Siege of Limerick

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


Portrait of Patrick Sarsfield

Portrait of Patrick Sarsfield

UPON Limerick now all interest centered. On the 7th of August William reached Cahirconlish, about seven miles southeast of the city, where he encamped, his force amounting to about twenty-eight thousand men.

On the evening of the 8th, Douglas, with the ten thousand runaway besiegers of Athlone, joined him, raising his force to thirty-eight thousand.

At this time there were, on the other hand, in the city barely ten thousand infantry; about four thousand cavalry being encamped on the Clare side.

When the courtier commanders, Tyrconnell and Lauzun, had estimated William's forces, and viewed the defenses of the city, they absolutely scoffed at the idea of defending it, and directed its surrender.

Sarsfield and the Irish royalists, however, boldly declared they would not submit to this, and said they would themselves defend the city. In this they were thoroughly and heartily seconded and supported by the gallant Berwick.

Lauzun again inspected the walls, gates, bastions, etc., and as his final opinion declared that the place “could be taken with roasted apples.”

Hereupon Tyrconnell, Lauzun, and all the French and Swiss departed for Galway, taking with them everything they could control of stores, arms, and ammunition.

This looked like desertion and betrayal indeed. The taking away of the stores and ammunition, after Sarsfield and Berwick, and even the citizens themselves, had declared they would defend the city, was the most scandalous part of the proceeding.

Nevertheless, undismayed, Sarsfield, assisted by a French officer of engineers, De Boisseleau, who, dissenting from Lauzun's estimate of the defenses, volunteered to remain, boldly set about preparing Limerick for siege.

Happily for the national honor of Ireland, the miserable court party thus cruelly deserted Limerick. That base abandonment left all the glory of its defense to the brave heroes who remained.

De Boisseleau was named governor of the city, and Sarsfield commander of the horse.

It was decided that the latter force should be posted on the Clare side of the Shannon, opposite the city (with which communication was kept up by the bridges), its chief duty being at all hazards to prevent the Williamites from crossing to that shore at any of the fords above the city. De Boisseleau meanwhile was to conduct the engineering operations of the defense.

It was true enough that Lauzun, when he scoffed at those defenses, saw very poor chance for the city, as far as ramparts of stone and mortar were concerned.

“The city,” we are told, “had neither outworks, glacis, fosses, half-moons, or horn works. An old wall flanked with a few tottering towers, but without either ditch or parapet, was its only defense.”[1]

However, De Boisseleau soon set to work to improve upon these, mounting batteries, and digging covered ways or counterscarps; the citizens, gentle and simple, and even the women and children, working from sunrise to sunset at the construction or strengthening of defenses.

Early on August 9, 1690, William drew from his encampment at Cahirconlish, and, confident, of an easy victory, sat down before Limerick.

That day he occupied himself in selecting favorable sites for batteries to command the city, and in truth, owing to the formation of the ground, the city was at nearly every point nakedly exposed to his guns.

He next sent in a summons to surrender, but De Boisseleau courteously replied that “he hoped he should merit his opinion more by a vigorous defense than a shameful surrender of a fortress which he had been intrusted with.”[2]

The siege now began.

William's bombardment, however, proceeded slowly; and the Limerick gunners, on the other hand, were much more active and vigorous than he had expected.

On Monday, the 11th, their fire compelled him to shift his field train entirely out of range; and on the next day, as if intent on following up such practice, their balls fell so thickly about his own tent, killing several persons, that he had to shift his own quarters also.

But in a day or two he meant to be in a position to pay back these attentions with heavy interest, and to reduce those old walls despite all resistance.

In fine, there was coming up to him from Waterford a magnificent battering train, together with immense stores of ammunition, and, what was nearly as effective for him as the siege train, a number of pontoon-boats of tin or sheet copper, which would soon enable him to pass the Shannon where he pleased.

So he took very coolly the resistance so far offered from the city. For in a day more Limerick would be absolutely at his mercy.

So thought William; and so seemed the inevitable fact.

