A time when grass grew on Galway streets

Week V

 Patrick Sarsfield negotiated a brilliant military outcome to the siege of Limerick, but the Catholic population was not properly catered for.

Patrick Sarsfield negotiated a brilliant military outcome to the siege of Limerick, but the Catholic population was not properly catered for.

It is generally agreed that the treaty signed between the Williamite general de Ginkel, and the Irish/Jacobian Patrick Sarsfield, on October 9 1691 in Limerick, was a very satisfactory military outcome for both sides, but not a satisfactory outcome for Catholic Ireland who, with the loss of her armies, was left at the mercy of a vengeful Protestant parliament.

Not only did Sarsfield secure permission for some 14,000 men, their wives and children, to leave Limerick for France, with their arms and colours, but also, amazingly, getting Ginkel to agree to supply British and Dutch ships to bring them there.

Yet Sarsfield failed to secure protection for all property and succession rights, equality in the law and education, and above all freedom to practice the religion of choice for the Catholic population left behind. He appeared to have carelessly abandoned all those who had previously surrendered, and the families of those who had been killed.

This oversight in Sarsfield’s handling of the civil articles of the treaty had an immediate effect on Galway. The Protestant population, who had been locked away in the ‘west suburbs’ during the brief siege three months previously, now emerged with the upper hand. New laws would soon be enacted giving them complete authority.

The people of the town was now divided strictly between Protestants and Catholics; the latter being far more numerous, but without any law or authority to support them.

In accordance with the articles of capitulation, agreed with Ginkel the previous July, Galway Catholics could walk around bearing arms. Some still believed that Sarsfield or Balldearg would come to their rescue. They were accused of displaying a ‘growing insolence’; and if they did it was a lost cause. A court martial was set up. Three men were found guilty of stealing dragoon horses and were publicly hanged.

There was chaos when it came to elect the new mayor. After ‘much tumult and confusion’ Catholics and Protestants struggled to elect their own man. Perhaps as a compromise the last mayor, alderman Revett (a Protestant ), emerged the winner. But he lost no time in describing Catholics as ‘the most dangerous fellows in the world.’ Catholics were soon deprived of all influence in the corporation, and every Catholic within the town was disarmed.

‘Constant apprehensions’

The Jacobite cause rumbled on for more than 50 years until finally it was extinguished by the decisive defeat of James’ grandson ‘Bonny’ Prince Charlie at Culloden in 1745. In the interim the ‘constant apprehensions of danger’ brought added hardship to Catholics who were already severely curtailed by a series of Penal Laws which deprived them of public office, house ownership, the right to travel or to bear arms, to practice their religion, or for their children to attend school. Priests were outlawed. If a priest was caught he could be charged with high treason, which meant public execution.

On two occasions when Dublin feared French troops would land in Galway, the Catholic population was driven out of the town, and kept out while the perceived danger lasted.

On one occasion the corporation feared that the absence of Catholics, who were disillusioned by the the restraints on their abilities, and many left to settle elsewhere, would depopulate the town. For a time some restrictions were eased, mainly to encourage the recommencement of the old trading traditions that Galway was once famous for. But the heavy duties on all incoming trade made normal commerce impracticable.

Hardiman says that the spirit of the inhabitants was broken down by the ‘repeated aggression and angry visitation under the penal laws. Whatever remnant of trade and commerce had remained in the town gradually declined’. Hardiman also cites that ‘grass frequently grew in many of its public streets.’ *

Red coats

A lively smuggling trade emerged along the rocky shores of Connemara. The French sailing boats that briefly landed at night on Connemara beaches, or off isolated piers to put ashore contraband such as brandy and wine, weapons and tobacco to be quickly dispersed in the local towns, frequently would take a passenger or several passengers back with them. These were usually young men wishing to join the Irish brigades which Sarsfield had joined after Limerick, or to seek an education abroad. The French called them ‘Wild Geese’ and the name suited the freedom-seeking men of the time. As many as a further 19,000 followed Sarsfield, absorbed into the French army under the banner of Viscount Mountcashel, and in new brigades under King James. The Irish brigades wore red coats for the next 100 years as a sign of fealty to the Jacobite cause.

They fought well for France against William of Orange in battles such as Landen, a particularly fierce affray, renowned for its cavalry charges and heavy loss of life, and where Patrick Sarsfield was mortally wounded only two years after the Treaty of Limerick. His last words are said to have been: ‘Would it were for Ireland.’

Next week: The extraordinary secret ministry that came from St Nicholas’ Collegiate church.

NOTES: *Catholic landowners, who did not conform to the proscribed religion, had land confiscated by the crown and sold to people who were thought to be loyal. The more wealthy landowners were elevated to the Irish House of Lords; and controlled the Irish House of Commons. They supported harsh laws which severely limited the livelihoods and careers of the Catholic population. There were attempts from time to time to ameliorate the Penal Laws but not until Daniel O’Connell managed to break the grip of the Protestant Ascendency with his campaign for Catholic emancipation in the mid 1820s, was any progress made.

Englishman Arthur Young in his famous Tour of Ireland (1780 ) wrote: ‘The cruel laws against Roman Catholics, remain the marks of illiberal barbarism.’


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