The Williamite advance had been almost irresistible. In the space of just a few weeks, William and his massive army had swept down from the north, inflicted a stringing defeat on the Jacobites at the Boyne, and then seized most of Leinster and portions of Munster without having to put up much of a fight or lose many men. Only in a bare handful of places had they been resisted, and sometimes with little success. Now, with the summer moving on and the Jacobites reeling from successive blows, William wanted to land a decisive blow, annihilate the majority of the Jacobite army and secure a crossing over the Shannon.
In order to do that, he was going to have to take Limerick.
Limerick, the southern bastion of the Shannon, was no easy target, as the last attempt to seize it by force had shown. Thick walls, a strong castle and the barrier of the Shannon to the north were formidable obstacles, and the city, if defended by enough properly motivated men, could expect to hold off any onslaught for a sizable amount of time.
But there were problems too. The walls were old, and unsuited to the more recent innovations in war: they could easily crumble under a sustained artillery bombardment. Morale among the defenders was low, and high among the attackers. And those defenders would have precious little with which to fire back at the Williamites, who could be guaranteed of bringing the best cannon that they had to bare.
The other problem was dissension in the higher ranks. Tyrconnell had been left in charge by James II, but felt overwhelmed by the scale of the task in front of hm. Much of the Jacobite army was scattered, and what was left around Limerick – the exact number is not known for sure, but it was sizable enough – were ill-trained, poorly armed and subsisting on limited rations. Moreover, the better French units that formed the best part of the Jacobite military wanted out of the country, the departure of James indicating to them that the cause was no longer worth fighting and dying for.
Tyrconnell suggested to his subordinates, among them Henry Luttrel, Gordon O’Neill and Patrick Sarsfield, that the Jacobites call it quits and seek terms while they were still in a position to dictate some of them. To his surprise, and to many since, he received adamant refusal in reply. The Irish officers wanted to fight on, pointing to the potential size of the army and the possibility of holding out past the end of the current campaigning season, after which the situation might look better. Reluctantly, Tyrconnell withdrew his suggestion, and then withdrew himself, seeing out the subsequent phase of operations from Galway, a decision that caused many, then and since, to doubt his level of commitment.
Limerick was left in other hands, with cavalry support sent over the river to County Clare from where it could operate more freely. William’s army was outside the walls by the 9th of August.
But this post is not about the famous 1690 Siege of Limerick, I’ll talk about that next week. This post is about a singular event that occurred just before it really got started, that made a legend out of the person responsible. Nothing could really get started until the Williamite siege cannon, giant lumbering pieces brought over from abroad, were transported from the east of the country to the west, a process that took time.
On the 10th, the defenders inside Limerick received word that these artillery pieces were on their way, and it was realised that their arrival would spell doom for the defensive effort. Limerick’s walls, as mentioned, were not viewed as up to the task of withstanding such attack. Desperate to forestall this possibility and hopeful of striking a badly needed blow against the Williamites, Patrick Sarsfield enacted a plan. He had already won some fame as a cavalry commander, and as the conqueror of Sligo earlier in the war. But it was then and there that he would truly make his reputation. Setting himself up resolutely as opposed to Tyrconnell’s desires for peace – the two would never really get along – he soon came to encapsulate a spirit of resistance, and found many men rallying to his cause.
Hearing about the oncoming cannon, it was realised that, with enough speed and support, they could be made a target. The artillery would not be undefended of course, but neither would it have the protection of the 25’000 Williamite soldiers outside Limerick, who perhaps thought most of the country pacified, or at least enough that the transportation of artillery was not a major concern. Sarsfield was set on upsetting that viewpoint, though it remains in dispute just who originated the plan from the beginning, Tyrconnell, the Duke of Berwick, or Sarsfield himself.
Regardless, soon after receiving the news, Sarsfield left the city, heading north over the Shannon with around 500 horses and dragoons eventually joining him. With them, he rode as fast as he could to Killaloe, on the River Shannon. The crossing there was being watched by Williamite patrols, but Sarsfield was able to use a fording point just north of the proper crossing, and got over to the eastern bank without detection, a remarkable enough feat considered the make-up of his party.