But there was a bold heart and an active brain at work at that very moment planning a deed destined to immortalize its author to all time, and to baffle William's now all but accomplished designs on Limerick.

On Sunday, the 10th, the battering train and its convoy had reached Cashel.

On Monday, the 11th, they reached a place called Ballyneety, within nine or ten miles of the Williamite camp.

The country through which they had passed was all in the hands of their own garrisons or patrols; yet they had so important and precious a charge that they had watched it jealously so far; but now they were virtually at the camp—only a few miles in its rear; and so the convoy, when night fell, drew the siege train and the vast line of ammunition wagons, the pontoon-boats and store-loads, into a field close to an old ruined castle, and, duly posting night sentries, gave themselves to repose.

That day an Anglicized Irishman, one Manus O'Brien, a Protestant landlord in the neighborhood of Limerick, came into the Williamite camp with a piece of news.

Sarsfield at the head of five hundred picked men had ridden off the night before on some mysterious enterprise in the direction of Killaloe; and the informer, from Sarsfield's character, judged rightly that something important was afoot, and earnestly assured the Williamites that nothing was too desperate for that commander to accomplish.

The Williamite officers made little of this. They thought the fellow was only anxious to make much of a trifle, by way of securing favor for himself. Beside, they knew of nothing in the direction of Killaloe that could affect them.

William, at length, was informed of the story. He, too, failed to discern what Sarsfield could be at; but his mind anxiously reverting to his grand battering train—albeit it was now barely a few miles off—he, to make safety doubly sure, ordered Sir John Lanier to proceed at once with five hundred horse to meet the convoy.

By some curious chance, Sir John—perhaps deeming his night ride quite needless—did not greatly hurry to set forth.

At two o'clock Tuesday morning, instead of at nine o'clock on Monday evening, he rode leisurely off. His delay of five hours made all the difference in the world, as we shall see.

It was indeed true that Sarsfield on Sunday night had secretly quitted his camp on the Clare side, at the head of a chosen body of his best horsemen; and, true enough, also, that it was upon an enterprise worthy of his reputation he had set forth.

In fine, he had heard of the approach of the siege train, and had planned nothing less than its surprise, capture, and destruction.

On Sunday night he rode to Killaloe, distant twelve miles above Limerick on the river.

The bridge here was guarded by a party of the enemy; but, favored by the darkness, he proceeded further up the river until he came to a ford near Ballyvally, where he crossed the Shannon, and passed into Tipperary County.

The country around him now was all in the enemy's hands; but he had one with him as guide on this eventful occasion whose familiarity with the locality enabled Sarsfield to evade all the Williamite patrols, and but for whose services it may be doubted if his ride this night had not been his last. This was Hogan, the rapparee chief, immortalized in local traditions as “Galloping Hogan.”

By paths and passes known only to riders “native to the sod,” he turned into the deep gorges of Silver Mines, and ere day had dawned was bivouacked in a wild ravine of the Keeper Mountains. Here he lay perdu all day on Monday.

When night fell there was anxious tightening of horsegirths and girding of swords with Sarsfield's five hundred.

They knew the siege train was at Cashel on the previous day, and must by this time have reached near to the Williamite lines.

The midnight ride before them was long, devious, difficult, and perilous; the task at the end of it was crucial and momentous indeed.

Led by their trusty guide, they set out southward, still keeping in byways and mountain roads.

Meanwhile, as already mentioned, the siege train and convoy had that evening reached Ballyneety, where the guns were parked and convoy bivouacked.

It was three o'clock in the morning when Sarsfield, reaching within a mile or two of the spot, learned from a peasant that the prize was now not far off ahead of him.

And here we encounter a fact which gives the touch of true romance to the whole story. It happened by one of those coincidences that often startle us with their singularity that the password with the Williamite convoy that night was “Sarsfield!” That Sarsfield obtained the password before he reached the halted convoy is also unquestionable, though how he came by his information is variously stated.

