Ireland’s Wars: The Williamite Advance

In the summer of 1690, the Jacobites were on the run nearly everywhere in Ireland. The loss at the Boyne and the subsequent flight of James II from the country had been twin blows that the Jacobite war effort tottered under, but the aftermath was arguably just as bad. After William took bloodless control of Dublin and reorganised things there to his satisfaction, he took command of his army once more. The tendril he sent due west to take Athlone failed to fulfil their mission, but the rest of the Williamite army was having more success to the south.

As previously discussed, William aimed to take a leisurely enough route towards the Jacobite stronghold at Limerick, sweeping through the southern parts of Leinster and Munster on his way. The Jacobite army had been left dismembered in the aftermath of the Boyne, as many regiments dissolved and headed west to wait out the storm, others headed straight to Limerick and other smaller units being left in isolated garrisons, garrisons that were now directly in the path of the oncoming Williamites. Dealing with these isolated garrisons would give William greater control over Ireland, secure his supply lines as he moved on the major Jacobite heartland and solidify Williamite control over the coastline, preventing any future French reinforcements from landing.

William departed Dublin on the 9th of July, heading first into County Kildare, coming to a brief stop at Castledermot. His march, and the march of any detachments, would be marked by careful movement with the use of units to guard the flanks of the larger force, to guard against rapparee attacks, which were a never-ending danger. These bands and units of Jacobite cavalry would wait in the vicinity, seeking to pick off stragglers or wayward units of Williamites. A few times such ambushes proved quite successful: a small party of raiders was badly mauled and sent running by Jacobite cavalry after an encounter near Callan, Kilkenny, when the Williamites had been trying to seize herds of cattle. All along the line of the Williamite march there were reports of unauthorised plundering and rapine, with numerous instances of soldiers being hanged for the crime. William wanted to pacify the Irish without resort to overly-stringent measures, but he couldn’t keep full control of his massive army.

From Kildare he sent out another, smaller, detachment, under a Colonel William Eppinger, of around a thousand or so men, to head directly south and pacify the county of Wexford. Eppinger duly did so, and met with little resistance, occupying an abandoned Wexford Town a few days later, allegedly finding a large amount of ammunition and supplies that could have been used to make a stout defence. As with Drogheda, the Williamites were one-upping Oliver Cromwell at every turn, the Parliamentarians capture of Wexford decades before being far bloodier. From Wexford Eppinger swung west towards Duncannon.

This was harder nut to crack, perhaps as hard as Athlone. I’ve discussed the defensive strengths and possibilities of Duncannon several times before, the fort being one of the only places to successfully resist Cromwell during his time in Ireland, and proving itself to be one of the most formidable fortifications in all of Ireland throughout its history. Eppinger was handed what seemed, on paper, to be an impossible task: to capture this immensely strong position with barely a thousand men and precious little artillery.

But capture it he did. Its Jacobite commander, a Michel Burke, pled the excuse of provisions and their scarcity, and I suppose there is little reason to doubt him. But then again, one might wonder why he had such scarcity of provisions, considering the war had not touched Wexford up to that point. The arrival of a Williamite fleet in the vicinity probably also influenced the decision, essentially cutting off the possibility of relief from the sea. Regardless, Duncannon was handed over, after an agreement was made for Burke, his men and their arms to be allowed to march to Limerick. The “siege” lasted only a short time, Duncannon surrendered on the 26th of July.

A major point on the Irish coastline secured for almost zero cost then, and William was just getting started. While Eppinger was undertaking his tasks, William had led the majority of his army to Carlow Town, and into Kilkenny, taking Kells (the other one) before arriving at the county town on the 19th of July. Here was another place that had given Cromwell pause, but again William lucked out: Kilkenny, once the capital of the Irish Confederates, lay open and abandoned, occupied bloodlessly by Williamite troops.

A pattern was now clear. The isolated garrisons were mostly local militia, as ill-trained and armed as the rest of the Jacobite army. They would have been terribly outnumbered by the oncoming forces, and would have lacked artillery to try and fight back against a siege. Faced with the choice between flight, surrender after a few days of token resistance, or fighting a battle against hopeless odds, many garrisons simply choose flight. A better organised nationwide effort, perhaps one that James should have organised when he had the chance, could have severely tested the Williamites in such circumstances, forcing them to fight a serious of sieges, to stay out on campaign longer than their supplies or the weather would hold, bleeding them dry with a death of a thousand cuts. But, instead, the bedraggled and desolate Jacobite military collapsed in a south west direction, with whomever was left behind forced to fend for themselves.

The occupation of Kilkenny, Wexford and Duncannon essentially delivered the south-east of Ireland into Williamite hands, and firmly established Williamite dominance over most of Leinster. From Kilkenny, William sent out another small detachment, under the younger (and now only) Schomburg, to tackle Clonmel, in Tipperary. The place had seen the bloodiest combat of the Eleven Year Wars, but now it lay open and undefended, Schomburg occupying it without loss, kick-starting the Williamite advance into Munster. William pressed on, decamping from Kilkenny and coming to the strategically vital position of Carrick-on-Suir within a few days. Here was another point where a co-ordinated resistance could have, at the very least, made the Williamites pay for a crossing of the Suir. But, again, the town fell bloodlessly.

From there William cast an eye on Waterford Town itself, the next in the series of ports on the south coast he had a mind to pacify. Another detachment, this time under General Kirke, travelled south to summon the Jacobite garrison. This time that garrison was sizable, with around two regiments of soldiers, but divisive arguments between the senior officers in the town essentially doomed its defence before it could start. After agreeing that the garrison could relocate without harm to Cork, Waterford was handed over to the Williamites too.

All was going William’s way, as the frontiers of Munster surrendered to him without any resistance, the road to Limerick and what was left of the more substantial Jacobite army left wide open. It had the look of a disastrous cascade of Williamite victories, and any cotemporary observer could be forgiven for thinking that Irish resistance towards William’s rule would be completely finished before the year was out.

But things would not turn out that way. For one thing, Athlone to the north refused to follow the established Williamite pattern, and its successful resistance was a sign that, with the right conditions and the right leaders, the Jacobites could make an effective stand. For another, William would soon find out that Limerick would prove no easy conquest.

And the King was also soon distracted by news from abroad. It must be remembered that Ireland was just one theatre of operations in a European wide war that William was fighting against the forces of France, and he had navies and armies that he had to keep track of in many places. Just after the capture of Waterford, William received the terrible news of a major French victory over his navy at the Battle of Beachy Head. The battle had actually been fought just before the Boyne, but it took that long for news to get to William in the field. Arthur Herbert, he who had commanded the British ships at Bantry Bay earlier in the war, was roundly defeated by the Comte de Tourville, a result that gave the French uncontested control of the English Channel for a period of time. In the end, the French did not make any proper use of this advantage at all, but there was a brief time when a French invasion of England was feared at any moment.

The news put William in a spin: he left command of his army and headed straight back in the direction of Dublin, where he could get a better handle on things and even head back over the sea if he had to. Eventually, after getting better news from England, William regained control of his nerve and returned to rejoin his army on its approach to Limerick, but the episode is an example of how changeable both the general situation, and William’s mood, was.

As it was, a few weeks of campaigning had delivered nearly all of Leinster and parts of Munster into William’s hands, and for a very negligible cost. The Jacobites looked beaten in every department, and it remained only for the last great push to be executed, against the remaining Jacobite strongholds on the Shannon, and beyond.

But, as the Williamites were soon to find out, the Jacobites were far from beaten. And, with the right commander, they were still capable of enacting some very nasty surprises.

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

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3 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The Williamite Advance

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

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

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

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