Tales from Irish History - Alice Birkhead

Patrick Sarsfield, Defender of Limerick

The cause of the Irish Catholic found a champion, after the Battle of the Boyne, in the person of Patrick Sarsfield. He was an officer of James's army, with a name of noble renown and a long record of distinguished service. Rory O'Moore was an ancestor of whom Sarsfield was particularly proud; on his mother's side the family was said to be so ancient that they traced their descent from Ir, son of Milith, who had given his name to Ireland. Sarsfield had led a life of roving adventure before he took service with King James. He had been trained in a French military college, but his first commission was in the army of Monmouth, a natural son of Charles II.

In 1685 he had fought against Monmouth at the Battle of Sedgemoor, taking the side of James II., King of England. As an ensign he had once carried the golden fleur-de-lis of France, and fought with equal courage for Louis XIV. He first rose to distinction as a leader in his own country, though he did not share the laurels of Hamilton at the Battle of the Boyne. He did good service by garrisoning Galway during the war, and by his efforts Connacht remained loyal.

Sarsfield refused to agree with those of the Catholic party, who would have made terms with William of Orange when the rival king had fled. He said that the cause remained the same whether James led the army to battle or a general on the same side. He induced the troops to defend Limerick, likely to be besieged by William when he left Dublin, because it was the second town in Ireland at that time.

French officers remained in Ireland to sneer at Sarsfield's hopeful projects. Lauzun, the French Marshal, laughed at the idea of defending Limerick. "Why should the English," he asked, "bring cannon against fortifications that could be battered down with roasted apples?" Sarsfield was not the man to yield to ridicule. He went on fortifying the town by earth-works thrown up beyond the usual defences, and made up his mind to fight without the French, who were led off to Galway by Lauzun.

On the 9th of August 1690 the siege of Limerick began. The day after William appeared before the walls Tyrconnell followed the French to Galway. He had lost his reputation as a bold leader, and no longer cared to take an active part. The second command in the war had already been given to Sarsfield, who was left to sustain a siege with his Irish Foot.

Limerick was then one of the largest towns in Ireland; the houses were of stone, strongly built and protected by battlements, and there were high walls to serve as a natural defence. William perhaps despised it unnecessarily, like Lauzun, for he left his battering-train on its way from Dublin, and hoped that Limerick would surrender without much waste of gunpowder. He pitched his camp on the Munster side of the Shannon in the district called Singland or Sois Angel, because St. Patrick was said to have seen an angel there.

A French gunner deserted from William's army and told the enemy that a battering-train was on its way to Limerick. Sarsfield determined that he would meet it before it could reach the town, and he managed to surprise the camp by a lucky accident. It was easy to find the soldiers in charge of the train, but not so easy to evade the outposts stationed on guard. At night nobody was allowed to pass a certain place without giving the password, which was often changed. One of Sarsfield's men met the wife of a Protestant soldier of William's army, and acted as a guide through a lonely part of the country. She was a simple, unsuspecting woman, and in conversation soon let out the secret that the password for the night was "Sarsfield."

When Sarsfield reached the enemy's outposts he was challenged, gave the word, and was allowed to pass. A second man challenged him at the camp. He exclaimed, "Sarsfield! Sarsfield is the word, and Sarsfield is the man!" After he had killed the astonished sentry, he rushed on to fire the train, which exploded with such force that the noise could be heard in William's camp outside Limerick.

Sarsfield gained much glory from this exploit, and the Irish were encouraged to defend Limerick when they heard that the dreaded powder could now do no damage to their walls.

On 17th August the attack was begun in deadly earnest by William's grenadiers, who, in their dress of "piebald yellow and red," seemed very outlandish warriors to the Irish. The furred caps which they wore gave them the fierce aspect of beasts of prey. They threw the Irish into confusion, and served to keep the advantage till William's new battering-train came up, when he opened a tremendous fire on the city. Within a week breaches had been made in the defences, and the men working in the trenches had to wear woolsacks as a protection. The people in the houses of Limerick had terrible adventures, for shot frequently pierced the walls and did fatal damage. For nearly ten days the inhabitants kept off the besiegers, but the grenadiers, with one of their irresistible charges, broke through the defenders at last and made their way into the town. They did not escape without hurt in spite of the victorious onset. Women boldly hurled stones and broken bottles, and even dared to go nearer to the enemy than their own men.

William was satisfied with the breaking-down of the defence, and left the people of Limerick to destroy their earthworks, while he sailed back to England.

Sarsfield enjoyed the favour of James II. after his long struggle for the cause. He was made Earl of Lucan, Viscount of Tully, and Baron of Rosberry. All his honours, nevertheless, could not help him to keep the peace among his party, which was rent by quarrelling and even mutiny.

In 691, St. Ruth, the French general, was defeated at the terrible Battle of Aughrim. Sarsfield retreated with the remnant of his army, and once again prepared to defend Limerick from siege. Some French engineers had been at work there, and the town could boast better fortifications than when Lauzun had spoken of destroying them with roasted apples.

William's general, Ginkel, was left to besiege Limerick under very hard conditions. The war had already cost so much money that William warned him to expect no more help from England. He would have been glad to make terms with Sarsfield, but the Irishman had learnt to distrust the enemy's faith, and was determined to hold Limerick to the last. He was alone as a leader when Tyrconnell died, just before the siege began, and his dearest friends and allies were proving treacherous. Even Henry Luttrell, whom he had trusted before all other men, was found to have furnished Ginkel with information.

The second siege of Limerick was carried on without much spirit, for Ginkel cared little for victory. The first shell in the city killed Lady Dillon, wife of the ex-Governor of Galway, and wounded several others. In the following month Irish soldiers appeared frequently in Ginkel's camp as deserters. The rest held out doggedly, always expecting the arrival of the French, who were to help them. The sails of those French ships were awaited through weary days of watching. But behind the walls treachery was so rife that Sarsfield was obliged to make terms with the enemy. On 23rd September, the drums beat a parley round the walls of Limerick, and the white flag of truce was hung out. Two days after the agreement was concluded, a French fleet sailed into Dingle Bay.

Sarsfield had to leave Ireland, defeated but not dismayed. He had it in his mind to strike another blow for King James one day, and so crossed to France, where he took service again under Louis X IV. Other men followed him, cherishing the same hope. Exiles, known as the "wild geese," winged their way across the channel long after William of Orange died. Ireland was no happy home for a Catholic after its conquest by the Protestant king.

Sarsfield fought on so valiantly that he was rewarded by a Marshal's baton. At Landen, in 1693, he was struck in the breast by a musket-ball as he drove the enemy to the river. Mortally wounded, he fell to the ground, and putting his hand to the wound, saw it stained with blood. "Would to God this were shed for Ireland!" he exclaimed, thinking to the last of that victorious army he was to have led in revenge of Aughrim.

While he lived, Sarsfield struggled against the jealousy of allies, the faithlessness of friends; but the Irish nation loved him, and his name will ever live in the hearts of all men who recognize the heroism of a dauntless patriot.