The painstaking historian of Limerick states that from a woman, wife of a sergeant in the Williamite convoy, unfeelingly left behind on the road by her own party in the evening, but most humanely and kindly treated by Sarsfield's men, the word was obtained.[3]

Riding softly to within a short distance of the place indicated, he halted and sent out a few trusted scouts to scan the whole position narrowly. They returned reporting that beside the sentries there were only a few score troopers drowsing beside the watch fires, on guard; the rest of the convoy being sleeping in all the immunity of fancied safety.

Sarsfield now gave his final orders—silence or death, till they were in upon the sentries; then, forward like a lightning flash upon the guards.

One of the Williamite sentries fancied he heard the beat of horse hoofs approaching him; he never dreamed of foes; he thought it must be one of their own patrols.

And truly enough, through the gloom he saw the figure of an officer evidently at the head of a body of cavalry, whether phantom or reality he could not tell.

The sentry challenged, and, still imagining he had friends, demanded the “word.”

Suddenly, as if from the spirit land, and with a wild, weird shout that startled all the sleepers, the “phantom troop” shot past like a thunderbolt; the leader crying as he drew his sword, “Sarsfield is the word, and Sarsfield is the man!”

The guards dashed forward, the bugles screamed the alarm, the sleepers rushed to arms, but theirs was scarcely an effort.

The broadswords of Sarsfield's five hundred were in their midst; and to the affrighted gaze of the panic-stricken victims that five hundred seemed thousands!

Short, desperate, and bloody was that scene; so short, so sudden, so fearful, that it seemed like the work of incantation. In a few minutes the whole of the convoy were cut down or dispersed; and William's splendid siege train was in Sarsfield's hands!

But his task was as yet only half-accomplished. Morning was approaching; William's camp was barely eight or ten miles distant, and thither some of the escaped had hurriedly fled. There was scant time for the important work yet to be done.

The siege guns and mortars were filled with powder, and each muzzle buried in the earth; upon and around the guns were piled the pontoon-boats, the contents of the ammunition wagons, and all the stores of various kinds, of which there was a vast quantity.

A train of powder was laid to this huge pyre, and Sarsfield, removing all the wounded Williamites to a safe distance,[4] drew off his men, halting them while the train was being fired.

There was a flash that lighted all the heavens and showed with dazzling brightness the country for miles around. Then the ground rocked and heaved beneath the gazers' feet, as, with a deafening roar that seemed to rend the firmament, the vast mass burst into the sky; and as suddenly all was gloom again!

The sentinels on Limerick walls heard that awful peal. It rolled like a thunderstorm away by the heights of Cratloe, and awakened sleepers amid the hills of Clare.

William heard it too; and he at least needed no interpreter of that fearful sound. He knew in that moment that his splendid siege train had perished, destroyed by a feat that only one man could have so planned and executed; an achievement destined to surround with unfading glory the name of Patrick Sarsfield!

Sir John Lanier's party, coming up in nowise rapidly, saw the flash that, as they said, gave broad daylight for a second, and felt the ground shake beneath them as if by an earthquake, and then their leader found he was just in time to be too late.

Rushing on he sighted Sarsfield's rearguard; but there were memories of the Irish cavalry at the Boyne in no way encouraging him to force an encounter.

From the Williamite camp two other powerful bodies of horse were sent out instantly on the explosion being heard, to surround Sarsfield and cut him off from the Shannon. But all was vain, and on Tuesday evening he and his five hundred rode into camp amid a scene such as Limerick had not witnessed for centuries.

The whole force turned out; the citizens came with laurel boughs to line the way, and as he marched in amid a conqueror's ovation, the gunners on the old bastions across the river gave a royal salute to him whom they all now hailed as the savior of the city.


[1] “First Siege of Limerick,” M. J. M'Cann.

[2] “Memoirs of King James the Second.”

[3] “Lenihan's History of Limerick,” page 232.

[4] Even the Williamite chroniclers make mention of Sarsfield's kindness to the wounded at Ballyneety.