Tales from Irish History - Alice Birkhead

The Battle of the Boyne

After Cromwell died, Prince Charles duly came to the throne of England in 1660, and managed to stay there till his death, because he was crafty enough to study the prejudices of his subjects. His brother James, who succeeded, gave great offence to thy; Puritan party by declaring himself a Papist. He was soon at war with his Protestant malcontents, and had finally to leave England and seek the help of any nation in sympathy with the Catholic cause.

Louis XIV. of France was the most powerful monarch of his time, He would fain have brought England under the rule of the Pope and promised therefore to aid James II. by money and men. He also extended a warm welcome to the Royal Family at his court.

Ireland, hoping for the restoration of the Catholic power, declared for James. The Irish had no reason to declare war on William, Prince of Orange, who was to be king instead of his father-in-law, King James, but they had heard that he was a staunch Protestant, and feared his rule in Ireland.

As soon as it was decided to fight in the camp of James II, Tyrconnell, the Lord-Deputy of Ireland, issued a call to arms. All good Catholics now decided that William of Orange should find the Irish difficult to crush. A few towns declared for the Protestant party because their inhabitants held strong religious views in favour of the Protestant religion, among these being Londonderry, Sligo, and Coleraine.

Tyrconnell mustered an army ready enough to brave death, but so ill-equipped that their enemies described them with a sneer: "Some had wisps of hay or straw bands instead of hats, others tattered coats or blankets cast over them, without any breeches. Stockings and shoes were strange things. As for shirts, these proved a miracle."

James resolved to lead his troops in person, and landed in Kinsale Bay in 1689. He had a royal welcome from the people, who looked at him "as if he had been an angel from heaven." They crowded to meet him in such numbers that the road to Dublin looked like some eat fair, and in many places the peasants threw down their frieze coats to save the hoofs of royal horses from the mud. James had become accustomed to cold receptions from his subjects of England, long before they banished him. He must have been touched by the gay festivity of the streets of Dublin, that Palm Sunday when he entered it in state to the sound of Irish harps and bagpipe, the peal of bells and the boom of cannon. Householders had flung forth their richest treasures of silk and tapestry to adorn the balconies of buildings, where loyal citizens stood to cheer King James, treading roads made ready for his passage with the bridal tribute of flowers and green branches.

In Dublin, the king held council before advancing on Derry, where the inhabitants had made preparations to withstand a siege at the hands of the Catholic army. The town held out gallantly, and the garrison were reduced to such extremities before it was relieved, that the sight of a fat man within the walls roused the starving citizens to anger. The siege of Derry lasted from 20th April to 31st July 1689, the brave conduct of the defenders rendering it for ever memorable in history.

William of Orange sent out one of his generals in August, the Duke of Schomberg sailing up Belfast Lough with a fleet of ships. He followed Schomberg in the following year with a mixed army of English, Dutch, French, Danes and Scotch, all men well used to warfare. The Protestant Irish hastened to enrol themselves under William's banner while his arrival was the signal for a fresh outburst of loyalty to King James on the part of the Catholics in Ireland.

William marched straight to the River Boyne, where he found the enemy waiting for him. "I am glad to see you, gentlemen," he said, "if you escape me now, it will be my own fault."

The Protestant forces were far more numerous than those which James had mustered. Their leader decided to pitch his camp on the heights of Tullyallen, from which he could watch the movements of the enemy and keep his own men under cover. The Irish Catholics lay on the Meath side of the river, camping about the Hill of Donore.

At midnight, William rode through the camp to give his last orders to the troops. He was a delicate man and the long march had wearied him, but spirit flashed from his eyes, which shone bright and piercing in his pale face. A big plumed hat, flowing wig and long jackboots were revealed by the flare of torches, showing his picturesque figure in strong relief against the blackness of night. He told the soldiers to wear green sprigs in their hats to distinguish themselves from the Catholic Irish, who had adopted the white cockade of the French, in honour of allies sent by Louis XIV. Henceforward, green was the revolutionary colour of Ireland, and Orange the symbol of a true Protestant in that country.

The battle began shortly after sunrise with the thundering of William's guns. He directed the fire of the battalions himself, keeping the greater part of the army under cover. The Irish fought against great odds, without the necessary guns to fire back at the enemy, without a general in supreme command, without previous military training to fit them for such a contest. James was a coward at heart, and was planning his own retreat to Dublin while his men desperately faced some of the finest soldiers in Europe, and thought only of the cause.

At last, William gave orders for an attack on Old-bridge, the village near the river on James's side, now occupied by Tyrconnell and his dragoons. Schomberg was in charge of the main body, and the King led the left wing, consisting chiefly of mounted men, over a deep ford near Drogheda, which could not be crossed by infantry.

"Suddenly the bugles rang out and from the mouth of William's glen appeared the Blue Dutch Guards. Down they came at the double in the hot July sunshine, straight down to the Boyne, marching in column, drums beating, colours flying, and fifes, they say, screaming the insulting tune of Lillibullero, followed by the French and Enniskillen Foot. The Dutch took the river highest up the stream, the French and Enniskilleners dashing into the water by Grove Island through the reeds and osiers of which they struggled. Then came Sir John Hanmer and Count Nassau with their regiments; and lastly Danes and Germans, who had probably come down by the eastern defile, where the water was up to their armpits. In a few minutes the river was full of men, fighting the sullied stream in the excitement of their first reckless onset."

The Irish ought to have fired while the enemy were in difficulties but they delayed too long and then fired so hastily that half their shots did not take effect. They were driven back as the Dutch came ashore and scattered in different directions while skirmishes took place at the river fords for more than an hour. Hamilton, the gallant leader of the Catholics, would not own that King James's cause was lost. He made a last splendid charge at Plotin Castle, eight miles south of Oldbridge and there he was met by William, surrounded, and taken prisoner.

The Irish were compelled to retreat after fighting with the greatest courage and determination. James followed out his prudent plan of flight to Dublin, as soon as he saw that his own side was doomed to failure. Arriving at the castle-gates at about ten o'clock at night, he was met by Lady Tyrconnell. "And after he was upstairs, her ladyship asked him what he would have for supper. Who then gave her an account of what a breakfast he had got, which made him have little stomach for his supper."

James complained, with more than a touch of ingratitude, that his troops had run away, but Lady Tyrconnell would not listen to such dispraise of her country people, and answered dryly, "But your Majesty won the race."

The Lord Mayor and Council of Dublin were summoned once more to meet James in consultation. It was a very different meeting from the first, which had been held in a city decked so gaily in honour of the sovereign, who was now inclined to leave the citizens to shift for themselves. James knew that Louis X IV. would receive him at St Germains, and did not wish to stay longer in Ireland. He advised the men of Dublin to submit to William of Orange and to set their prisoners at liberty. He then sailed for Brest, and proceeded to the court of the French king, which was, after all, a gayer refuge than he could have found elsewhere.

William III. arrived in Dublin on 4th July 1690. He found the people in better spirits than he expected, because they regarded his famous victory of the Boyne as little more than a drawn battle, and had good reason to hope that King James would send them help from France to continue the struggle against a Protestant monarch.