Siege of Athlone

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


THE Williamite army rendezvoused at Mullingar toward the end of May, under Generals De Ginckel, Talmash, and Mackay. On the 7th of June, they moved westward for Athlone, "the ranks one blaze of scarlet, and the artillery such as had never before been seen in Ireland."[1] They were detained ten days besieging an Irish outpost, Ballymore Castle, heroically defended by Lieutenant-Colonel Ulick Burke and a force of twelve hundred men against Ginckel's army of thirteen thousand, and that artillery described for us by Macaulay. On the 18th Ginckel was joined by the Duke of Wertemburg, the Prince of Hesse, and the Count of Nassau, with seven thousand foreign mercenaries. On the 19th their full force appeared before Athlone and summoned the town to surrender.

On the previous occasion, when besieged by Douglas, the governor (Colonel Grace) relinquished as untenable the Leinster (or "English") side of the town, and made his stand successfully from the Connaught (or "Irish") side. The governor on this occasion—Colonel Fitzgerald—resolved to defend both the "English" and "Irish" sides, St. Ruth having strongly counseled him so to do, and promised to reach, him soon with the bulk of the Irish army from Limerick. Colonel Fitzgerald had not more than three hundred and fifty men as a garrison;. nevertheless, knowing that all depended on holding out till St. Ruth could come up, he did not wait for Ginckel to appear in sight, but sallied out with his small force, and disputed with the Williamite army the approaches to the town, thus successfully retarding them for five or six hours. But Ginckel had merely to plant his artillery, and the only walls Athlone possessed—on that side at least—were breached and crumbled like pastry.

Toward evening, on the 17th of June, the whole of the bastion at the "Dublin Gate," near the river on the north side, being levelled, the (English) town was assaulted. The storming party, as told off, were four thousand men, headed by three hundred grenadiers, under Mackay, and with profuse supports beside. To meet these Fitzgerald had barely the survivors of his three hundred and fifty men, now exhausted after forty-eight hours' constant fighting. In the breach, when the assault was delivered, two hundred of that gallant band fell to rise no more. The remainder, fiercely fighting, fell back inch by inch toward the bridge, pressed by their four thousand foes. From the Williamites shouts now arose on all sides of "the bridge—the bridge!" and a furious rush was made to get over the bridge along with, if not before, the retreating Irish.

In this event, of course, all was lost; but the brave Fitzgerald and his handful of heroes knew the fact well. Turning to bay at the bridge end, they opposed themselves like an impenetrable wall to the mass. of the enemy; while above the din of battle and the shouts of the combatants could be heard sounds in the rear that to Mackay's ear needed no explanation—the Irish were breaking down the arches behind, while yet they fought in front! "They are destroying the bridge," he shouted wildly: "On! on! save the bridge—the bridge!" Flinging themselves in hundreds on the few score men now resisting them, the stormers sought to clear the way by freely giving man for man, life for life, nay four for one; but it would not do. There Fitzgerald and his companions stood like adamant; the space at the bridge end was small; one man could keep five at bay; and a few paces behind, wielding pick and spade and crowbar like furies, were the engineers of the Irish garrison. Soon a low, rumbling noise was heard, followed by a crash; and a shout of triumph broke from the Irish side; a yell of rage from the assailants; a portion, but a portion only, of two arches had fallen into the stream; the bridge was still passable. Again a wild, eager shout from Mackay. "On! on! Now! now! the bridge!" But still there stood the decimated defenders, with clutched guns and clinched teeth, resolved to die but not to yield. Suddenly a cry from the Irish rear: "Back, back, men, for your lives!"

The brave band turned from the front, and saw the half-broken arches behind them tottering. Most of them rushed with lightning speed over the falling mass; but the last company—it had wheeled round even at that moment to face and keep back the enemy—were too late. As they rushed for the passage, the mass of masonry heaved over with a roar into the boiling surges, leaving the devoted band on the brink in the midst of their foes. There was a moment's pause, and almost a wail burst from the Irish on the Connaught side; but just as the enemy rushed with vengeance upon the doomed group, they were seen to draw back a pace or two from the edge of the chasm, fling away their arms, then dash forward and plunge into the stream. Like a clap of thunder broke a volley from a thousand guns on the Leinster shore, tearing the water into foam. There was a minute of suspense on each side, and then a cheer rang out—of defiance, exultation, victory—as the brave fellows were seen to reach the other bank, pulled to land by a hundred welcoming hands.

