Patrick Sarsfield had done his part in stemming the oncoming Williamite tide, but the final blow had only been delayed, not deflected entirely. As the autumn continued, William was determined that Limerick City would fall and a gateway over the Shannon opened up for his army, a gateway that would lead to the destruction of what was left of the Jacobites before the end of the year. The subsequent operations around Limerick would be remarkably simple, but incredibly deadly.
Tyrconnell had appointed a French officer named de Boissleau as commander of the city garrison, though this responsibility was de facto shared with Sarsfield, while he himself retreated to Galway. The number of defenders that Limerick was able to call upon is uncertain, not least because the line between soldier and civilian became increasingly blurred as the siege went on. Probably somewhere in the region of 15’000 soldiers, some of them based in Clare, faced over 25’000 Williamite troops. The Limerick defenders had walls to stand behind, but they were outdone in nearly every other department: training, access to arms and ammunition, supplies, cannon, everything. They were not easy targets by any means, but there was only so much the raise in spirits created by Sarsfield’s Ride could do.
William had reached Limerick on the 7th of August, but his plans had been miserably delayed by the intervention of Sarsfield at Ballyneety. Waiting for more cannon to be sent from Waterford, he busied himself and his army by extending siege lines and taking smaller forts in the immediate area, like Castleconnell. But nothing was really going to change unless Limerick itself could be taken. Aside from its own inherent value as a major Irish city and port, it served as a significant strategic point on the Shannon, and with Athlone remaining impregnable to the north, William had nowhere else he was willing to go.
William did still have time before campaigning would no longer be possible, but was impatient for other reasons. There was still the larger war to be fought with France, in which Ireland was increasingly looking like a sideshow. So, he wanted Limerick taken fast, and was unwilling to starve the defenders out. He looked at Limerick’s ancient walls and saw weakness: in his assessment, he was matched by some of the French defenders, with their commander, Lauzan, famously declaring that they could be destroyed with “roasted apples”.
By the 17th William was pushing his siege lines and batteries to within firing distance of the walls, focusing on the barrier outside Irish-town. Small redoubts outside the walls became scenes of brief but bitter fighting: a position called Stone Fort hosted an extended back and forth, ending with it being in possession of the Williamites and 300 dead Jacobites littering its exterior. At another point, a night time sally caused a panic in the Williamite lines, with Danish and English regiments mistaking each other for the enemy, before finally turning away the Irish raiders.
Shortly after, William finally had more artillery to play with, bringing to an end the period of time Sarsfield had been able to buy. A bombardment erupted from Williamite mortars, but to little effect. For the better part of ten days fire rained down on Limerick, but no places of serious consequence were hit, any fires started were put out, the works went on and the defenders refused to budge. Some mining and counter-mining was done, but never to the extent that it threatened to become the dominant part of proceedings. The weather was poor for the time of year, with a fairly constant rain helping with any fires started by mortars, and making the encamped Williamites miserable and, increasingly, ill. The more traditional Williamite pieces went to work on the walls at varying points and, as expected, a breach was created without much effort, the old structures simply not being up to the task of withstanding such firepower. The opening, near St John’s Gate, was a tempting target.
William deemed the breach actionable, and ordered an assault to take place on the 27th. The forlorn hope would be a unit of 500 Danish grenadiers, who would be followed in succession by several other multi-national regiments from William’s army. The degree of risk was considerable, as any attempt to storm a breach was, but William placed his faith in his hardened professional fighters over the Irish defenders.
That afternoon, they went forward. The Irish were waiting. And they had not been idle.
Boissleau, Sarsfield and others had made use of the time they had been given. Laying a rampart across all the walls would have been a time consuming and nearly impossible task, but once it became clear what section of the walls William was focusing on, arrangements could be made. Barricades and other impediments were thrown up on the streets, trenches were dug just next to the walls, and barriers were prepared to stem the flow of any attacker. The commanders knew that the Williamites were too strong to stop at the breach itself, though soldiers would be placed there anyway. But, once inside the city, those attackers could be contained and picked off. As the breach became obvious, as did the likelihood of a Williamite attack, what guns the Jacobites had were placed facing it, and a serious entrenchment dug before it. In many ways, the defence was a mirror of that which had occurred at Clonmel several decades before, an example the Irish were doing their best to repeat.
The grenadiers went forward, charging up the rubble and engaging the few defenders they found in the gap itself. Quickly, the Williamites gained the breach and surged forward.
