A LETTER FROM IRELAND…Cathal Liam
All hail the Glorious Revolution, aka The Williamite War, of 1688-1691. Sure, July is the month for celebrating. The 12th is the day for parading, bonfiring, wearing your orange sash, beating the Lambeg [Irish] drum and maybe your Catholic neighbour, if you’re so inclined. [Sorry…I couldn’t resist the gibe…please forgive.] Yes, July is the month to bring the past back into focus, or at least some insist so.
For me it’s a time to remember driving around the narrow, back roads of Co. Meath and tromping through the sodden, grassy fields along the River Boyne, just east of the village of Slane, back in the spring of 2008. The Office of Public Works [OPW] Battle of the Boyne Heritage Centre was about to launch its inaugural season. [www.battleoftheboyne.ie]
With a little imagination and some educated guesswork, the Battle of the Two Kings played itself out before my eyes. But before going further, let’s set the stage.
Charles II died in 1685, taking to the grave his secret yearning for restoring Catholicism in England and for seeking revenge upon those who’d betrayed his father, Charles I. Leaving no successor, the crown passed to James II, third son of Charles I and brother of Charles II. James, an experienced military commander, who openly embraced Catholicism, was greatly reviled in England. As king, he also packed Parliament with his supporters and overtly conspired with the King of France, England’s bitter enemy. Protestants watched with horror as James’s political followers began dismantling the Tudor legacy that had established the Church of England/Ireland as a religious force in both lands.
But things were soon to change. In 1677, James’s daughter Mary married Holland’s William of Orange, her cousin. Out of favour with the English landed gentry, James eventually fled England in 1688. Soon afterwards, Parliament petitioned William, the champion of European Protestantism, along with his Protestant wife Mary, to occupy James’s now-vacant throne. [William III & Mary II ruled as joint sovereigns of England, Scotland & Ireland, 1689-1694.] After much hemming and hawing, William, at the head of a strong army, left for England in November, 1688 to claim his prise.
Not coincidentally, an army of Jacobites landed in Ireland at the same time. They secured a headquarters in Dublin and marched on Derry, the seat of Irish Protestantism. Hoping to capture the town without opposition, their efforts failed to take the city and restore James’s crown. The following April, 1689, James landed in Ireland and joined his supporters outside Derry’s walls…a siege was on.
A year later, with the rebellion at more or less a standstill, William sailed to Ireland with an armada of 300 ships and an impressive array of military might. Landing in Belfast Lough and determined to put an end to the Jacobite rebellion, King Billy headed south to engage James’s forces, now repositioned around Dublin. James answered William’s challenge and marched his army north.
So it was, along the banks of the River Boyne, that the two armies collided. The ensuing battle saw them fighting for their disparate religions and national honour. It would be the last time two English kings faced off against one another.
Outnumbered and poorly matched, the Catholic Jacobites fought for England’s contentious King James, who poised an undeniable threat to Albion’s Protestant way-of-life and their anti-Popish Parliament. The Jacobites [Latin for Jacobus/James], numbering some 25,000, hoped to restore the Stuart legacy to the English/Scottish thrones. A mixture of rather ill trained and poorly armed Irish, Scottish and English soldiers, they were reinforced by a contingent of French-mounted cavalry, compliments of Louis XIV, a supporter of James, who was always on the lookout for an English ally.
With spirits high, the Jacobites arrived at the Boyne, some thirty miles away from their base in Dublin, hoping to defeat the opposing Protestant army led in person by William of Orange. Though this Dutchman was hunchbacked, pockmarked and asthmatic, he was a well respected military commander and much admired by his men.
Despite the fact that the citizens of Derry, a Protestant Williamite stronghold, had successfully withstood James’s 105-day siege [April-July, 1689], William seemed to question their fighting prowess. His army of 36,000 well-trained and equipped men, led by his crack Dutch Blue Guards, was reinforced with Danish, Finnish, French and Irish Protestants, some who’d already faced the Jacobites in Derry.
Now, with June, 1690 ending, the dye was cast. The Glorious Revolution, fought to maintain Protestant authority in both England and Ireland, was greeted with open arms by the Protestant Ulsterites and the Cromwellian settlers in Leinster and Munster. [Remember, Cromwell had dispossessed most Irish Catholics, pushing many of them westward into Connaught in the 1650’s.]
Early on the morning of Tuesday, 1 July [old-style Julian calendar dating which translates to 11 July new-style Gregorian calendar dating, effective years later in 1752], William’s army of allied troops began fording the Boyne in several places. The main crossing was at Oldbridge, the site of today’s OPW centre.
Additionally, William sent a strong force of men west along the river to a ford at Rosnaree several miles away near the village of Slane. In an attempt to thwart this Williamite flanking manoeuvre, James unwisely diverted much of this army to counter William’s move.
Though successful in crossing the river at Rosnaree, the splinter Williamites and Jacobites were unable to mortally engage one another due to a deep ravine at nearby Roughgrange. Thus, these troopers spent the rest of the day stalemated on opposite sides of this marshy divide.
During the day, the Williamites, led by their commander himself, successfully crossed the Boyne opposite Oldbridge and at two other fords to the east. After hours of close-quarter fighting, the Jacobites were eventually overwhelmed and forced to retreat uphill to Donore churchyard. At this point in the battle, James was no where to be seen.
As the day ended, the rebel Jacobites slipped away and regrouped, eventually heading for an unsuccessful stand against the Williamites at Limerick Town along the Shannon. In triumph, William’s forces headed for Dublin. Later, they tasted more victories in the west of Ireland, all culminating with the signing of the Treaty of Limerick. William returned to England to rule until 1702 while James ignominiously fled to France, dying there in 1701. So on July 12th, strangely not the 11th, Ulster remembers and honours William’s victory at the Boyne while James is all but forgotten.
The upshot of the Glorious Revolution saw England’s governance become both constitutional and parliamentary while Ireland was doomed to suffer the slings and arrows of bitter sectarianism and eventual partition… still felt to this day, especially in July. But do keep the hope alive,
We shall overcome.
Cathal’s newest novel, A Fire On the Mountain, is scheduled for release in mid-2013.