The first Siege of Athlone, 1690
As a result of their victory at the Boyne, the Williamites effectively gained control of the eastern half of Ireland. Though James had fled, his Irish Catholic supporters, led by men like Patrick Sarsfield, decided to continue the war. The River Shannon now became the key frontier, as the Jacobites held the vital strategic castles of Athlone and Limerick. In mid-July 1690, a 7,500 strong Williamite force, commanded by the Scottish General James Douglas, attacked Athlone. The castle was defended by 2,000 men, led by the experienced veteran; Colonel Richard Grace. He ordered the abandonment of the eastern part of Athlone Town, and withdrew his forces over the Shannon, and broke down the bridge behind him. When he was summoned to parley terms for surrender, he defiantly fired his pistol in the air and declared that was the only negotiation he wanted. The Williamites lacked the necessary heavy siege artillery, and their field guns made little impression on the strong walls of the castle. Knowing that it would result in many casualties, General Douglas decided against trying to cross the river, and once he discovered that the defenders were to be reinforced, he lifted the siege and withdrew. The gallant defence of Athlone by Grace and his garrison, preserved the line and enabled the Jacobites to continue fighting the war for another year. For Athlone, the greatest test was yet to come.
The Great Siege of Athlone
In 10 days the Williamites fired off 12,000 cannonballs, 600 bombs and ‘a great many ton of stones shot out of our mortars’. It was the heaviest bombardment in Irish history.
In 1691 Athlone was the focus of the Williamite attack on Connacht, the Jacobite stronghold. Ginkel, the Williamite general, with 20,000 men besieged Athlone in June. The east town was lightly defended and easily overrun. The Jacobites broke down the bridge and defied Ginkel from the west town. The Irish army, about 20,000-strong, under General St Ruth, supported the defence. Ginkel deployed almost forty cannon and mortars in a continual bombardment, firing off 12,000 cannon balls that reduced the west town to rubble. An attempt to repair the bridge was thwarted by the bravery of the defenders.
“Thursday the 25th… the enemy had now mounted more cannon and played most violently without intermission on the castle”.
John Stevens, Jacobite captain
After ten days, the Williamites made a final effort with a well-organised, surprise attack launched across the old ford. The Jacobite defenders, taken unawares, offered only feeble resistance and were soon overwhelmed. Ginkel’s men quickly mounted the west town fortifications, which the Jacobites had neglected to demolish. No Jacobite counter-attack was possible. Athlone had fallen, and St Ruth withdrew west with his army.
“Our beams were laid over and partly planked, but the enemy detached a Sergeant Custume who, with ten men, came over the bridge to ruin our works. All of them were slain; and yet this did not discourage as many more from setting out and throwing down our planks and beams, despite all our firing and skill. They left their lives as testimonies of their valour”.