In all this, Sarsfield was decisively aided by a man named Daniel “Galloping” Hogan, about whom precious little is known. He was a rapparee of some kind, Sarsfield having a close enough relationship with many of the irregular bands, which he had used or recruited from during his campaign in Connacht. Hogan, a local who knew the area intimately, guided Sarsfield across the river, and later through bogs and woods, as the entire party turned south-east, aiming to intercept the artillery train before it could get beyond their reach.
Back in Limerick, only a day had passed, but the Williamites had observed Sarsfield departure. A crucial delay occurred, between this becoming known, William being informed and the Williamites organising any kind of countermove. Perhaps it was just thought that Sarsfield was leading a raiding band for cattle, nothing to get too worried about, or maybe he was headed north after Tyrconnell. Better heads prevailed eventually, but by the time William ordered a unit of cavalry to ride towards the artillery train, and this order enacted, it was far too late to have any effect on what was about to happen.
All that day, Sarsfield had continued south, swinging into County Limerick and carefully scouting out the way ahead. When his men discovered the artillery train, it was shadowed until it was near the small village of Ballyneety, less than a day’s march from Limerick City itself, Sarsfield taking great pains to avoid detection. There, the unsuspecting troops guarding the artillery made camp, deciding, crucially, not to make use of a ruined castle nearby for protection, so close as they were to rejoining the main army. There was only a hundred or so of them.
That night, in the early hours of the 12th of August, Sarsfield made his attack. Night assaults are always tricky prospects, with a high likelihood of confusion. Attackers can easily become the attacked, and the chance of friendly fire and the like grows by a large degree. But with complete surprise on his side, Sarsfield was willing to take the risk.
It worked. The popular retelling of the story is that Sarsfield discovered the Williamite pass word for the night was his own name. Challenged by an unknowing sentry on his final approach, Sarsfield is said to have started his assault with the cry “Sarsfield is the word and Sarsfield is the man!”. The Williamite soldiers never got the chance to mount a proper defence, many killed before they even knew what was going on. By the time they did realise, the chance to do anything to save the situation had passed. 60 were killed while the rest scattered.
Momentarily in charge of the area, Sarsfield quickly moved to do what he had come to do. The guns were arranged in a circle, their ammunition and powder piled on top, before the guns themselves were loaded up, and then aimed directly at the ground. With a long enough fuse set, Sarsfield and his troops departed. When the fuse reached the powder, the resulting force, with nowhere to go, destroyed the guns and the giant amount of ammunition, in a massive explosion visibly for miles around. The party of Williamite horsemen saw and heard it, and soon realised that they had been sent too late on their errand, being little less than a mile away. Most, though not all, of the guns were destroyed, and Sarsfield also captured plenty of horses and supplies. He couldn’t stick around though, fearful of Williamite reprisal, heading a great distance north, into Offaly, before crossing the Shannon and riding back south to Limerick. His caution was sound: Williamite attacks cost him 16 men before he made back inside the walls of the city.
But it didn’t matter. A furious William was left to rue the delay that had prevented the train from being reinforced. Now more guns would have to be sent for, which would take just as long, or longer with more troops to guard them, to get to where they needed to be. They would get there, but Sarsfield’s action had gained the Jacobite defenders some crucial time, time they could use to better prepare defences, to marshal their courage and to see the last vestiges of the summer begin to slip away. William couldn’t stay in the field forever, and the Ballyneety Raid – known more popularly as “Sarsfield’s Ride” – was an event heard about far and wide. It was adventurous, it showed initiative and it was daring. It provided a timely boost to Jacobite morale, and made a permanent hero out of the man who led it, an opinion that has not changed all the way to the present day, where the route taken is still marked by the name of Sarsfield, as is Limerick’s military barracks, one of the only ones not named after a figure from the Irish revolutionary period. The Jacobite cause had been cursed with men like James who provided no kind of example to live up to. In Sarsfield, the movement had someone to follow. Someone who was willing to be followed.
Sarsfield had bought Limerick some time, but the storm was still coming. William had been stung and humiliated, but he still had enough force to make his target quake. The most crucial battle of the war would now be fought.
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