On the Banks of the Boyne
The great hatred between Irish Catholics and Protestants reached a climax on the banks of the River Boyne on 1 July 1690. A hundred years of violent animosity born out of the Reformation that split Europe along frontiers of faith would be settled on this boggy land. The river flowed through the town of Drogheda, just two miles to the west of the battlefield. Forty-one years earlier, Drogheda had been the site of a notorious siege in which the Protestant Oliver Cromwell's English Parliamentarians had stormed the town and slaughtered its Royalist garrison - among them many Irish Catholics. This ruthless religious contest between Protestants and Catholics, in which little mercy was shown, fired up the soldiers as they glowered across the River Boyne at each other on that summer morning in 1690. The result of this conflict would echo across centuries of Irish history and determine the fate of many young Irishmen.
Gerald O'Connor was a Catholic teenager when he stood on the banks of the Boyne and he measured his life from the arrival of Cromwell's troops, or as he put it, 'I was born in 1671, twenty years after Ireland had been crushed by the accursed hands of Cromwell.' He had a lofty heritage, being descended from the Earl of Kildare, and his grandfather had fought the English in the 1590s, but his family had not prospered since then and their money had run out. Following the Tudor conquest of Ireland, land had been taken away from Catholic Irish owners and given to mainly Protestant English and Scots settlers - the plantations - and this process was completedduring Cromwell's rule. Despite his illustrious lineage, O'Connor's birthplace was a simple thatched house in Offaly standing next to the ruined remains of a castle his family had once owned. He ached to win back their lost wealth and hoped that the battle on the banks of the Boyne might return his family to their once proud position.
When the Catholic King James II arrived in Ireland, he was determined to use the country as a springboard in his campaign to win back the English throne. It had been taken from him by King William III, the former William of Orange, a Protestant Dutch prince who had been invited to depose James in 1688 by an English Parliament who feared James's tyrannical Catholic regime. Gerald O'Connor was one of many Irish aristocrats who had lost their privileged positions thanks to Cromwell's land confiscations and now flocked to the standard of King James, hoping a Catholic victory would bring benefits to them all. Just nineteen years old, he became a captain in an Irish Catholic cavalry regiment.
Although inspired by a desire to right the wrongs inflicted on his country and family by previous English invaders, O'Connor was also realistic about the prospects of Ireland in a war against the Protestant monarch. 'What were the resources of Ireland compared to those of England and Scotland?' he wondered. 'The Exchequer in Dublin was almost empty,' he admitted, 'base money could not procure what we required for the field; we had not the means to make our army a real instrument of war.' He feared their soldiers were no match for the more professional troops hired by William III. The Irish Catholic foot soldiers were poorly trained and ill equipped. The one quality they possessed was their determination to 'measure their swords with the Saxons'. Not only was it a religious war, according to O'Connor; it was a race war too. Such fervent ardour, born out of fury and religious faith, might well win the day, but that was not the whole picture. Another level of conflict had to be added to the forces opposing each other at the Boyne because many of the soldiers present were not Irish at all.
King James II had a strong ally in the king of France - Louis XIV - at that time the most powerful monarch in Europe. Louis was playing a political game with James, using him to build a powerful alliance against the English Protestants and their friends in Europe. The French king wanted Ireland to be part of his Catholic sphere ofinfluence and welcomed Irish troops into French ranks to fight wars on the Continent. In return, he sent 6,000 French soldiers to join the Jacobite army at the Boyne. O'Connor considered them the best infantry they had.
Many of the troops opposing James's soldiers were not Irish either. Although many Protestant Ulstermen rallied to the cause of the Williamites, fearing that a Catholic victory would imperil their own livelihoods, the Dutch king depended on foreign troops to provide his most professional fighters. Alongside his English regiments, these included Dutch, Danes, Germans and Huguenot French - meaning that Frenchmen would fight on both sides at the Boyne. The Irish were in danger of being sidelined in a battle that would decide the future of their own island. This would not be the last time that Irish soldiers found themselves engaged in a fight they hoped would further their own ends but which was in fact part of a larger political strategy.
