Second Siege of Limerick

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


IN the Williamite camp the event caused proportionate dismay, depression, and discouragement. But William was not a man easily thwarted or disconcerted. A week later he had another siege train of thirty-six guns and four mortars brought up from Waterford, pouring red-hot shot into the devoted city. A perfect storm of bombs, "fire-balls," "carcasses," and other diabolical contrivances, rained upon every part of the town, firing it in several places. Sarsfield and De Boisseleau now ordered that all the women and children should withdraw into the Clare suburb. The women en masse rebelled against the order. They vehemently declared that no terrors should cause them to quit their husbands and brothers in this dreadful hour, fighting for God and country. They had already bravely aided in erecting the defenses; they were now resolved to aid in the struggle behind them, ready to die in the breach or on the walls beside their kindred, ere the hated foe should enter Limerick.

And the women of Limerick were true to that resolve. Then might be seen, say the chroniclers, day after day, women, old and young, full of enthusiasm and determination, laboring in the breaches, mines, and counterscarps, digging the earth, filling the gabions, piling the shot, and drawing up ammunition, while around them showered balls, bombs, and grenades.

By this time the surface of the whole of the surrounding suburbs on the southern side was cut up into a vast maze of "ziz-zags," trenches, and galleries, by the besiegers. On the 26th their trenchers were within a few feet of the palisades, and a breach had been made in the walla at St. John's Gate. William moreover pursued mining to a great extent. But if he mined, Sarsfield countermined, and it turned out that the Irish mines were far beyond anything the siegers could have credited. In fact the scientific skill,, the ingenuity and fertility of engineering resorts,, appliances, and devices, exhibited by the defenders of Limerick have seldom been surpassed. The miraculous magic of devoted zeal and earnest activity transformed the old city wall into a line of defenses such as Toddleben himself in our own day might gaze upon with admiration.[1] Food, however, was lamentably scarce, but in truth none of the besieged gave thought to any privation; their whole souls were centered in one great object—defense of the walls, defeat of the foe.

On Wednesday, the 27th of August, the breach having been still further increased by a furious bombardment, William gave orders for the assault. Ten thousand men were ordered to support the storming party; and at half-past three in the afternoon, at a given signal, five hundred grenadiers leaped from the trenches, fired their pieces, flung their grenades, and in a few moments had mounted the breach. The Irish were not unprepared, although at that moment the attack was not expected. Unknown to the besiegers, Boisseleau had caused an intrenchment to be made inside the breach. Behind this intrenchment he had planted a few pieces of cannon, and. from these a cross fire now opened with murderous effect on the assailants, after they had filled the space between the breach and the intrenchment. For a moment they halted—staggered by this fatal surprise; but the next they pushed forward with the courage and fury of lions. A bloody hand-to-hand struggle ensued. Spear and dagger, sword and butted musket could alone be used, and they were brought into deadly requisition. The instant William found his storming party had fastened well upon the breach, the supports in thousands were flung forward. On the Irish side, too, aids were hurried up; but eventually, with a tremendous rush, the assaulting party burst through their opponents, and in a moment more poured into the town.

That feat which usually gives victory to an assault, was, however, in this instance, only the sure occasion of repulse and utter defeat for William's regiments. The news that the foe had penetrated into the town, so far from causing dismay to inhabitants or garrison, seemed to act like the summons of a magician on the countless hosts of enchantment. Down through street, and lane, and alley, poured the citizens, women and men; the butcher with his ax, the shipwright with his adze; each man with such weapon as he had been able most readily to grasp; the women, "like liberated furies," flinging stones, bricks, glass bottles, delftware, and other missiles, with fury on the foe. Some of the Irish cavalry on the Clare side, hearing the news, dashed across the bridges, "the pavements blazing beneath the horses' hoofs as they galloped to Ball's Bridge, where, dismounting and flinging their horses loose, they charged into Broad Street, and sword in hand joined their countrymen in the mêlée." Even the phlegmatic William, under whose eye the assault was made, became excited as he gazed on the struggle from "Cromwell's Fort," ever and anon ordering forward additional troops to the sustainment of his assaulting column. For three hours this bloody hand-to-hand fight in the streets and the breach went on. The women, says Story (the Williamite chaplain), rushed boldly into the breach, and stood nearer to our men than to their own, hurling stones and broken bottles right into the faces of the attacking troops, regardless of death by sword or bullet, which many of them boldly met. Before defenders thus animated it was no disgrace to the assailants to give way. By seven o'clock in the evening they had been completely driven out of the streets and back into the counterscarp.

Here the contest was for a moment renewed; but only for a moment. At the point of sword and pike the assailants were driven into their own trenches, and a shout of victory arose from the besieged as they hurled from the walls, as they thought, the last remnant of the Dutch battalions. But William had yet a grip upon those walls. In the wild confusion of the three hours' struggle, the Brandenburghers, when being pressed back upon the breach, got in at the rear of one of the Irish batteries, into and over which, we are told, they now swarmed in a dense black mass. In a moment, however, the whole struggle was suddenly and decisively terminated by the crowning feat of the defense. At the very instant when the Brandenburghers—little knowing that the ground beneath them was every rood a mine—were exulting over what they thought at least an instalment of success, the earth heaved and yawned under their feet, and with a roar like thunder, mingled with a thousand despairing death-shrieks, battery and Brandenburghers went flying into the air. For a moment there was a pause; each side alike seeming to feel the awfulness of the fate that had so suddenly annihiliated the devoted regiment. Then, indeed, a shout wild and high went up from the walls, wafted from end to end of the city, and caught up on the Thomond shore, and a final salvo from the unconquered battlements, by way of parting salute to the flying foe, proclaimed that patriotism and heroism had won the victory.

Far more honorable at all times than conquering prowess in battle—far more worthy of admiration and fame—is humanity to the fallen and the wounded, generosity to the vanquished. Let the youth of Ireland, therefore, know, when with bounding heart they read or relate so far this glorious story of Limerick, that there remains to be added the brightest ray to the halo of its fame. At the moment when the last overwhelming rush of the garrison and inhabitants swept the assailants from the breach, in the impetuosity of the onset the pursuing Irish penetrated at one point into the Williamite camp, and in the mêlée the Williamite hospital took fire. What follows deserves to be recorded in letters of gold. The Irish instantaneously turned from all pursuit and confiict—some of them rushed into the flames to bear away to safety from the burning building its wounded occupants, while others of them with devoted zeal applied themselves to the task of quenching the flames. It was only when all danger from the conflagration was over that they gave thought to their own safety, and fought their way back to the town.

William, resolving to renew the assault next day, could not persuade his men to advance, though he offered to lead them in person. "Whereupon," says the Protestant historian who relates the fact, "in all rage he left the camp, and never stopped till he came to Waterford, where he took shipping for England, his army in the meantime retiring by night from Limerick."[2]


[1] Among numerous other happy resorts and ingenious adaptations of the means at hand to the purpose of defense, we read that, wool stores being numerous in the city, the wool was packed into strong sacks and cases, a lining of which was hung out over the weakest of the walls, completely deadening the effect of the enemy's shot.

[2]Cassell's (Godkin's) "History of Ireland," vol. ii., page 114.