding countryside, which expelled Jacobite defenders from several positions, such as at Redhill and Ballinacarrig, moving into Meath and even briefly threatening Dublin itself. Lloyd captured a gigantic amount of herds and foodstuffs in the process, though the target of the country’s capital eluded him, lacking as he was in artillery and a well defended line of supply. With other Jacobite forces, one of them under the command of a man named Patrick Sarsfield, close to Enniskillen, Lloyd was obliged to withdraw, having attained a fairly substantial success as it was.

In June, Hamilton attempted an effort to relieve the now blockaded Londonderry with around 1500 men, but got no further than Omagh when he became aware of other Jacobite forces, under the Lord Clancarty, approaching his rear. Lacking the proper means to fight a battle and with the whole operation being a bit haphazard anyway, Hamilton decided to retreat. Londonderry would receive no salvation from that direction. The truth is that while Enniskillen was more than capable of scouring the countryside and keeping its citizens fed, its forces had yet to actually fight a serious engagement with the enemy, and fears remained rife that Jacobite armies could get the town if they were to ever actually move to attack it.

Later in June, the Enniskilleners got the chance to finally have an engagement. Jacobite reinforcements from Leinster moved towards Belturbet, perhaps preparing for an assault on Enniskillen itself. Seeing this, Colonel Lloyd made a counter march with the soldiers at his disposal. The majority of the Jacobites at Belturbet, upon receiving word of this enemy advance, again withdrew: there is speculation that rumour and exaggeration made Lloyd’s army seem far bigger than it actually was. A rearguard remained in Belturbet to defend the position, and this force soon clashed with Lloyd’s cavalry. The result was a brief skirmish and a Jacobite retreat into the town where, surrounded and with no possibility of relief, they surrendered. The victory cost the Williamites little, but gained them much in prisoners, captured supplies, and the occupation of Belturbet.

At the same time, the Jacobites were capable of winning their own small victories. A column of cavalry under James FitzJames, the Duke of Berwick, had been detached from the force besieging Londonderry, given the task of impeding the movements of Enniskilleners after Hamilton’s aborted march to relieve Londonderry. Berwick, an illegitimate son of James II, did his job well, ranging far and wide over a substantial area of land and executing a successful raid on the Williamite held town of Donegal. In mid-July, Berwick and his force made an approach on Enniskillen itself.

Colonel Lloyd was regrettably absent at that moment, away meeting with other elements of the Williamite movement in Ulster. As Berwick made an approach on Kilmacormick Hill, just north of Enniskillen, Hamilton sent a force of cavalry and infantry to intercept. The Williamites were thrown back by a charge of dragoons, suffering over 50 casualties, with Hamilton apparently failing to send additional soldiery to back up the defence. Berwick went no further, lacking the means to attack Enniskillen directly, but instead went back north, continuing his ranging until after the Siege of Londonderry had come to a close.

Hamilton, Lloyd and Enniskillen had made some small errors, but had otherwise enjoyed a remarkably successful time of it in 1689 thus far. Their mobile approach to the defence of their home area pushed the Jacobites back over and over again, and Talbot’s government found itself completely incapable of really endangering Enniskillen with any sort of serious threat. When the two sides faced each other in the area, more often than not the Jacobites were obliged to withdraw without offering any kind of resistance.

The fighting around Enniskillen had only some small import on the more epic struggle taking place outside the walls of Londonderry, but demonstrates much of the same realities. Poorly led and poorly armed Jacobites struggled to make much headway against entrenched Williamites, and their few successes usually only had short term effects.

The Enniskilleners would get even more opportunities to prove themselves a menace to their Jacobite enemy before the summer was out. But before we take a look at that, we have to break from these military campaigns in Ulster, in order to examine an unlikely naval conflict that had exploded into life off Ireland’s south coast.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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10 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: Enniskilliners

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