By David Finnegan
The accession of James II, the first Catholic monarch for over a century, in February 1685 presented Irish Catholics with an opportunity to overturn the Cromwellian and Restoration settlements that had deprived them of their lands. A devout Catholic who wished to improve the lot of his coreligionists, James presented a major threat to the Irish Protestants, whose monopoly of power and privilege depended entirely on English support. Within a year he had created his favorite, Richard Talbot, earl of Tyrconnell, and in February 1687 he appointed him Irish viceroy. Thereafter Tyrconnell embarked upon the Catholicization of Ireland, and he secured James’s agreement not just to the creation of an almost wholly Catholic army and government, but also to preparations to revise the crucial Restoration land settlement.
While this prompted something of a major Protestant exodus from Ireland, English Protestants were prepared to tolerate him because he would be succeeded by his Protestant daughter Mary. The birth of a Catholic son to James, by his second wife Mary of Modena in June 1688, transformed the situation and confronted English Protestants with the specter of a Catholic dynasty. At the behest of leading English notables Mary’s husband, William of Orange, governor-general of the Netherlands, arrived in England to challenge the actions of his father-in-law in late 1688. James fled to France, and the English parliament recognized William and Mary, jointly, as his successor. These events brought Ireland into a European orbit, for William was a key figure in the anti-French front opposing the aggressive designs of Louis XIV. Perceiving Ireland as an inexpensive means of distracting William, Louis sent a reluctant James to Ireland with French money, arms, and officers to give Tyrconnell’s raw Catholic army a backbone. Despite William’s accession, Tyrconnell’s supporters maintained control over most of Ireland. In March 1689 Justin McCarthy had suppressed Protestant resistance in Munster, while in eastern Ulster the Williamite Mountalexander was defeated at Dromore (14 March). Only in western Ulster, where Gustavus Hamilton rallied the Protestant settlers and fortified Enniskillen and Londonderry, did William enjoy real support.
On 12 March 1689 James landed at Kinsale, where he was greeted “as if he were an angel from heaven,” and made a triumphal progress to Dublin (Gilbert 1971, p. 46). He had already begun to anticipate crossing into Scotland, but first had to secure Ulster. It seemed unlikely that the key bastion of Protestant resistance, Londonderry— crammed with refugees, low on supplies, and with relief a distant prospect—could hold out for long and, believing his presence would induce Londonderry to surrender, James addressed his “Protestant subjects” on 18 April and pleaded with them to acknowledge him. The inhabitants signalled their defiance by firing on him and thereafter the most famous siege in Irish history took place. In the Protestant version of the event Londonderry’s defenders, inspired by true religion and pride of race, held out against overwhelming odds. The Jacobites, hampered by inadequate siege equipment and poor leadership, had little choice but to try to starve Londonderry into submission.
By late July the starving defenders were on the verge of surrender when Major-General Kirk’s small flotilla of merchantmen broke the besiegers’ boom across the Foyle estuary and delivered desperately needed supplies. The Jacobites were forced to raise the 105-day siege, and the arrival of an expeditionary force under Schomberg in the following month ensured Ulster was William’s.
Both sides attempted little over the following ten months. This convinced William that only his presence would break the stalemate, and in June 1690 William landed near Belfast, took charge of an army of 37,000 men and immediately began marching south. On 1 July at the river Boyne he encountered James’s force, which, although augmented by 7,000 recently arrived French troops, numbered less than 26,000 men. William’s larger and better-equipped force carried the day. A diversionary flanking movement led by William himself proved decisive. As most of James’s forces moved upstream to meet William’s cavalry, the Williamite foot soldiers forced a passage across the river. Tyrconnell’s Irish foot soldiers broke ranks and fled, but the Williamite cavalry, slowed by the river, failed to press their advantage, and the French troops covered a largely successful, albeit chaotic, retreat. James’s conduct was less heroic than William’s, and his flight from Ireland three days after the battle, in conjunction with his stubborn refusal to free the Irish parliament from its subordination to the English Crown, fatally damaged his reputation among his Catholic Irish supporters.