William III landed at Carrickfergus in the north of Ireland on 14 June 1690 and advanced rapidly southwards towards Dublin. James could have opposed him earlier, but the French commanders in his ranks urged caution and withdrew before the Protestants, refusing to fight them in open country, looking for a strong line of defence. O'Connor and the Irishmen believed this was a mistake, but the Catholics did have the smaller force. William's multinational army numbered 36,000, whereas the Catholic Irish and French were 25,000 strong.
'We made a halt and encamped along the southern bank of the Boyne', recalled O'Connor. 'The position was not without natural strength; the Boyne covered our front, with its broad and deep current; a breastwork had been thrown up at accessible points; the hedges and farmhouses on the southern bank had been hastily entrenched or fortified.' In an age in which firearms and artillery had become more deadly, it was a distinct disadvantage to advance against entrenched guns, but O'Connor noted there were problems with the position. The Boyne could be forded at several points and their flanks attacked by the greater numbers of Williamites. He was also concerned that their route of escape towards Dublin, thirty miles to the south, was blocked by a narrow pass at Duleek.
Catholic anxieties were not allayed by the presence of their commander-in-chief. 'The tent of James was pitched in our rear,'remembered O'Connor, 'he never stirred from it to give heart to his men, and he was to look idly on in the great trial on which we had staked our fortunes.' In contrast, William led his men from the front and was one of the first to arrive on the battlefield to study the river. O'Connor saw the Protestant king ride to the edge of the water and examine the enemy forces before him. Some Irish Catholic gunners took a shot at him and missed, but his personal courage impressed them. 'Would to God we could exchange kings,' grumbled one of the Irishmen.
The morning of the battle dawned bright but O'Connor was dismayed to see the French already riding off the battlefield to secure the Catholic route of retreat at the pass of Duleek. As the cavalry captain had guessed, King William would seek to outflank the Catholics and this he proceeded to do early in the day, sending his cavalry in a race with the French to capture Duleek. In the meantime, Protestant forces surged across fords on either side of the Catholic position. The soldiers of both sides wore a mixture of red, blue and white uniforms reflecting the wide variety of countries they came from, so the only way to tell enemy from friend was to wear different field signs in their hats. The Jacobites chose a white cockade made of paper or cloth to symbolize their alliance with France, while the Williamites wore a sprig of greenery. The sight made an impact on O'Connor as he saw them advance towards his position. 'From Oldbridge for more than half a mile towards Drogheda, the river looked like a thicket of green boughs,' he recalled. 'Loud cheers, mingling with the drums on the northern bank, burst forth from the armed throngs of many races.'
On the left of the Catholics at Oldbridge ford, blue-coated Dutch soldiers waded through the water and used their superior firepower to force back the Catholic Irish infantry. Two-thirds of the Irish were armed with old-fashioned matchlock muskets that were slow to load, while the remaining third held long pikes to protect them. In contrast, the Dutch carried more modern and efficient flintlocks equipped with bayonets, so each Dutchman could function as a musketeer and pikeman, shooting and then thrusting with his steel-tipped barrel. This meant the Dutch had a third as much firepower to bear on their enemies and far fewer misfires.
Splashing through the water, the Dutch poured disciplined volleys of shot into the Catholic Irish and then charged with theirbayonets. O'Connor saw militiamen from his home county of Offaly valiantly resisting the attack but they were no match for the well-drilled foreign troops. It was then that O'Connor and his Catholic Irish cavalry led a counter-attack. The dispossessed Irishmen dashed through the gunpowder smoke towards the Dutch, screaming war cries of retribution for past Protestant crimes.