St. Ruth, at Ballinasloe, on his way up from Limerick, heard next day that the English town had fallen. "He instantly set out at the head of fifteen hundred horse and foot, leaving the main army to follow as quickly as possible. On his arrival he encamped about two miles west of the town, and appointed Lieutenant-General D'Usson governor instead of the gallant Fitzgerald, as being best skilled in defending fortified places."[2] Now came the opportunity for that splendid artillery, "the like of which," Macaulay has told us, "had never been seen in Ireland." For seven long days of midsummer there poured against the Irish town such a storm of iron from seven batteries of heavy siege guns and mortars, that by the 27th the place was literally a mass of ruins, among which, we are told, "two men could not walk abreast." On that day "a hundred wagons arrived in the Williamite camp from Dublin, laden with a further supply of ammunition for the siege guns." That evening the enemy by grenades set on fire the fascines of the Irish breastwork at the bridge, and that night, under cover of a tremendous bombardment, they succeeded in flinging some beams over the broken arches, and partially planking them. Next morning—it was Sunday, the 28th of June—the Irish saw with consternation that barely a few planks more laid on would complete the bridge. Their own few cannon were now nearly all buried in the ruined masonry, and the enemy beyond had battery on battery trained on the narrow spot—it was death to show in the line of the all but finished causeway.

Out stepped from the ranks of Maxwell's regiment, a sergeant of dragoons, Custume by name. "Are there ten men here who will die with me for Ireland?" A hundred eager voices shouted "Ay." "Then," said he, "we will save Athlone; the bridge must go down."

Grasping axes and crowbars, the devoted band rushed from behind the breastwork, and dashed forward upon the newly-laid beams. A peal of artillery, a fusillade of musketry, from the other side, and the space was swept with grapeshot and bullets. When the smoke cleared away, the bodies of the brave Custume and his ten heroes lay on the bridge, riddled with balls. They had torn away some of the beams, but every man of the eleven had perished.

Out from the ranks of the same regiment dashed as many more volunteers. "There are eleven men more who will die for Ireland." Again cross the bridge rushed the heroes. Again the spot is swept by a murderous fusillade. The smoke lifts from the scene; nine of the second band lie dead upon the bridge—two survive, but the work is done. The last beam is gone; Athlone once more is saved.

I am not repeating a romance of fiction, but narrating a true story, recorded by lookers-on, and corroborated in all its substance by writers on the Williamite and on the Jacobite side. When, therefore, young Irishmen read in Roman history of Horatius Cocles and his comrades who

"kept the bridge
In the brave days of old,"

let them remember that the authentic annals of Ireland record a scene of heroism not dissimilar in many of its features, not less glorious in aught. And when they read also of the fabled Roman patriot who plunged into the abyss at the forum to save the city, let them remember that such devotion, not in fable, but in fact, has been still more memorably exhibited by Irishmen; and let them honor beyond the apocryphal Curtius the brave Custume and his glorious companions who died for Ireland at Athlone.

The town was saved once more—yet awhile.

"Ginckel, thus a second time defeated in striving to cross the Shannon, resolved to renew his approaches over the bridge by the more cautious method of a covered walk, or 'close gallery,' and to support the new mode of attack by several others in different directions."[3] The whole of that day he cannonaded the Irish town with great violence, "as I believe never town was," writes a spectator. Nevertheless, the Irish, burrowing and trenching amid the chaotic mass of ruins and piles of rubbish once called the town of Athlone, continued to form new defenses as fast as the old were levelled, and Grinckel was at his wit's end what to rely upon if his "close gallery" should fail. A council of war in the Williamite camp decided that on the morning of the 29th the passage of the river should be a third time attempted, and in greater force than ever. A bridge of boats was to be thrown across the river some distance below the old stone structure, and it occurred to some one to suggest that as the summer had been exceedingly dry, and as the water in the river appeared to be unprecedentedly low, it might be worth while to try sounding for a ford.

This haphazard thought—this apparently fugitive suggestion—won Athlone.

"Three Danish soldiers, under sentence of death for some crime, were offered their pardon if they would undertake to try the river. The men readily consented, and, putting on armor, entered at three several places. The English in the trenches were ordered to fire seemingly at them, but in reality over their heads, whence the Irish naturally concluded them to be deserters, and did not fire till they saw them returning, when the English by their great and small shot, obliged the Irish to be covered. It was discovered that the deepest part of the river did not reach their breasts."[4] Thereupon it was decided to assail the town next morning suddenly and by surprise at three points; one party to go over the bridge by the "close gallery;" a second to cross by the pontoons or boat-bridge; the third, by one of the fords. Once more Mackay was to lead the assault, which was fixed for ten o'clock next morning; again, as at the Boyne, each Williamite soldier was to mount a green bough or sprig in his hat; and this time the word was to be "Kilkenny."