Whereas victory at the Boyne handed William control of Dublin and Leinster, as well as the military initiative, the Jacobites, though temporarily scattered, had lost fewer than a thousand men and still controlled Munster and Connacht. In these terms French dismissals of the battle as a “skirmish” are admissible. But continuing Protestant celebration of William’s memory and the annual commemoration of the battle as the decisive blow for the Protestant cause reflect the powerful tradition that came into being. In the struggle for the British Crowns the Battle of the Boyne decided the issue in Williams’ favor. In a European context, it represented a victory for Protestantism, yet it was also hailed by Te deums in Catholic Austria and Spain because it weakened the position of Louis XIV.
James’s flight from Ireland and the disorganized retreat to the Shannon dealt grievous blows to Jacobite morale. Nonetheless, having regrouped at Limerick and Athlone, the Jacobites determined to use the natural line of the Shannon as a defensive boundary. While William sought to end the war that season, his failure to take either Athlone (17–24 July) or Limerick (10–30 August)— where Patrick Sarsfield’s rapparees behind enemy lines had seriously impeded the besiegers—meant that the conflict entered a third year. Believing he had broken the back of the Jacobite opposition, William left for England after appointing General Godard van Reede Ginkel as his successor.
In May 1691 Jacobite hopes were raised by the presence of the marquis de Saint Ruth, who arrived with French reinforcements. Nonetheless, Ginkel took Athlone in the following month and crossed the Shannon. Determined to regain the initiative, Saint Ruth opposed Ginkel’s advance at Aughrim on 12 July. Both armies numbered about 20,000 men but Saint Ruth had chosen his ground well and, having repulsed the Williamite advance, he pursued the enemy across the field before leading his cavalry against the Williamite batteries. With Jacobite victory in sight a dramatic reversal of fortune occurred: a cannonball decapitated Saint Ruth and the Jacobites fled in disarray, ruthlessly pursued by Ginkel’s regrouped cavalry. Although Sarsfield attempted to cover the retreat, some seven thousand Jacobites were slain. Shortly afterwards Galway surrendered and the surviving Jacobites limped into Limerick where they were soon besieged. Aughrim’s “dread disaster” was thus the decisive engagement of the war, for thereafter the Jacobites had little prospect of successful resistance.
Irish Catholic thoughts now turned to what manner of surrender they could negotiate with Ginkel. Eager to rejoin the European war, Ginkel was persuaded to grant generous conditions, and on 3 October 1691 the Treaty of Limerick was concluded. Under its terms 14,000 Jacobite troops led by Patrick Sarsfield set sail for France on 22 December. For those who chose to stay behind, the civil terms were lenient. They would retain their lands, practice their professions, and enjoy the same rights of religious worship as they had under Charles II. These terms were not to be honored because after three major rebellions in less than a century Protestants had decided that the Catholics were totally untrustworthy. Tyrconnell’s rapid Catholicization of the administration, army, and the Irish parliament convinced Protestants of the need to secure ascendancy in all walks of life. In 1691 a parliamentary act preventing Catholics from becoming MPs was passed: thereafter the Irish parliament was used by the Protestant Ascendancy to dismantle the Treaty of Limerick and introduce legislation to encumber the position of Irish Catholics.
The accession of James, which had initially given hope to Irish Catholics, in the end, greatly worsened their situation. James had provided ineffective leadership whereas his rival, in no small part owing to his own courage, won the crucial victory at the Boyne. Moreover, because of England’s superior military resources the Jacobite cause was dependent on French aid, and yet Louis XIV provided wholly inadequate military assistance. Buttressing a Jacobite regime was a far less pressing objective for the French king, than securing Ireland was for William. The “War of the Two Kings” represented the climax of a century of bloody conflict in Ireland over land and religion, and the demoralizing sequence of defeats at Derry, the Boyne, and Aughrim crushed the spirit of Irish Catholics for over a century, as well as securing the Protestant Ascendancy for the next two centuries.