King William looked on nervously as the Catholic Irish horsemen thundered towards his troops clambering up the riverbank, but the Dutch kept their cool, presented their guns and fired a well-aimed close-range volley that halted the Irish cavalrymen. Some tumbled wounded from their saddles, while others turned and rode back up the slope away from the river. They re-formed then charged again, this time clashing with French Huguenots who had followed the Dutch across the Boyne. Sword rang out against sword. 'I did my best in this furious shock of arms and cut down more than one Frenchman,' said O'Connor.
Eventually, despite the desperate hard fighting of the Irish Catholics, the superior numbers and professionalism of the Williamites proved decisive and the Irish Catholics broke, fleeing back towards Dublin. In total, they took 1,500 casualties, while the victors counted 750 dead and wounded. Towards the end of the combat, O'Connor knocked the sword out of the hand of a French Huguenot officer and took him prisoner as they rode back to Duleek. Thanks to the early departure of the French, the pass to Dublin had remained open, but O'Connor couldn't help but wonder that if the Catholic French had fought alongside them at the Boyne they might have won the battle.
If O'Connor was disappointed by the performance of the French, he saved his scorn for King James, who had rapidly left the battlefield and within days had set sail from Ireland to safety in France, leaving the Irish to fight on by themselves. 'James lost two kingdoms by his craven weakness,' said O'Connor, referring to England and Ireland. 'I thank God I never saw him again - he is known in the tradition of our people as "James the Coward".' In fact, many Irishmen called him Séamus an Chaca - 'James the Shit'. In turn, the Catholic king criticized his Irish soldiers, telling the wife of one his commanders, 'Your countrymen run well.' To which she responded: 'Yes it would seem so, but Your Majesty would appear to have won the race.' James's behaviour damned for ever the cause of the Stuartkings in the eyes of the Irish and they did little to help later Jacobite rebellions in Scotland in 1715 and 1745.
Two days after the battle of the Boyne, King William and his army marched into Dublin. Their victory ensured the Anglo-Protestant domination of Ireland for over two centuries and triggered the struggle of Catholic nationalists against it. The success of William of Orange in particular continues to inspire the Orangemen of Ulster, who celebrate the battle every July with marches. Some historians have pointed out the multinational character of his triumph. 'Considering the battle', writes one, 'was won by Danes and Dutchmen, French Huguenots and Prussian Brandenburghers, it is almost ludicrous to any one who has the smallest respect for historical accuracy to see Orangemen celebrating the anniversary of the Boyne as their victory.' That ignores the very real contribution of the Ulstermen to the battle, but it does show how the legend of the Boyne has grown in importance over the years, not only for Irish Protestants but also for Catholics, as it set in motion a chain of events that led to another legendary moment that echoed throughout the centuries - the Flight of the Wild Geese.
After the battle of the Boyne, while much of the Jacobite army disintegrated, a small core of regiments retreated to Limerick in south-western Ireland. With King James gone to France, one of his Irish commanders at the battle of the Boyne took over. He was Patrick Sarsfield. Thirty years old and a giant of a man, Sarsfield commanded the respect of his soldiers both for his personal bravery and his loyalty to their cause. Born into a wealthy family in Lucan, County Dublin, he was a second son, but he succeeded to the family estate in 1675 and took receipt of an annual income of £2,000.
Set on a life of soldiering in England, Sarsfield served both King Charles II and James II, rising from captain to colonel. When William of Orange landed in England, Sarsfield went back to Ireland to recruit soldiers for the Jacobite cause. When James arrived in Ireland, Sarsfield stood by him and was rewarded by being created Earl of Lucan, but the king was not so impressed with his military abilities. Physically tough and keen on fighting duels, Sarsfield had a reputation for hot-headedness and James onlyreluctantly gave him senior army posts. Following defeat at the Boyne, Sarsfield openly criticized the king. 'That man', he told Gerald O'Connor, 'has cursed the soldiers of our race, who had risen in thousands and fought his cause; like all the Stuarts, he is false and double-dealing at heart.'
