Ireland’s Wars: Winter Operations And Aims In 1691

The major campaigns of the War of the Two Kings had ceased with the taking Cork and Kinsale by John Churchill, but, through the winter months at the end of 1690 and into the beginning of 1691, there were still minor clashes between both sides, as Williamite and Jacobite forces jockeyed for position ahead of the more decisive battles soon to be fought.

For the Williamites, that time was one of affecting their own administration over the portions of Ireland now under their control. From Dublin, the newly appointed justices and government busied itself issuing decrees and trying to sort out the ever-present land issue, which mostly involved taking it from Catholics, present or absent, and handing it over to Protestants (or back as the case may be). The laws and decrees of the Patriot Parliament were rolled back wholesale, as was to be expected.

There were other matters to be attended to as well though. A smuggling system had come into being between Catholics in the east and the Jacobites in the west, which the Williamites struggled to clamp down on. New reinforcements, from varying European Kingdoms and principalities, continued to flood into the country, that all needed to be put up and integrated into the army proper. And, in order to further bolster that army, a new wave of militia troops, raised from the Protestant communities now no longer under Jacobite control, were also being raised and trained. Ahead of the expected resumption of campaigning in 1691, the Williamites were keen to maintain their military advantage in both number and quality of soldiers.

Across the country, there was also the increased amount of rapparee attacks that had to be confronted. It was the common Irish guerrilla story told all over again: small mobile bands of soldiers, setting ambushes in isolated areas, striking fast and withdrawing just as quickly, utilising terrain such as woods, bogs and mountains to their advantage. Across Williamite controlled Ireland, rapparee groups – some politically motivated, others more of the bandit sort – hit supply columns, garrisons and towns, making troop movement and maintenance increasing difficult. When the Williamites tried to hit back, they often found no one to hit, with the enemy vanished and their arms hidden, until the next fight. At times the problem grew to extraordinary levels, and rapparee activity in Wicklow and the surrounding counties, no stranger to such fighting throughout Irish history, had Dublin in a panic during this period.

The burning of Williamite controlled hamlets and villages in Wicklow were not uncommon events, and the civil administration in Dublin was perpetually in fear of a sudden attack from Irish Catholic peasantry. The response was a familiar one: expelling of Catholics from the city, a crackdown on Catholic meetings and Catholic-owned businesses, and an officially sanctioned policy of reprisal against Catholic communities in the vicinity of rapparee attacks. This was, perhaps, never quite as vicious as the Tory struggle in Ireland at the conclusion of the Eleven Year Wars, but was still bad enough: and, in these winter months, aggravated the crisis facing a land that had suffered extensive fighting and crop failure.

Godert de Ginkel, now firmly established as William’s chosen commander in chief in Ireland, wanted to appointment to be productive before the weather improved, perhaps inspired by the success of the unpopular Marlborough on the south coast. To that end, he envisioned a daring – too daring really – pincer movement on the Jacobite position to take place over the winter weeks and months, which, if properly executed, could have had the potential to tremendously weaken the Jacobites before the oncoming of Spring. His plan was a simple attack to the south and north: a push into West Cork and Kerry from the newly won coastal region, and a push on and beyond Sligo to the north, down the western bank of the River Shannon.

Ginkel’s plan was extraordinarily ambitious under the circumstances. Aside from the terrible weather that left any attempted military manoeuvres very difficult to perform, he lacked enough men, on either side of the endeavour, to really see it through properly, with most of the Williamite Army still stuck in winter quarters. And the intended targets were risky in the extreme: the hilly ambush friendly country of Kerry, and the Jacobite heartland of Connacht.

The scheme started well enough, with a quick push on additional Cork ports, like Castlehaven, Baltimore and Bantry, finding success in their rapid seizures, the ports left largely undefended. But from there things became more difficult. Local irregular forces led by Catholic noblemen rallied and harassed the occupiers, preventing their free movement and leaving them limited. When they did deign to continue with the stated objective and move into Kerry, the reduced garrisons were easy prey, and the ports rapidly changed hands again.

Meanwhile, the more concerted effort, being led from Cork, also came up short. A large enough force began a march in the general direction of Macroom, but held up by the weather, the terrain and the harassing operations of the rapparee’s, eventually gave up and turned back. There would be no grand success in the depths of winter for the Williamites.

To the north, Ginkel’s offensive also floundered. Williamite troops did move forward, but rapid relocation of Jacobite forces and the bad weather insured that the northern wing of the operation was a doomed endeavour before it ever really got started, and the Williamites backed off long before any substantial fighting could take place. Ginkel was left red-faced, though he had not lost all that much in the effort. He placed part of the operations’ failure on the civil administration, which refused to cooperate with him on a suggested policy of offering pardon to Jacobite soldiers who refused to fight. Ginkel saw the lack of this as a lost opportunity to weaken enemy resolve, but the truth is that the offensive, generally, was just a bad idea from the start and, if it had gone much further, could easily have turned into a serious repulse for the Williamites.