The trap sprung, the Irish on the other side waited to engage. The Williamites found themselves stumbling into an entrenchment, a narrow space bordered on all sides by impediments, earth and other barriers, with a succession of defensive points beyond that would all have to be cleared if victory was to be won. The Irish, their gunpowder saved for this moment, couldn’t miss, and musket and cannon took the opportunity with gusto.
The result was a catastrophe for the Williamites. The Danes couldn’t take much, already weakened by the attack through the wall. The following regiments suffered just as bad, desperately trying to force a way through and over the assembled defences, with shot pouring into them, and desperate hand to hand fighting failing to make the required headway. The famous image of the siege is of the women of Limerick joining in with the other defenders, pitching rocks and broken glass at the attackers. Sarsfield and others are alleged to have tried to get them to leave the city before the siege began, but they refused: this is likely apocryphal, but certainly added to the general image of the siege being a miraculous moment in Irish Catholic history.
Again and again the Williamites failed to make the breakthrough. Some sources, very romantic in nature, claim they were able to get beyond the initial defence, but were then thrown back by Irish civilians. With nowhere to go and mounting casualties, they retreated back through the breach. The Jacobites pursued the beaten enemy, aided by a well-timed sally from the gates of Limerick that hit the Williamite attack units in their flank, preventing any second grand attempt to take the breach. None was made, the Williamites scattering back to the safety of their own lines and camp. The Jacobites broke off their pursuit and fell back to the city.
The Williamites had suffered significant casualties, maybe as many as 2’000 to 3’000 men: which might have been three times the casualties suffered at the Boyne. Adding casualties through typical siege disease, and it could be counted as a terrible repulse, one of the worst a “British” army would suffer in Ireland, and the worst Williamite defeat of the entire war. The Williamites suffered a terrible blow, and the Jacobite cost for inflicting it was low: somewhere in the realm of 100-400 casualties, most of them in the fighting over Stone Fort.
William, frustrated and humiliated by this unexpected turn of events, called a council of war amid another torrential downpour and suggested a second assault by the rest of the army, still keen on putting an end to the matter while he was in the field. But any enthusiasm from his subordinates had vanished. Fears were raised of the calamity being repeated, of the army suffering too high a number of casualties even in victory, of disease and the rains ruining what was left of the army and of the result giving the Jacobites a chance to regain everything they had lost over the last few months. The suggestion was made, not without reason, that there was no need to take such a serious risk with a second assault, when the campaign could be broken off and completed the following year.
The suggestion landed hard with William, who had rapidly had enough of Ireland. Leaving ahead of his army, he gave command of the effort in Ireland to others and headed to Waterford, there to take ship back to England, never to return. A few days later, the Williamite army decamped and headed east into winter quarters, though some units were instead sent south for subsequent operations. They had been outside the walls of Limerick, for just a little more than three weeks. Just as with Athlone, they could not shift the Jacobites from a position of strong urban defence. The siege, and the deadly threat to the Jacobites, was over, for the time being. The defenders, exhausted and weak, did not attempt to pursue.
Tyrconnell was stunned by the news he received from Limerick, which had the immediate effect of convincing many of the French units not to quit the country as they had been planning. With the Williamites retiring, Tyrconnell ordered what still existed of the Jacobite force to do the same, and began making plans for summoning new regiments in the New Year. Things were looking up.
The 1690 Siege of Limerick, or rather the assault on Limerick, was a rash and foolhardy event. William had no need to undertake such a dangerous plan: with more patience, he could have starved the defenders out, supplies in the city not exactly being fruitful before the blockade had been instituted. Even a delay of a few weeks might have weakened the defenders enough that an assault would have been more likely to succeed. But stung by the raid at Balleyneety, and itching to get back to the “real” war on the continent, William committed his soldiers to a terrible fate, caught in the same grinder that Cromwell had sent his New Model Army in to at Clonmel. William has a decidedly mixed martial reputation, and the legacy of his two major actions in Ireland – the Boyne and the Siege of Limerick – shows exactly why. Simple defensive arrangements granted the Jacobites a major victory.
For the Jacobites, it was an incredibly important moment. It kept the war going into 1691, it was a tremendous morale boost and it proved that the Williamites could be beaten in the right circumstances. The Jacobites had strength, and now they had more time.
But while the war would continue on into 1691, the fighting in 1690 was still not over.
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