At Limerick, Sarsfield proved a popular commander-in-chief, scoring a few minor successes against the Williamites, but towards the end of 1691 his troops were hemmed in by King William and awaited the final bloody assault on the town. Cavalry Captain Gerald O'Connor had followed Sarsfield to Limerick and now witnessed the endgame of the tragic struggle that had begun at the Boyne a year earlier. The west side of the town was already in the hands of the Protestant army and they concentrated their assault on a bridge across the Shannon to finish the resistance of the Catholic Irish. In the late afternoon of 22 September 1691, the Williamite forces surged towards the Thomond Bridge over the Shannon. O'Connor noted with pride the resistance of his Irishmen.
They suffered grievously from the fire of our skirmishers, half concealed in the adjoining gravel pits and quarries. The struggle raged for perhaps two hours; reinforcements were hurried forward from both sides: the outworks fell at last into the hands of the enemy, who, however, had dearly paid for his first success.
O'Connor's Irish troops held the bridge with fierce hand-to-hand fighting, thrusting with bayonets and pikes at the Dutch and other Protestant soldiers. Edged back slowly by the weight of the Williamite horde, the exhausted Jacobites were determined not to give up the bridge, but at that moment one of the few remaining Catholic French officers in the garrison of the town lost his nerve and ordered the drawbridge linking the bridge to Limerick to be raised, condemning those stranded Irishmen to a horrible death. 'Many flung themselves into the Shannon and sank in its waters; some met their deaths in a wild effort against the foe; some sought mercy from their relentless victors in vain.'
Hundreds of Jacobites were butchered on the bridge. 'This frightful catastrophe incensed our army,' said O'Connor, 'already filled with dislike of the French, and began to make the bravest heartsdespair.' It was up to Patrick Sarsfield to decide what to do next and although his heart wanted to fight on, his head knew he had run out of options. Rather than condemning his men to a pointless slaughter, he urged a treaty with the Williamites while his soldiers still held their weapons. Eleven days later, the resulting Treaty of Limerick ended the Jacobite war in Ireland and allowed Sarsfield and his soldiers, including O'Connor, to march out of the town with full military honours.
On the surface, the Treaty of Limerick appeared to be a reasonable conclusion to the conflict, allowing freedom of Catholic worship in Ireland and no retribution against Jacobite supporters, but as the Protestant establishment took back control of the country, they violated the agreement and enacted the harshly anti-Catholic Penal Code. The military part of the treaty gave Sarsfield and his soldiers the option to sail to France and take service with King Louis XIV. Many of them decided to do just that. O'Connor was one of them and, although he was clearly one those Irishmen who had no great love for the French and were disgusted by the flight of James II to France, he believed that life in a Protestant-ruled Ireland held little future for him and preferred to trade his fighting skills abroad. This mass exit of fighting Irish Catholics was what became known as the Flight of the Wild Geese - a poetic term first used in the eighteenth century evoking the migratory flight of the birds in autumn.
In November and December 1691, fleets of ships anchored at Limerick and Cork to take away the Irish to their new lives in France. Sarsfield was proud of the more than 12,000 soldiers who had decided to follow him and O'Connor recorded his comments.
These men are leaving all that is most dear in life for a strange land, in which they will have to endure much, to serve in an army that hardly knows our people; but they are true to Ireland and have still hopes for her cause - we will make another Ireland in the armies of the great King of France.
This was to be the rallying cry for many Irish soldiers in exile in France. They wanted their service abroad to be turned into an active blow against the tyrannical English, but many were to be disappointedas they became embroiled in military expeditions to further the ambitions of French autocrats.
As the ships were readied for departure, it was hoped that the families of many of the soldiers could join them in their new venture, but there was not enough space for them all. 'Loud cries and lamentation broke from the wives and children who had been left behind,' recalled O'Connor. 'Some dashed into the stream and perished in the depths; some clung to the boats that were making off from the shore; many of the men, husbands or fathers, plunged into the waters; not a few lost their lives in their efforts to reach the dry ground.' It was a tragic beginning to an epic voyage.