The Williamite War in Ireland, 1688-1691, Richard Doherty (Four Courts Press, 1998, £40.00 hb, £14.95 pb) ISBN 1851823743, 1851823751

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 1 (Spring 1999), Reviews, Volume 7, Williamite Wars

The war between William and James, though of relatively short duration, was fought on a scale unsurpassed in Irish history: there were 60,000 men at the Boyne, more than 40,000 at Aughrim. In recent years, the war has received much attention from historians whose works we can now add to Demetrius Boulger’s time-honoured Battle of the Boyne (1911), Gerald Simms’ scholarly Jacobite Ireland (1969), and the general histories that cover the period. Other valuable material has appeared in articles in The Irish Sword and elsewhere. A further contribution would have to offer something new, and in his preface Mr Doherty commits himself to do just that: to provide ‘a straightforward military history’. Despite the attention it has been given, the war of the kings has not received the purely military analysis it deserves. There are reasons for this: the dominance of political affairs, including the fact that the Irish war was a side-show in the wider European theatre and a hoped-for stepping-stone in regaining for James the throne of England; the lack of a coherent Jacobite strategy; and the poor standard in the conduct of so many operations, in particular the deplorably inept handling of the Boyne defence by James himself. But faults and failings need as much examination as success, and can offer the researcher equally satisfying rewards if he delves deeply enough.
Unfortunately for the author’s commendable aim he has placed limits on his research by relying heavily on secondary sources, some of very recent origin. In the chapter ‘The break of Ulster’, of twenty-one references in the notes, twelve are to Patrick Macrory’s The siege of Derry (1988); in that on Aughrim, of thirty-six references, half are to Piers Wauchope’s Patrick Sarsfield and the Williamite War (1992). There is nothing wrong with using such sources but it does entail restricting oneself to the quoted author’s interpretation of events and all that this may imply. In the case of Irish military history deeper research is desirable. Irish warfare has rarely been on a grand scale: what with hastily-raised armies, a scarcity of outstanding leaders, the many actions of a minor variety, and the all too frequent emphasis on personal concerns and differences, the necessity for establishing, in detail, what actually occurred is very great. For the period with which we are concerned there are many primary sources: for example, Gerald Simms in ‘Eyewitnesses of the Boyne’, The Irish Sword, No. 22, vol. VI, listed twenty-five for that battle alone. The material exists for an authoritative military history of the war and it is a pity that Mr Doherty did not cast his research net wider.
That said, he has produced a readable account of the main features of the war. He begins by giving a brief survey of the war of the Grand Alliance, the European background to events in Ireland, and of James II’s flight after the arrival of William of Orange in England The resultant difficulty facing Tyconnell, the lord deputy in Ireland, and the very tentative contacts between him and William are described, but it seems a little harsh to say of him that he ‘had finally decided to stay true to his master’. It was not Tyrconnell’s loyalty to James that was the issue as much as whether, in the difficult situation the country faced in that winter of 1688-9, some compromise should be made.
The author devotes five chapters to operations in Ulster. There are good accounts of Richard Hamilton’s actions culminating in the success for the Jacobites, the break of Dromore; the siege of Derry is well-covered as are the actions of the Enniskillen men that resulted in so much of Ulster being in Williamite hands by the autumn of 1689 and the coming of Schomberg. One’s curiosity is aroused by the reference to the friar, Fr O’Haggerty who was used as a messenger between the Protestant Council of the North and the lord deputy. Is anything more known of him? Or of Colonel Parker, commander of the Coleraine regiment, who deserted to the Jacobites in April 1689?
The treatment of the Boyne is less satisfactory. In a post-mortem towards the end of the book the author lists as one of the Jacobite blunders the failure to meet William’s army at the Moyry Pass, north of Dundalk. One would hesitate before making so positive an assertion as this. The Jacobite situation at this juncture was perilous. James had to gamble on standing against the stronger Williamite forces and winning, or to withdraw, presumably to the line of the Shannon, thus abandoning Dublin. The Moyry position is strong but it was far from the supply base, defeat there would have been disastrous and even withdrawal very difficult. According to Boulger, James, who was constantly concerned about being outflanked, was much perturbed by the statements of the captured Captain Farlow on the strength of William’s cavalry and the orders to the fleet to coast down to Drogheda and lend the land forces a helping hand. The only possible advantage in holding so far north would have been to retain space that could be traded for time by delaying operations, a formidable task for a relatively untrained army. This implies that there would have been some further succour or prepared position available with the passage of time, but such did not exist. For James’ purpose, the Boyne offered the best options and was, indeed, a far stronger position than his own faint praise—‘indifferent good’—implied. One is surprised, too, to hear of James being ‘determined to fight’ (p.108). While the words of Clarke, his biographer, that ‘these, and other reasons determined the king to hazard a battle’, reflect a decision to fight, they are so hedged about with reservations as to cast grave doubts, borne out by subsequent events, on James’ commitment.
The Boyne is so curious a battle that it demands more critical analysis than it receives. Thus, concerning the holding of Slane, not only the French commissary, Coubertin, whom Doherty quotes, but also Richard Hamilton, believed it should have been held. Had the left-wing cavalry been posted north of the river at Slane a Williamite attempt to cross at Rosnaree would have been taken in flank and we might not have seen the futile move of the bulk of the Jacobite army to Roughgrange that reduced the forces at Oldbridge to a quarter of the total strength. In his description of the fighting at Oldbridge the author gives an all-too-rare compliment to the Irish infantry who have generally received a bad press, mainly on the strength of a remark by the Duke of Wurtemberg. The usual, well-deserved accolades are given to the cavalry although the author is in error in referring to Sheldon’s Horse and including it as a regiment in the index. Major General Dominick Sheldon commanded the Jacobite right-wing cavalry: he did not receive a regiment until 1692, in France. Nor can one accept the story, contained in Macauley and probably elsewhere, that Richard Hamilton was captured at Plattin Hall in the last fighting of the day. The evidence of Story, the Williamite chaplain, and of Southwell, William’s secretary of state for Ireland, puts this at Donore, as does the Jacobite author of the Light to the blind. The ground and general course of the battle support this.
The post-Boyne operations of Limerick, Marlborough at Cork, and the winter defence of the Shannon are adequately covered, without entering into such political areas as the Tyrconnell/Sarsfield rift. Like the Boyne, Aughrim deserves more critical attention than it receives. With the example of the definitive, account in G.A. Hayes-McCoy’s Irish Battles as a guide, it should have been possible to avoid attaching too much significance to such stories as that of Walter Bourke’s regiment in Aughrim Castle and the ill-fitting musket balls that resulted in firing coat buttons as substitutes, or of St Ruhe dying without revealing the password! To whom was this to be given? What secrets were locked within it? Some relevant questions to ask about Aughrim are whether St Ruhe over-strengthened his centre, which was protected by the bog, at the expense of the much more vulnerable wings; whether Sheldon had specific responsibility for guarding the approach on the left and the necessary authority over all the troops in that area; and whether, at the time of St Ruhe’s death, the fatal break-through on the left was already taking place. The Duke of Berwick believed that even had St Ruhe lived, Aughrim would have been lost. Richard Doherty’s book is a good read, but we still await a full-scale critical military history of the war of William and James.

Donal O’Carroll

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