The Jacobites very briefly pushed back in the aftermath, with raids pushing out from Kerry in the south, Limerick in the centre and Athlone to the north, with places like Clonakilty in the firing line. Ginkel’s remaining forces in the field quickly rallied and forced the Jacobites back. Such was the frontier war that dragged on throughout the winter and into the early Spring, as both sides made small temporary in-roads into enemy territory, without ever really threatening to enact anything more decisive than that.

So the Williamites had their problems but, then again, so did the Jacobites. Their winter months were spent, apart from the things that I have already mentioned, on solidifying their position and preparing for more warfare in the future months. Territory around the Shannon and beyond, on the eastern side, was targeted for a rudimentary scorched earth strategy, with fortifications burned, crops plundered and herds stolen. To the south of Limerick this was largely carried out by the Duke of Berwick, soon to depart for France to join his father: it is said that at one point he spent the night dining at the Earl of Orrery’s manor in Charleville, then ordered it destroyed, sticking around long enough to watch it burn. This strategy made life a bit more difficult for the Williamites, who could not count on much local material support in any future advance on the Shannon defensive line, at least in certain points.

Around this time, Tyrconnell took ship to France, there to meet with James to discuss the situation in Ireland. James’ thoughts and opinions had precious little weight any more though, aside from, granting Talbot the Lord Lieutenancy, and it was the outlook of the French King that was far more important. He released more troops, supplies and guns for Tyrconnell to take home, along with a decent amount of French officers to take over the situation in Ireland, but it can never be forgot what his larger goal was. Ireland was just a sideshow to the grander European war he was fighting against William, a place to keep just strong enough that the Williamites would have to keep diverting troops and resources there. He never gave enough troops to the Jacobites in Ireland as to potentially lead to a grander offensive against William.

The French soldiery also created even more recriminations in the high command of the Jacobite war effort. Patrick Sarsfield and many others were put out by the paucity of money and troops, and even more by the reality, impressed upon them by Louis, that his generals would be at the top of the chain of command, with Sarsfield and other Irish reduced to subordinate roles. There was method to the madness – the French officers had more experience in war for one thing – but it rankled with many of the Irish officers. They had been the ones to successfully resist at Limerick, not the French. It mattered not: Charles Chalmont, the Marquis of St Ruth, now became the head of the Jacobite military in Ireland. Sarsfield had to make do with the Earldom of Lucan.

So, what were the respective aims and plans for both sides, in the short, medium and long term?

In the short term, it was plain that it would be a case of more Williamite offensives and Jacobite defence. The Williamites, with their greater reserves of manpower and material, would try and breach the Shannon at one or many points, and thereby deal a fatal blow to the cause of Jacobite survival. The main question was where the first blow would fall, with both of the obvious targets – Athlone and Limerick – having withstood Williamite attacks already. Going around the Shannon to the north was not a palatable option either. Whatever the choice, the Williamites would be sure to bring more soldiers and artillery than last time, and try and win a passage over the river. The Jacobites, still rearming and reorganising, would just have to try and stop them again, buying more time for the larger strategic picture to change.

How likely that was to happen was very much up in the air. The medium term, for the Williamites, a breach over the Shannon should have led to the end of the war. The Jacobite army would have nowhere else to run, barring holding up in every fort and castle it could find, and that was not a winning strategy. A battle would have to be fought, one where the Williamites would hold most of the cards. That battle won, the Williamites would be all but triumphant, with the likes of Galway unlikely to hold up William’s accession to Irish domination for too long.

If the Jacobites were to hold the Shannon line, their medium term plans – for within the year of 1691 – would probably be to try some limited offensives eastwards. A lot would be dependent on the continental war and on what opportunities made themselves available in Ireland. If the Williamites could be made to suffer enough in the coming assault on the Shannon, a larger counter-attack to the east might be possible, with everything that it might entail: the retaking of lost territory, bringing the war back into Leinster and even the possibility of threatening Dublin once more.

In longer term plans, the Williamites were already looking beyond the war, and, as we have seen, already trying to settle the land question. Ireland was to be cleared of rebellious elements and incorporated fully back into the British fold, with its Catholic population to remain an underclass, an ascendency of Protestants having control of both government, law and armed forces.

For the Jacobites, the long term was still a question mark, dependent entirely on the course of a war they initially just wanted to prolong, and on the effect of, and possible intervention from, Europe. Certainly, there would have been dreams of reclaiming the entirety of the island and using that as a springboard for something, though these visions would have varied wildly from an independent Catholic Kingdom, to launching an invasion of Britain with the aim of reinstating James II. He was still the nominal head of the Jacobite movement after all, despite his absence, but who knows how his departure from the main stage might have affected the grander political goals of the men now actually in charge of the war effort in Ireland?

So after a winter of tit-for-tat strikes and aborted efforts at something greater, the two sides were left as they had been: waiting for the guns to start sounding again and facing each from either side of the Shannon. William and Ginkel were determined that 1691 would be the last year of the war in Ireland, but they would have to get past that barrier first.

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: Winter Operations And Aims In 1691

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

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

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

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