While James II was busy engaging in his stalemated standoff with Frederick Schomburg outside Dundalk, turning the War of the Two King’s into a surprisingly deadly non-event in the east, the war was still being fought to the west, where the Jacobites were facing the Williamite enemy in a less intense conflict, but one that still carried great importance. And the major Jacobite figure of this theatre was a man who would come to be held as the one of the major Irish figures of the entire war, to be placed on a pedestal in popular remembrance alongside the likes of Owen Roe and Hugh O’Neill.
Patrick Sarsfield was born in Lucan, Kildare, around 1660, to a family of landed gentry with a sizable estate. The Sarsfield’s traced their origins in Ireland back to the Norman Conquest, but more recently, Sarsfield’s grandfather on his mother’s side, Rory O’Moore, was one of the conspirators who set the Irish Confederate Wars in motion. Around the age of 28, Sarsfield first entered military service, where he remained for most of his life. Sarsfield’s twenties are full of notable moments. He took part in a few duels, in one of which he was run through by a sword, but survived. He also undertook, and assisted others with, the practise of younger sons of Catholic gentry kidnapping wealthy heiresses in bids to win their hands in marriage. It didn’t work out in Sarsfield’s case: the wealthy daughter of an ambassador, she refused to marry him, but agreed not to press charges upon her release (it didn’t matter in the end, as Sarsfield’s older brother died in 1688, leaving him as the chief heir, but the coming war left him no time to enjoy his estates).
In terms of his military career, Sarsfield began in what would become the Royal Scots Regiment, before serving in English units that were attached to the forces of the French King Louis XIV, returning to England after the accession of James II. Sarsfield took part in the suppression of the Monmouth Rebellion in 1685, eventually becoming a Colonel. Sarsfield came to James’ attention as a capable cavalry commander as he rose up the newly reorganised standing army, the Irish branches of which Sarsfield helped to purge of Protestant officers. When the Glorious Revolution came, Sarsfield was of only a few who defended James’ claim by force of arms in England, being involved in skirmishes with William’s advancing forces at Reading and Wicanton. All of this commended Sarsfield to James, though one source describes the King as uncharitably declaring Sarsfield “a brave man destitute of brains”. Despite this, James would continually promote Sarsfield, eventually to the rank of Major-General
When James fled to France, Sarsfield followed, and accompanied the King on his crossing to Kinsale in 1689. Soon after, he was placed in command of the Jacobite effort in Connacht, of which we have already heard a little. Now, we can take the time to go into more detail about Sarsfield’s activities in the province. Sarsfield was granted a small army initially, probably no more than 2’000 men, with which he was to carry out his task.
Most of Connacht, heavily Catholic and lacking a large number of strategically important sites, was safely in Jacobite hands anyway. It was to the north of the province, on the border with Ulster, that the fighting was hottest, especially between Ballyshannon on the north side of the border, and Sligo Town on the south. The Williamite militia had been able to hold Sligo as the war started, but this tiny force was withdrawn before the Siege of Londonderry, allowing Sarsfield to march into the town unopposed on the 1st of May, joining his army with a few irregular units that had been operating nearby.
Sarsfield couldn’t rest on his laurels. As we have previously seen, the irregular units operating out of Enniskillen had been a major thorn in the Jacobite side, and part of Sarsfield’s purpose in the area was to provide a threat to this Williamite stronghold. In order to facilitate its submission, Sarsfield had to gain control of the area to the west of it, thereby strangling its supply base. And for that to happen, Sarsfield had to take Ballyshannon.
But it was easier said than done. Sarsfield dutifully rode out with most of his army, laid siege to Ballyshannon and sent a message to its garrison commander asking for a surrender. But Ballyshannon had decent defences, a good amount of supplies and the encircling army lacked all but the most rudimentary of cannon. The summons was refused.
The Williamites were quick to send reinforcements from Enniskillen, and the result was the “Break of Beeleck” that I have discussed before. The Jacobites took up a decent position, but fled after only a small forward thrust and flanking by the enemy, leaving the operation to take Ballyshannon in tatters. The fault lies mostly with Sarsfield, who was unable to coordinate or rally his undisciplined and poorly trained men, and for the moment was obliged to call off most of his offensive moves towards Ballyshannon, falling back on raids along the course of the River Erne instead.
