Ireland’s Wars: James’ Flight And The 1690 Siege Of Athlone

The Battle of the Boyne had been won by the Williamites, who took the Jacobite positions, inflicted more casualties and now stood poised to launch a larger offensive on Leinster itself. But the Jacobite army, while beaten, was not routed or anywhere close to being destroyed. In the immediate aftermath of the Boyne it retreated south-east towards Dublin, with no earnestly pressed pursuit from the Williamites. There were good reasons for that: the Williamite army was strung out and needed time to reform, they were tired from the battle and William wanted to wait a short time for a siege train to form up with his main force, should he need it in the days ahead. The Jacobite army, thanks largely to the work of its cavalry and French units, made it back to the relative safety of Dublin intact.

James was there well ahead of them of course, he and a small bodyguard of horsemen bringing news of the defeat to the city. There was no great panic – much of Dublin was Protestant, and the good state of the arriving army led to rumours and counter-rumours of Jacobite victory or only a minor defeat – but James’ next actions certainly started some. You can read into reams of supposition into what prompted James to do what he did, to again abandon the idea of defending his right to the crown militarily, to leave the combat to someone else and to flee into a second (and permanent) exile. Maybe it was just a spur of the moment fear based move, prompted by the poor display of the Irish infantry at the Boyne. Maybe it was motivated by a larger and more considered unease over the viability of James’ position, and the unlikely possibility of victory in the future. Maybe James was already suffering from some of the mental problems that would plague the final years of his life.

Either way, after a bafflingly misjudged speech to his chief councillors where he blamed his misfortunes solely on the Irish, James announced his intention to quit Ireland, leaving his authority in the hands of Richard Talbot. James wasn’t long in going ahead with his plan. Only a few days after the Boyne, he had left Dublin, heading south, eventually to reach a boat in Kinsale which took him back to France. He would never come back.

Naturally, the double blow of the defeat and the flight soiled what was left of James’ reputation in Ireland, and largely damned him in popular remembrance up the modern age. Some undoubtedly continued to treat James as a wronged, almost messianic, figure, but the truth is that he led an incompetent war effort, was prone to delusion and panic, and ran from the country long before things had come to a point where such an action might be considered strictly necessary. The entire Jacobite war effort was about defeating William and getting James back on the throne of Ireland: it must have been hard for soldiers to fight and die for that cause when their very figurehead had proven himself such a coward. James did not resign his claim on Britain, merely left it in the hands of others to prosecute that war.

Those others had precious little time in which to decide what to do. William’s forces paused for barely a day before beginning their advance on Dublin. A detachment from that force successfully summoned nearby Drogheda on the 2nd of July, the towns small garrison choosing to surrender after promise of safe passage west to Athlone. Drogheda had been a major flashpoint of the last war, but in the face of William’s massive strength and the memory of Cromwell, it gave in very quickly. Its capture barely slowed William down, and by the next day he was on the verge of taking Dublin itself.

Tyrconnell knew he couldn’t stay in Dublin. While it was the capital, it was largely indefensible: its walls too rudimentary, its citizenry too likely to welcome William in large parts, and its defenders too unreliable. Numerous regiments of Irish infantry has disbanded and headed west after reaching Dublin, choosing to run while they could and maybe fight another day, preferably on the west side of the River Shannon. What was left of the army could not be expected to fight another battle against the Williamites, and could not withstand a siege at Dublin.

So, Tyrconnell made the choice of abandoning not only Dublin, but most of Leinster, in a stroke. Though some have suggested that James left the instruction, more likely it was Tyrconnell who ordered what was left of the army to retreat south-west, with its regiments marching at their own pace and direction. Their eventual destination would be the city of Limerick. The French opinion was winning out. The Irish would move back to the Shannon, and resume their war there. The two lynchpins of Limerick in the south and Athlone in the north would be the major points, and hopefully a repetition of the last war would not take place. Trying to hold the majority of Leinster would be an impossible task. While a desperate move, it was probably the right one.

By the evening of the 3rd of July, Dublin had been all but abandoned, and William was able to march into the city in triumph, gleefully welcomed by its Protestant population, with many of the Catholic citizens following the Jacobite army towards Limerick. Dublin fell largely bloodlessly, with only minor destruction to property noted. It was a bad, but inevitable, blow to the Jacobites. William spent a few days in Dublin receiving deputations and getting a more national administration into being, before getting back on with the task at hand. The delay was regrettable for the Williamites, who might have been able to eliminate large parts of their retreating enemy if they had continued a pursuit. But, as would be made clear soon, there were rich rewards awaiting them in either case.

There was still plenty of time left in the campaigning season, and William was certainly of a mind to end this rebellion against his authority if he could, and transfer his attention to continental matters. His approach, once he had sorted things in Dublin to his satisfaction, was two-fold. He himself would lead the majority of his army in a sweeping arc through South Leinster and then into South Munster, targeting numerous Jacobite held towns and forts along the way, places that held small, and now isolated, garrisons, that he would try and bully into quick surrenders, just as he had with Drogheda. That accomplished, he would drive on to Limerick, there to force a climactic encounter with the majority of the Jacobite army.

