William of Orange lands in Ireland

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


EIGHTEEN months afterward two armies stood face to face on the banks of the Boyne. King James and Prince William for the first time were to contest in person the issues between them.

The interval had not been without its events. In England the revolution encountered no opposition, and William was free to bring against Ireland and Scotland the full strength of his British levies, as well as of his foreign auxiliaries. Ireland, Tyrconnell was quite sanguine of holding for King James, even though at the worst England should be lost; and to arouse to the full the enthusiasm of the devoted Gaels, nay, possibly to bring back to their allegiance the rebellious Ulster Protestants, he urged the king to come to Ireland and assume in person the direction of affairs. King Louis of France concurred in those views, and a squadron was prepared at Brest to carry the fugitive back to his dominions. "Accompanied by his natural sons, the Duke of Berwick and the Grand Prior Fitzjames, by Lieutenants-General De Rosen and De Maumont, Majors-General De Persignan and De Lery (or Geraldine), about a hundred officers of all ranks, and one thousand two hundred veterans, James sailed from Brest with a fleet of thirty-three vessels, and landed at Kinsale on the 12th day of March (old style). His reception by the southern population was enthusiastic in the extreme.

From Kinsale to Cork, from Cork to Dublin, his progress was accompanied by Gaelic songs and dances, by Latin orations, loyal addresses, and all the demonstrations with which a popular favorite can be welcomed. Nothing was remembered by that easily-pacified people but his great misfortunes, and his steady fidelity to his and their religion. The royal entry into Dublin was the crowning pageant of this delusive restoration. With the tact and taste for such demonstrations hereditary in the citizens, the trades and arts were marshaled before him. Two venerable harpers played on their national instruments near the gate by which he entered; a number of religieuse in their robes, with a huge cross at their head, chanted as they went; forty young girls dressed in white, danced the ancient 'Rinka,' scattering flowers as they danced. The Earl of Tyrconnell, lately raised to a dukedom, the judges, the mayor and corporation, completed the procession which marched over newly-sanded streets beneath arches of evergreens, and windows hung with 'tapestry and cloth of Arras.' But of all the incidents of that striking ceremonial nothing more powerfully impressed the popular imagination than the green flag floating from the main tower of the castle, bearing the significant inscription: 'Now or never—now and forever.'"

So far well; but when he came to look into the important matter of material for war, a woeful state of things confronted James. As we have already seen, for forty years past, in pursuance of acts of parliament rigorously enforced, no Catholic or native Irishman had been allowed to learn a trade, to inhabit walled towns, or to possess arms. As a consequence, when the Protestants, whom alone for nearly half a century the law allowed to learn to make, repair, or use firearms, fled to the north, there was in all the island scarcely a gunsmith or armorer on whom the king could rely. Such Protestant artisans as remained, "when obliged to set about repairing guns or forging spears, threw every possible obstacle in the way, or executed the duty in such a manner as to leave the weapon next to useless in the hour of action; while night and day the fires blazed and the anvils rang in the preparation of the best arms for the Williamites."

The want of cannon was most keenly felt on the king's side. At the time of the so-called siege of Derry (progressing when James arrived), "there was not a single battering cannon fit for use in Ireland; and there were only twelve field pieces." As a consequence, there was, as there could have been, no real siege of Derry. The place was blockaded more or less loosely for some months—closely toward the end. The inhabitants bore the privations of the blockade with great endurance and heroism; though certainly not greater than that exhibited by the besieged in severer blockades elsewhere during the war.[1] It were pitiful and unworthy to deny to the brave rebels of Derry all that such heroic perseverance as theirs deserves. Such qualities as they displayed—such sufferings cheerfully borne for a cause they judged just and holy—deserve honor and acclaim wherever found. But, after all, as I have pointed out, it was a blockade, not a siege, they endured; and their courage was put to no such test as that which tried the citizens of Limerick two or three years subsequently.