Sarsfield remained as he was for much of the next while, a threat in being to Enniskillen, but one that never found the opportunity to attack the town as he wanted, even when most of the local militia were absent, either on raids or fighting the Battle of Newtownbutler. Sarsfield had attempted to coordinate with other Jacobite commanders, like Mountchashel and Berwick, but had never been able to make any of these plans reach fruition. Following the terrible defeat at Newtownbutler, Sarsfield was obliged to withdraw all the way back to Sligo. In the face of far superior enemy numbers, or so he claimed, he eventually had to withdraw from there too, though it looks likely that the Williamite forces in the area had been exaggerated. Sligo had changed hands twice in the war now, and both times bloodlessly.
Sarsfield wound up at Athlone, the main Jacobite base in Connacht, where he soon received orders to go right back in the direction he had come and re-take Sligo. James and the other Jacobite leaders were fearful that Schomburg’s force would soon be sent to shore up those Williamite garrisons and essentially make them unapproachable, and urged Sarsfield to act fast in order to preclude this possibility. To that end, more men were detached from the armies in the east to help Sarsfield, and the General hovered up volunteers from the local area as well. It was a sizable force, but as the Jacobires always found it seemed, it lacked arms, training and proper supply.
By now it was October, and Sarsfield must have known that he had limited time to accomplish his task, at least before the weather became as big a factor as the enemy. Sligo was not a soft nut – it had a strong earthen wall, a decent sized fort and an old, if somewhat dilapidated, castle – but a strong determined push might have been able to talk it fast. Certainly, the Williamite garrison commanders, a Colonel Thomas Lloyd and Zachariah Tiffin, were in no mood for a large scale fight, and upon hearing of Sarsfield’s return, asked permission of their superiors to withdraw. Schomburg turned them down, presumably wanting Jacobite forces tied down in the west if nothing else.
Sarsfield moved quickly as soon as he was in the general area. The Williamite outposts in Boyle and Jamestown were quickly snuffed out, their garrisons withdrawing to Sligo without offering any resistance. Lloyd’s attempt to strike hard at the advancing foe resulted in a bloody repulse, when his detachment was ambushed by forward elements of the Jacobite army in the Curlew Pass, an area that had seen plenty of ambushes in its time. At a place called Ballydare, to the south of Sligo, Lloyd again tried to make a stand, but Sarsfield, with the help of sympathetic locals, found a fording point over the river Lloyd was guarding. Flanked, Lloyd had to withdraw again, further scattered by a Jacobite cavalry charge that took place shortly afterward.
Lloyd and others had proven completely incapable of defending the area around Sligo, and it must have come as little surprise when he forsook his command and headed back to Ballyshannon. Disgraced, he ended up being one of the many who died of dysentery outside Dundalk a short time later. He left the defence of the town in the hands of a Huguenot regiment that had recently arrived from Schomburg’s army. They, seeing the castle as indefensible and not having the numbers to hold the outer defences, withdrew into the town’s fort. As such, Sarsfield was, for the second time in a few months, able to take the town without much bloodshed.
The fort itself did not last long, seeking terms of surrender after only three days, when it was realised that the regiment holding it did not have enough supplies to hold out for reinforcements to arrive. The brief siege was still notable though, as Sarsfield, lacking cannon, apparently constructed a siege tower – a “sow” design – which was rolled up to the walls of the fort to allow the Irish attackers to attempt to take its walls. Unfortunately for Sarsfield, he failed to take either the structures inability to resist bullets or the straw that had been strategically placed around the forts exterior into account, and it wasn’t long before the sow was a pile of ashes. But, this small Williamite factory merely delayed the end. The whole of Sligo Town was in Sarsfield’s hands by the 22nd of October, the Huguenot’s having been allowed to march north to Ballyshannon.
Sarsfield had achieved his objective, and the taking of Sligo came only a short time before Schomburg’s disease ridden withdrawal from Leinster in early November. Combined, the two events were crucial for the Jacobite position in Ireland as 1689 came to a close, and for Jacobite morale generally, especially after the previous failures at Enniskillen and Londonderry. On either side of the country, the Williamites had been pushed back into Ulster, and for very little loss. Sarsfield’s time in the region had been mixed, with Beeleck being a calamity that reflected very poorly on him. But his campaign to re-take Sligo had shown that aggressive and committed leadership could get results, even if the Jacobite armies were not in the best nick. It was the Williamite’s turn to suffer from poor leadership, with Lloyd blundering through two engagements with Sarsfield’s vanguard before just leaving Sligo to its fate.
The re-taking of Sligo was not a giant success really, but it demonstrated that the Jacobites were not entirely hopeless – nor the Williamites entirely invincible in opposing them – when it came to propagating James II’s cause. Now 1689 would come to an end, with the situation in Ireland far from resolved, or looking like it would be resolved any time soon. The new year would bring battle and death aplenty.
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