After the stand-off outside Dundalk came to an end, with both sides withdrawing their armies into winter quarters, James II came in for increasing criticism. He had moved away first, tiring of the interminable situation where Schomburg’s army refused to offer the possibility of battle. But when Schomburg’s Williamites had decamped and marched north, they had done so in a weak position, much of the army dead or dying from disease. Some had pressed James to reform his army, chase Schomburg and attack, believing that the weakness of the Williamite army would have meant a sure victory.
But James did not attack, his Jacobite army staying disbanded in winter quarters around Dublin or just going home. More and more, the commanders and generals of the Jacobite cause began to get a bad feeling about James. Not that an attack against Schomburg at that point would have been a sure fire winner, but it is a general rule in history that soldiers and officers have more faith in a pro-active leader. James was not that.
And so the winter came. James spent it around Dublin, trying to work through his agreement with Louis XIV. The Jacobite position in Ireland was largely untenable without continuing French support, but Louis was no fool. He was helping James in service of his own ends, in the larger European war against William of Orange and his allies. The war in Ireland gave William a painful distraction from continental and naval affairs but, at the same time, Louis was in no way interested in launching a full scale assault upon the Williamites in Ireland. Now, he wanted some reciprocation.
A deal was eventually struck between the two. James, having little faith in his Irish soldiery – for good reason – wanted more French troops, but Louis needed soldiers too. And so, a swap was arranged, where Louis, in March of 1690, sent over 6’000 troops, with cannon and arms for them as well as other supplies, in exchange for the same number of Irish soldiers being sent the other way. Mountcashel, the loser at Newtownbutler, commanded this immigrant force, which essentially formed the nucleus of what would become known as the “Irish Brigade”, a unit that would remain active in French service until near the end of the 18th century. Mountcashel’s opposite number was Antoine Nompar de Caumont, the duc de Lauzun, replacing some of the other French officers who had fought under James, including de Rosen. The French marched to Dublin, there to await the coming campaign season in the summer of 1690.
There was still a war going on of course, though it might have been a bit hard to tell if you had been in Dublin at the time. Between November and the following summer, James and the Jacobites had ample opportunity to train, arm and generally improve the forces they had gathered, which despite nearly a year of war had yet to really progress beyond the standard of normal militia troops. But, as James indulged his wants in Dublin with parties and extravagance, what existed of the Jacobite army remained as it was, with little training and less guns, increasingly reliant on foreign markets for basic foodstuffs, in no way prepared or ready for a coming engagement with the Williamite enemy.
That enemy, after the disaster outside Dundalk, was far more pro-active in repairing the damage that had been done, though most now agreed that Schomburg was not the man for the job he was in. Perhaps under some pressure from his European allies, who felt that a man who could not get his own house in order had no place leading a “Grand Alliance” against France, William decided to recruit a new army, from the Netherlands, French Protestants and Scandinavia as well as England, and cross over to Ireland himself, there to take personal command of the Williamite effort, bring James to a decisive battle and defeat him, in a manner he had been unable to during the Glorious Revolution. William spent the winter drawing up his plans, and prepared to embark to cross the Irish Sea as Spring came.
Some sporadic fighting did occur over the winter, but to little cost to either side. Forces operating out of Dundalk launched a raid at Newry, but found the town so gutted as to be beyond a state of useful occupation. The Williamites soon struck back, sending men close to Dundalk and executing a successful ambush on a foraging group. In Kenagh, County Longford, one of the furthest south positions held by the Williamites, a short siege forced the defenders to honourable terms. The weather and situation with the respective armies precluded large scale engagements, with only the rapparee attacks providing any other sort of military endeavour in this period. The border region between Leinster and Ulster was in a bad state agriculturally due to the fighting, with food shortages threatening to cause a disaster for civilians.
It was not until February that the war kicked off again in earnest. Schomburg knew that his master was coming to replace him and, perhaps eager to repair some of his reputation that had been damaged in his first campaign, he became intent on shoring up the Williamite frontiers before William himself arrived. With units of the Enniskillen garrison, still proving themselves an effective thorn in the side of the Jacobites, Colonel William Wolseley, one of the victors of Newtownbutler, was ordered to attack the town of Belturbet in County Cavan, a task he successfully carried out in late January/earlier February of 1690, displacing a small garrison.