"Meanwhile a splendidly appointed Williamite army had been collected at Chester. It was commanded by the veteran Duke Schomberg, and amounted to ten thousand men. They landed at Bangor, county Down, August 13, 1689, and on the 17th took possession of Belfast." Little was accomplished on either side up to the summer following, when the news that "William himself had resolved to take the field in Ireland, flung the Ulster rebels into a state of enthusiastic rejoicing, and filled the royalists with concern. All felt now that the crisis was at hand. On the 14th of June William landed at Carrickfergus, surrounded by a throng of veteran generals, of continental fame, princes and peers, English and foreign. "At Belfast, his first headquarters, he ascertained the forces at his disposal to be upward of forty thousand men, 'a strange medley of all nations'—Scandinavians, Swiss, Dutch, Prussians, Huguenot-French, English, Scotch, 'Scotch-Irish,' and Anglo-Irish." "On the 16th of June, James, informed of "William's arrival, marched northward at the head of twenty thousand men, French and Irish, to meet him. On the 22d James was at Dundalk, and William at Newry. As the latter advanced, the Jacobites retired, and finally chose their ground at the Boyne, resolved to hazard a battle (even against such odds) for the preservation of Dublin and the safety of the province of Leinster."[2]

No military opinion has ever been uttered of that resolution, save that it never should have been taken. The wonder is not that William forced the Boyne; all the marvel and the madness was that such an army as James' (especially when commanded by such a man) ever attempted to defend it. Not merely had "William nearly fifty thousand men against James' twenty-three thousand; but whereas the former force, all save a few thousand of the Ulster levies (and these, skillful and experienced sharpshooters), were veteran troops, horse and foot, splendidly equipped, and supported by the finest park of artillery perhaps ever seen in Ireland; the latter army, with the exception of a few thousand French, were nearly all raw recruits hastily collected within a few months past from a population unacquainted with the use of firearms, and who had, of course, never been under fire in the field, and now had of artillery but six fieldpieces to support them. But even if this disparity had never existed, the contrast between the commanders would in itself have made all the difference possible.

William was an experienced military tactician, brave, cool, prescient, firm, and resolute. James, as Duke of York, had distinguished himself bravely and honorably on land and sea, so that the charges of absolute cowardice often urged against him can scarcely be just. But his whole conduct of affairs in this Irish campaign was simply miserable. Weak, vacillating, capricious, selfish, it is no wonder one of the French officers, stung to madness by his inexplicable pusillanimity and disgraceful bungling, should have exclaimed aloud to him: "Sire, if you had a hundred kingdoms, you would lose them all." A like sentiment found utterance in the memorable words of an Irish officer when brought a prisoner after the battle into the presence of the Williamite council of war; "Exchange commanders with us, gentlemen, and even with all the other odds against us, we'll fight the battle over again."

But now the die was cast. The resolve, on James' part most falteringly taken,[3] was fixed at last. Uncle and nephew, sovereign and invader, were to put their quarrel to the issue of a battle on the morrow.


[1] Notably, for instance, Fort Charlemont, held for the king by the gallant O'Regan with eight hundred men; besieged by Schomberg at the head of more than as many thousands, with a splendid artillery train. The garrison, we are told, were reduced by hunger to the last extremity, and at length offered to surrender if allowed to march out with all the honors of war. Schomberg complied, and then, says a chronicler, "eight hundred men, with a large number of women and children, came forth, eagerly gnawing pieces of dry hides with the hair on; a small portion of filthy meal and a few pounds of tainted beef being the only provisions remaining in the fort."

[2] M'Gee.

[3] Even when the whole of such arrangements and dispositions for battle as he (after innumerable vacillations) had ordered, had been made, James, at the last moment, on the very eve of battle, once again capriciously changed his mind, said he would fallback to Dublin, and actually sent off thither on the moment the baggage, together with six of the twelve cannon, which constituted his entire artillery, and some portion of his troops! Then, again, after these had gone off beyond recall he as capriciously changed his mind once more, and resolved to await battle then and there at the Boyne!