King James flees the Battle of the Boyne

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


WITH all the odds at which this battle was fought, and important as were its ultimate consequences, the immediate gain for William was simply that he had crossed the Boyne. He had not a captured gun, and scarcely a standard,[1] to show for his victory. The vanquished had, as we have seen, effected a retreat in almost perfect order, bringing off the few guns they possessed at the beginning of the fight. In fine, of the usual tokens of a victory—namely, captured guns, standards, baggage, or prisoners—William's own chroniclers confess he had naught to show; while, according to the same accounts, his loss in killed and wounded nearly equaled that of the royalists.

This was almost entirely owing to the Irish and French cavalry regiments. They saved the army. They did more—their conduct on that day surrounded the lost cause with a halo of glory which defeat could not dim.

Could there have been any such "exchange of commanders" as the captured Irish officer challenged—had the Irish a general of real ability, of heart and courage, zeal and determination, to command them—all that had so far been lost or gained at the Boyne would have proved of little account indeed. But James seemed imbecile. He fled early in the day, reached Dublin before evening; recommended that no further struggle should be attempted in Ireland; and advised his adherents to make the best terms they could for themselves. He had seen a newly-raised and only half-armed Irish foot regiment, it seems, torn by shot and shell, break and fly in utter confusion when charged by cavalry; and the miserable man could talk of nothing but of their bad conduct that had lost him the crown! While he, most fleet at flying, was thus childishly scolding in Dublin Castle, the devoted Irish were even yet keeping William's fifty thousand men at bay, retreating slowly and in good order from Donore!

At five o'clock next morning he quitted Dublin; and, leaving two troops of horse "to defend the bridge at Bray as long as they could, should the enemy come up, "he fled through Wicklow to the south of Ireland. At Kinsale he hurriedly embarked on board the French squadron, and sailed for Brest, where he arrived on the 20th of July, being himself the first messenger with the news of his defeat.

The Irish army on reaching Dublin found they were without ting or captain-general. They had been abandoned and advised to make favor with the conqueror. This, however, was not their mind. James mistook his men. He might fly and resign if he would; but the cause—the country—La Patrie—remained. So the Irish resolved not to surrender. They had fought for James at the Boyne; they would now fight for Ireland on the Shannon.

"To Limerick! To Limerick!" became the cry. The superior wisdom of the plan of campaign advised by Sarsfield from the beginning—defense of the line of the Shannon—was now triumphantly vindicated. Freely surrendering, as indefensible, Dublin, Kilkenny, Waterford, and Dungannon, to Limerick the Irish now turned from all directions. The chronicles of time the state that the soldiers came to that rallying point from the most distant places, "in companies, in scores, in groups; nay, in twos and threes," without any order or command to that effect. On the contrary, James had directed them all to surrender, and every consideration of personal safety counseled them to disband and seek their homes. But no! They had an idea that on the Shannon Sarsfield would yet make a gallant stand beneath the green flag; and so thither their steps were bent.

All eyes now turned to Athlone and Limerick. The former place was at this time held by an old hero, whose name deserved to be linked with that of Sarsfield—Colonel Richard Grace, a confederate Catholic royalist of 1641, now laden with years, but as bold of heart and brave of spirit as when first he drew a sword for Ireland. To reduce Athlone, William detached from his main army at Dublin, Lieutenant-General Douglas with twelve thousand men, a train of twelve cannon, and two mortars. The town stood then, as it stands now, partly on the Leinster, and partly on the Connaught side of the Shannon River, or rather of the short and narrow neck of water, which at that point links two of the "loughs" or wide expanses of the river, that like a great chain of lakes runs north and south for fifty miles between Limerick and Lough Allen. That portion of Athlone on the west, or Connaught side of the river, was called the "Irish town;" that on the east or Leinster side, the "English town." The castle and chief fortifications lay on the west side. The governor deemed the English town; untenable against Douglas' artillery, so he demolished that entire suburb, broke down the bridge, and put all defenses on the western side of the river into the best condition possible to withstand assault.

On July 17, 1690, Douglas arrived before Athlone, and sent an insolent message to the governor demanding immediate surrender. Veteran Grace drew a pistol from his belt, and firing over the head of the affrighted envoy, answered to the effect that "that was his answer" this time, but something severer would be his reply to any such message repeated. Next day Douglas with great earnestness planted his batteries, and for two days following played on the old castle walls with might and main. But he received in return such compliments of the same kind from Colonel Grace as to make him more than dubious as to the result of his bombardment. After a week had been thus spent, news full of alarm for Douglas reached him. Sarsfield—name of terror already—was said to be coming up from Limerick to catch him at Athlone. If old Grace; would only surrender now; just to let him, Douglas, get away in time, it would be a blessed relief. But lo! So far from thinking about surrendering, on the 24th the old hero on the Connaught side hung out the red flag.[2] Douglas, maddened at this, opened on the instant a furious cannonade, but received just as furious a. salute from Governor Grace, accompanied moreover by the most unkind shouts of derision and defiance from the western shore. Douglas now gave up: there was nothing for it but to run. Sarsfield might be upon him if he longer delayed. So he and his ten thousand fled from Athlone, revenging themselves for their discomfiture there by ravaging the inhabitants of all the country through which they passed. Old Governor Grace made a triumphal circuit of Athlone walls, amid the enthusiastic ovations of the garrison and townspeople. Athlone was saved—this time. Once again, however, it was to endure a, siege as memorable, and to make a defense still more glorious, though not, like this one, crowned with victory.


[1] Story, the Williamite chaplain, says: "Only one or two," and complains of "the incompleteness of the victory."

[2] Which betokens resistance a l'outrance; refusal of capitulation or quarter.