The local Jacobite headquarters was roughly 15 km’s south in Cavan Town, commanded by a Colonel O’Neill. His requests to be allowed to counter-attack were not only granted, but reinforced, through additional soldiers under the command of the Duke of Berwick, one of the Jacobite side’s most effective soldiers up to that date. Between the two men, the Jacobites in the area would be able to field over 2’000 men.
Wolseley had only around a thousand men in total, 700 infantry and 300 cavalry, and resolved to try and ruin the Jacobite game, before they could arraign their full force against him. To that end, he led his army on a circuitous march east of Cavan, over the River Annalee, in the hope of getting between O’Reilly and Berwick, and attacking Cavan Town before the two men had a chance to meet up. However, Wolseley was foiled in his purpose, with bad weather, a difficult fording of the river and some light resistance on the marching route meaning that, when he approached Cavan on the 11th of February, not only had Berwick gotten there ahead of him, but his own approach had been well noted by the Jacobites.
Wolseley could have given up and withdrawn then and there but decided to press his luck and attack. Berwick had placed his men along the natural defences to Cavan’s east, in hedgerows and on hills surrounding the road from that direction. Wolseley sent his cavalry right up the middle, where it came under fire from both flanks, and then faced a charge from Berwick’s own horse. The Enniskillener cavalry broke and fled, with a Jacobite pursuit only checked by Wolseley’s smart utilisation of his infantry to blunt their advance.
Wolseley hadn’t had enough yet and, perhaps believing that it would not take much to break the Irish troops he faced, sent his infantry forward arraigned across the field. The gamble paid off: after sustaining only a small amount of fire, the Williamites were able to break through those natural defences and send the panicked Jacobites running. Some fled into the otherwise undefended Cavan, others took refuge in a small earthen fort outside the town limits. Wolseley’s men plundered and burned Cavan, perhaps not under Wolseley’s orders, and an attempted breakout from the fort that could have proven disastrous had to be checked by a Williamite rearguard. With nothing else to do and with no ability to hold his ground, Wolseley then took the opportunity to retire back to Belturbet. The “Battle of Cavan” was really just a big-ish skirmish, that claimed a couple of hundred lives on the Jacobite side, but showed once again that Jacobite infantry drawn from the Irish peasantry could not be expected to stand up to their Williamite counterparts. Berwick survived, but found what forces he controlled greatly diminished and demoralised: any plans to retake Belturbet were put on hold.
One of the only remaining Jacobite positions of importance in Ulster remaining was the famous fort of Charlemont. I’ve talked about this position and its history – during the Nine Years War and the Cromwellian Conquest – before, and it remained a place of great defensive prowess, a modern construction that could be held for an indefinite period of time if supplied properly. It’s commander at the time was an old soldier named Tighe O’’Regan, in command of several hundred men. Looking for his own bit of glory, Schomburg mobilised a force from his larger army to take it in April.
It was no easy task, but Schomburg prepared well. There was no active assault, just a total investment and a gradual work-up to the walls for any future offensive operation. Due to the lackadaisicalness of the Dublin administration, Charlemont had not been adequately supplied in any way, and calls for relief went largely unheeded. After a few weeks, O’Regan and his men were near starvation. An attempt to get food into the fort by a Colonel MacMahon from Castle Blaneydid succeed. But, almost immediately, O’Regan realised that MacMahon and his escort of 500 men had been allowed through the Williamite lines deliberately, and they failed twice in breakout attempts. The garrison, now enlarged to over 800 men, went through the newly arrived foodstuffs rapidly, until they were at the starvation point again. With no choice, O’Regan surrendered the fort on terms, his bedraggled army allowed to march away. For Schomburg it was a notable success, which shored up the Williamite position in Ulster nicely ahead of the proper campaigning season. For the Jacobites, it was another humiliation.
So the war progressed. After the damaging episode at Dundalk, the Williamites were once again in the ascendant, and James’ lack of preparation or care when it came to the coming campaigning season was a serious concern for everyone involved. The Catholic Irish militia remained undertrained and underarmed, ill-disciplined and badly led. At Cavan, they went from a position of strength into a blind retreat, and at Charlemont they lacked the right kind of requisite support to withstand the Williamite siege for more than a month. Soon, William himself would arrive, and the road to one of the most famous battle in Irish history would be travelled.
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