That night a deserter swam the river below the town, and revealed to St. Ruth that an assault was to be made by a boat-bridge and "close gallery" early next morning; and lo! when day dawned, the Williamites could descry the main army of the Irish defiling into the town, and detachments stationed at every point to contest the assault which was to have been "a surprise." To make matters worse, the boats were not ready till ten o'clock, instead of at six. Nevertheless the assault was proceeded with, and the storm of grenades began to fly. It had been decided to begin the conflict at or on the bridge, close to the broken arches, where (on their own side) the English had a breastwork, up to which the "close gallery" had been advanced, and upon the attack at this point the other operations were to depended. After an hour's hot work the Irish set on fire the fascines of the English breastwork. There being a strong breeze blowing, in a few minutes the flames spread rapidly; the breastwork had to be abandoned; the "close gallery" was almost destroyed; and the storming columns were called off. The Williamite assault upon Athlone a third time had proved a total failure.

Great was the exultation on the Irish side of the river at the triumphant defeat and utter abandonment of this, the final attempt, as they regarded it, on the part of the foe. After waiting till near five o'clock to behold the last of the Williamites called to the rear, and every other sign of defeat exhibited on their side, St. Ruth drew off the victorious Irish army to the camp three miles distant, and, overconfidently, if not vaingloriously, declaring the siege as good as raised, invited the resident gentry of the neighborhood and the officers of the army to a grand ball at his quarters that evening.

Meanwhile Ginckel, a prey to the most torturing reflections, wavered between a hundred conflicting resolutions or momentary impulses. At last he decided to raise the siege, but wishing for the decision of a council to shield him somewhat from the outcry he apprehended in Dublin and in London, a meeting was held to consider the point. After a hot and bitter disputation, a resolution, at first laughed at by the majority, was adopted—namely, to try that very evening, nay, that very hour, a sudden dash across the river by the fords, as (it was rightly conjectured) the Irish would now be off their guard. As a last refuge from disgrace, Ginckel resolved to try this chance.

Toward six o'clock the Irish officer on guard on the Athlone side, sent word to the general (St. Ruth) that he thought there was something up on the opposite bank, and begging some detachments to be sent in, as only a few companies had been left in the town. St. Ruth replied by a sharp and testy remark, reflecting on the courage of the officer, to the effect that he was frightened by fancy. By the time this hurtful answer reached him, the officer saw enough to convince him that infallibly an assault was about to be made, and he sent with all speed to the camp entreating the general to credit the fact. St. Ruth replied by saying that if the officer in charge was afraid of such attacks, he might turn over the command to another. Sarsfield was present at this last reply, and he at once judged the whole situation correctly. He implored St. Ruth not to treat so lightly a report so grave from an officer of undoubted bravery. The Frenchman—courageous, energetic, and highly-gifted as he unquestionably was—unfortunately was short-tempered, imperious, and vain. He and Sarsfield exchanged hot and angry words; St. Ruth resenting Sarsfield's interference, and intimating that the latter henceforth should "know his place." While yet this fatal altercation was proceeding, an aide-de-camp galloped up all breathless from the town—the English were across the river and into the defenses of Athlone! Even now St. Ruth's overweening self-confidence would not yield. "Then let us drive them back again," was his answer, at the same time directing troops to hurry forward for that purpose. But it was too late. The lodgment had been made in force. The English were now in the defenses. The walls of the town on the camp side had been left standing, and only a siege could now dispossess the new occupants. Athlone was lost![5]


[1] Macaulay.

[2] Mc'Cann.

[3] O'Callaghan's "Green Book," page 32.

[4] Harris.

[5] Among the slain on the Irish side in this siege was the glorious old veteran, Colonel Richard Grace, who was governor the preceding year. His great age—he was now nearly ninety years of age—caused him to be relieved of such a laborious position in this siege, but nothing could induce him to seek, either in retirement or in less exposed and dangerous duty, that quiet which all his compeers felt to be the old man's right. He would insist on remaining in the thickest of the fighting, and he died "with his harness on his back." He was one of the most glorious characters to be met with in Irish history. The erudite author of the "Green Book" supplies a deeply interesting sketch of his life and career.