Following the victory of King William’s army at Aughrim July 12 1691, the people of Galway awaited their fate in fear and uncertainty. William’s Dutch general Godert de Ginkel, had moved from his headquarters at Athenry, and was now on his way to subdue the town. He had shown ruthless determination in his dealings with the Irish Jacobite army; the citizens must have expected nothing less.
In Hardiman’s famous history however, he digresses from his narrative at this point, to include the bizarre story of Balldearg O’Donnell. ‘A persecuted people will grasp at every shadow in expectation of deliverance’, he sagely remarks; in what a pathetic man, as we shall see, did Galway place its misguided hope for deliverance.
There was an ancient prophecy that an O’Donnell with a red mark (probably a red birthmark ) would return from overseas, and by his conduct and gallant actions free the Irish once and for all from English tyranny. Balldearg had such a mark on his head. This mark, associated with blood vessels close to the surface of the skin, and his descent from the fighting O’Donnells (who were defeated at Kinsale, and who fled to Spain ), gave him a messianic potency totally undeserved.
Balldearg O’Donnell arrived in Limerick in 1690, fresh from Spain as the prophecy proclaimed; and word of his coming spread like wildfire. It is estimated more than 9,000 rallied to his standard.
Balldearg rowed with the Irish army command over what rank he should have claiming that King James had promised to make him a major general. During the battle of Aughrim, where he might have been of some value, he remained inactive in the house of a Mr Miller at Ballycushean, six miles from Tuam. When he heard the result of the battle, and that the people of Tuam were preparing to accommodate General Ginkel, he pillaged and burnt the town, and retired to Cong. He was unable, or did not bother, to even attempt to relieve Galway. His followers, no doubt disillusioned, dwindled away.
Hardiman notes that Balldearg remained among the mountains until after the surrender of Galway, when he joined the Williamites, probably because Ginkel flattered him by offering a commission in his army.
He assisted the Williamites in taking Sligo, until finally Hardiman, with an unusually impatient sweep of his pen, writes Balldearg out of history. ‘Thus ended the career of this pretended deliverer; from which it may be concluded that the prophecy was either false or misapplied to this person. What became of him afterwards has not been thought worthy of the trouble of inquiry.’ *
The news of the battle with its fearsome list of casualties, and the certainty that general Ginkel would march on Galway within days, galvanised its citizens into immediate action. Some were so panic-struck that ‘they would have compromised for their safety by immediately surrendering almost on any terms.’
But after consultation among the leaders of its defences, the lords Clanricarde, Dillon and Enniskillen, and the remaining French soldiers still residing in the town, and no doubt fuelled with the false expectation that France would send reinforcements at any time, or even that Balldearg O’Donnell and his army would ride to their rescue like some mythological Finn MacCool, all agreed to defend the town at all costs.
In a state of nervousness and excitement soldiers and townspeople quickly set to work repairing the fort at St Augustine’s Hill, strengthening the town walls, improving the defences at the east gate, and destroying all the cabins and hedges around its suburbs. The Franciscans supplied the stone and other materials needed. Eight guns were raised on the walls, and more ‘pieces of cannon’ were put in position to defend the town’s gates. The castle at Tirellan was burnt in case the enemy used it for cover, and the Protestant inhabitants were moved to the west suburbs ‘for the better security of the town’.**
On the morning of July 19 1691 the Williamite forces consisting of 14,000 men came within sight of the town. There were some minor skirmishes as Jacobite forces moved back inside the gates. Mackey, who had distinguished himself at Aughrim, made his headquarters at Menlo Castle. That night he crossed the river with a formidable force, on a series of floats, previously constructed, and boldly set out into the bay to capture three ships lying on anchor. The ships sailed before capture. Nevertheless Mackey held all roads and passes leading from Iar-Connaught. Galway was, in effect, caught in a vice grip.
Ginkel, worried that French forces could arrive any day, or indeed that Ballderarg could arrive with his army, was anxious to end the matter as quickly as possible. He needed to get to Limerick and end the war. Yet he could not leave a port town such as Galway at his back.
He sent a deputation that he was prepared to offer generous terms if the town surrendered. While that sounded attractive to many of the leading citizens, the officers in charge resolved ‘to defend the place to the last.’
A captain Bourke of the Jacobite army deserted, and told Ginkel that a fort towards the south-east of the town was yet incomplete. He was prepared to lead them there.
The next day, July 21, at first light, the Williamites attacked the fort. Furious fighting erupted. The attackers ‘threw in their grenadoes’, and as soon as they entered the fort ‘a tremendous fire was opened on them from the walls’. Both sides suffered heavy losses. Although it was only a skirmish, it was enough to convince the principal inhabitants that a prolonged siege would only end in disaster. At 10am a letter seeking terms was sent to general Ginkel.
As leaders on both sides debated over the details of a treaty, the townspeople and soldiers crowded in great numbers on the walls. The Williamite army came forward, and a friendly exchange took place as opponents looked at each other with curiosity, shouting greetings, and, given the momentous developments of recent weeks and days, asking for news.
The terms were generous: A free pardon was granted to everyone in the town. Estate owners could hold on to their property. Roman Catholics could bear arms, practice law and their religion. Soldiers who wished to continue the fight, would be escorted to Limerick.
Early in the morning of July 26 Lord Dillon marched out with the garrison consisting of about 2,500 men. They were conducted to Limerick by a guard of horse and dragoons. It was noted they were indifferently armed, and wearing shoddy, or ragged clothes. A new governor marched in with two regiments and took possession of the town.
While all this was happening a quantity of gunpowder, which was being divided among a group of men, suddenly exploded, ‘by which several of the men had their eyes blown out, and towards 20 were dreadful wounded and disfigured.’
This caused instant confusion, until it was realised by both sides that it was only an unfortunate accident, and not the arrival of Balldearg or the French.
At noon General Godert de Ginkel, with, I am sure, his full army staff, entered the town. He was received by the mayor, aldermen and recorder.
Next week: Limerick and its aftermath.