In late 1688 the regiment of Lord Mountjoy, which was one of the few essentially Protestant ones left, was ordered to leave Londonderry, which was to be garrisoned by the Catholic MacDonnells under Lord Antrim. Fearing a repetition of the events of 1641,when 155 Protestants were massacred at the bridge on the Bann in Portadown, and 17 men, women and children were murdered in the Parish of Drumcree, the citizens wanted to refuse the troops entry. However, as Robert Kee points out: “Other voices, shocked, declared that it would be unthinkable to try and keep royal troops out of a royal garrison. The Protestant Bishop of Londonderry and other Protestant establishment figures were among the latter, although the Presbyterians with their naturally independent attitude to authority were less troubled by such scruples. The official decision, however, had been taken to admit the troops in the normal way, when suddenly thirteen apprentice boys of the city took matters into their own hands, seized the keys of the gates of Londonderry and on 7th December 1688 slammed them firmly in the face of Lord Antrim’s Redshanks – King James’s troops.”
Enniskillen followed suit, and throughout Ulster, defence associations were set up and councils of war elected. On 13 February 1689 William and Mary (James II’s Protestant daughter) were proclaimed King and Queen of England. The two were cousins. William’s mother, Mary Stuart, was the eldest daughter of Charles I. William was thus also of Old British Royal lineage. On 12 March James II landed at Kinsale from France and marched north to destroy the latest affront to his authority. On 18 April he commenced the Siege of Londonderry, which lasted a total of 105 days, the longest in British history. During that time one third of the city’s 30,000 inhabitants died of injuries, famine and disease. At last, on 28 July, Derry was relieved by the British ship Mountjoy and two other vessels.
Two aspects of the siege were to lodge deep within the Protestant subconscious: firstly, a ‘No Surrender!’ determination to stand firm against any perceived threats to their heritage; secondly, “an awareness that however much the northern Protestant may need British help he is also on his own”, a feeling no doubt given weight by the fact that the British ships which finally lifted the siege had been nearby right from the beginning, but hadn’t been able to summon up the courage to act.
Finally, on 14 June, 1690, King William himself landed at Carrickfergus and bonfires were lit on all the hills of Antrim and Down. At Loughbrickland in County Down William reviewed an army composed of Protestants from all over Europe – Dutch, Danes, French, Germans, English, Scots, Irish, Swiss, Italians, Norwegians and Poles. His army also included an elite unit, the Dutch Blue Guards, who were Catholics. The European dimension was to be completed by James’s Jacobite force of Irish, French, English, Germans and Dutch.
On 1 July (celebrated as 12 July in modern calendars) the two armies met at the River Boyne, where William defeated James’s troops. When news reached Pope Alexander VIII, who was as delighted as his predecessor at what was in effect a French defeat, he ordered torchlight processions in Rome in celebration, and Te Deums were sung in the Catholic cathedrals of Austria and Spain.
Following the Battle of the Boyne the military position in Ireland remained fluid. The Boyne has been described as one of the decisive battles of the western world, for it signalled to Europe defeat for the French and the Jacobites – but it was not the final victory of the War. Neither was it a battle altogether characterised by the direction of the professional soldier but a magnificent drama portraying the personalities of the two kings each of whom caused problems for his own most able generals.
For if Sarsfield was betrayed by the cowardice of James, so Schomberg was dismayed by the almost foolhardy courage of William. The Prince of Orange’s legendary bravery was linked to a strong, yet tolerant, religious conviction and a warm attachment to the Protestant faith, which sprang from earnest thought and attention. He possessed great military genius and soundness of judgement. At the Boyne his tactics were proved to have been correct. Yet, if the battle was won by William, the pursuit was not. The losses on both sides had been less than on any field of battle of equal importance and celebrity – fifteen hundred Jacobites and five hundred Williamites. Among the latter were Schomberg, the master soldier, and Walker of Derry, the heart and soul of his people. William’s physical infirmities, his wound in the early part of the battle and the fatigue he had endured exhorting his men, had made him incapable of further progress. The King could not do everything, but what was not done by him was not done at all. And so the French and Jacobites escaped to fight another day.
From October 1690 until May 1691 no military operation on a large scale was attempted in the Kingdom of Ireland. During that winter and the following spring the island was divided almost equally between the contending parties. The whole of Ulster, the greater part of Leinster, and about one third of Munster were now controlled by the Williamites; the whole of Connaught, the greater part of Munster and two or three counties of Leinster were still held by the Jacobites.
Continuous guerrilla activity persisted, however, along the rough line of demarcation. In the spring of 1691, James’s Lord Lieutenant, Tyrconnell, returned to Ireland, followed by the distinguished French general Saint Ruth, who was commissioned as Commander-in Chief of the Jacobite army. Saint Ruth was a man of great courage and resolution but his name was synonymous with the merciless suppression and torture of the Protestants of France, including those of the district of Orange in the South, of which William was Prince.
The Marquess of Ruvigny, hereditary leader of the French Protestants, and elder brother of that brave Caillemot who had fallen at the Boyne, now joined the Dutch general Ginkell, who was strengthening the Williamite army at Mullingar. Ginkell first took Ballymore where he was joined by the Danish auxiliaries under the command of the Duke of Wurtemburg, and then the strategic town of Athlone.
Thus was the stage set for one of the fiercest battles of that age or any other. Determined to stake everything in a final showdown St Ruth pitched his camp about thirty miles from Athlone on the road to Galway. He waited for Ginkell on the slope of a hill almost surrounded by red bog, chosen with great judgement near the ruined castle of Aughrim.
Soon after 6 o’clock on the morning of 12 July, 1691, the Williamite army moved slowly towards the Jacobite positions. Delay was caused, however, by a thick fog which hung until noon and only later in the afternoon did the two armies confront each other. The Jacobite army of twenty-five thousand men had further protected themselves with a breastwork constructed without difficulty. The Williamites, numbering under twenty thousand, advanced over treacherous and uneven ground, sinking deep in mud at every step. The Jacobites defended the breastwork with great resolution for two hours so that, as evening was fast closing in, Ginkell began to consider retreat. St Ruth was jubilant and pressed his advantage. However, Ruvigny and Mackay, with the Huguenot and British Cavalry, succeeded in bypassing the bog at a place where only two horsemen could ride abreast. There they laid hurdles on the soft ground to create a broader and safer path, and as reinforcements rapidly joined them, the flank of the Jacobite army was soon turned. St Ruth was rushing to the rescue when a cannonball took off his head. He was carried in secret from the field and, without direction, the Jacobites faltered. The Williamite infantry returned to their frontal attack with rugged determination and soon the breastwork was carried. The Jacobites retreated fighting bravely from enclosure to enclosure until finally they broke and fled.
This time there was no William to restrain the soldiers. Only four hundred prisoners were taken and not less than seven thousand Jacobites were killed, a greater number of men in proportion to those engaged than in any other battle of that time. Of the victors six hundred were killed, and about a thousand were wounded. If the night had not been moonless and visibility reduced by a misty rain, which allowed Sarsfield to cover the retreat, scarcely a Jacobite would have escaped alive.