At the same time, he would also try and insure his domination in Ireland by piercing the Shannon at both ends of its defensive usefulness. Like Henry Ireton before, William aimed to take both Limerick and Athlone in simultaneous operations. A force would be dethatched from his main army, which would head due south, the smaller arm sent to capture Athlone and its crossing over the Shannon, with which the Williamites could then organise a deeper penetration into Connacht, or even a swing south to join the operations around Limerick.

James Douglas, who had proven his worth in the campaign thus far, was given 12’000 men and a substantial amount of artillery for the task, marching west with little delay, suffering no serious impediment beyond rapparee attacks, which were not enough to impede him. Less than three weeks after the victory at the Boyne, the Williamites were outside the gates of Athlone, outnumbering its defenders 3-1.

But they reckoned without the garrison commander there who, unlike so many others in Ireland at the time, was not a man to be easily cowed. Richard Grace was a 78 year old son of the Barton of Courtstown, who was a veteran of both the English Civil Wars and the Eleven Year Wars in Ireland, where he had led a Tory band in the latter stages of the struggle. After the final defeat of the Royalist cause, he had entered Spanish service and proven himself useful, fighting alongside James II at the Battle of the Dunes in 1658, before joining his cause fully in the War of the Two Kings. He had 4’500 men with him in Athlone, mostly militia.

Grave was in no mood to give into Douglas’ demands that he surrender without a fight. Before any military operations had been undertaken around Athlone, Grace had already improved his position immensely, abandoning the eastern part of the town and destroying its bridge over the Shannon, occupying only the western side and daring Douglas to try and take it from him. Famously, he is reported to have fired a pistol over the head of the messenger who brought him the summons to surrender, declaring he would eat his own boots before considering a capitulation.

If Douglas was expecting an easy time of it then, he was disappointed. On the 17th of July he commended a bombardment of the town, firing shells over the river and into the western side, to little practical effect. The Williamites could fire all of the cannon and mortars that they wanted, but Athlone would remain untaken, its supply lines to the west intact, and the Williamites very far from home in their own right.  The few guns that Athlone had fired back, and started inflicting plenty of casualties of their own accord.

A frustrated Douglas had to act fast, and only two days into his attacks, decided to try a very risky infantry assault, crossing the Shannon (possibly at a fording point to the north, the sources are unclear) and trying to force a way into the western side of the town from there. The effort was bravely done, but repulsed easily enough by well-manned Jacobite outposts, the Williamite losses eventually reaching as high as 400, with the Jacobites suffering comparatively little. It was a rather pointless attack to make really, with little chance of success: it was simply too complex and dangerous on operation to undertake, with the river too wide and deep even at its best fording points, and the western fortifications too strong. Despite the Williamite advantage in men, they could no more force a way into the rest of Athlone than if William had been there with his entire army. That was the strength of the Shannon.

Douglas went back to his bombardment, trading cannon fire with Grace for another few days, but eventually had to see the hopelessness of his mission. He wouldn’t risk another water assault, his guns weren’t having the required effect, he did not have the position or time to starve Grace out, and rumours and reports of possible Jacobite relief forces, led by Patrick Sarsfield and coming from the direction of Limerick, abounded. On the 24th, Douglas acknowledged the impossibility of his task and withdrew. He took a circuitous route south to join William at Limerick, trying to avoid Jacobite entanglements, taking time and losses that the Williamites could ill afford at that moment. But even though Sarsfield was indeed in the vicinity, briefly, no really strong attempt was made to intercept Douglas.

The Siege of Athlone in 1690 is proof that, given the right conditions, the Jacobites could still hold their own and win victories. And this really was no small one. As we shall see next week, the Jacobite position all over the rest of country was collapsing, with morale in the depths following the defeat of the Boyne and James’ flight. But Grace, through his own command and the strength of the Athlone position, was able to halt a seemingly invincible Williamite army, and even give better than he got in terms of casualties. There was still no indication that the Jacobite Irish could go toe to toe with the Williamites, but when given the right defences to guard and a good commander, they could perform ably, with the Athlone defenders remaining resolute under-fire and denying the Williamites the chance to cross the Shannon. Douglas was given a difficult and deadly task, his faction severely under-estimating the necessary requirements for taking Athlone. There would be no envelopment of Connacht from two sides that summer.

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

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7 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: James’ Flight And The 1690 Siege Of Athlone

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The Williamite Advance | Never Felt Better

  3. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Sarsfield’s Ride | Never Felt Better

  4. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The 1690 Siege Of Limerick | Never Felt Better

  5. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Ginkel Attacks The Shannon | Never Felt Better

  6. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Wild Geese And Broken Treaties | Never Felt Better

  7. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: A Summary Of The War Of The Two Kings | Never Felt Better

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