The Siege of Athlone

I was very pleased to hear that the visitor centre in Athlone Castle received a much need revamp late last year. The exhibition was very tired and outdated and we were very disappointed when we moored the Nieuwe Zorgen beneath the castle walls in 2010. I am keen to revisit now and see what has been done with the massive €2 million budget.

A recent article in the Westmeath Independent caught my eye – What do Harry Potter, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Athlone Castle have in common? Apparently the company that created some of the props from these two blockbusters are also responsible for the sculptures on display in the new centre. These sculptures depict some of the main figures of the siege of Athlone, including Sergeant Custume, Colonel Richard Grace and Lieutenant General Godard Van Reede Van Ginkel.

River Shannon view from Athlone Castle

River Shannon view from Athlone Castle

To honour this I have decided to post an excerpt from my book outlining part of the siege:

By the 17th century a new curtain wall and bastions were built around the eastern side of the town and earthen ramparts around the west. This was the period of the Jacobite War between King James II and William of Orange. King James II had been deposed by his daughter and her husband William, and James fled to France. Here he gained support from Louis XIV who aided his journey to Ireland to face battle with William at the now infamous Battle of the Boyne.  Following the Irish defeat at the Boyne in 1690, the Jacobite forces retreated to the west of Ireland, and regrouped in Limerick to prepare the defence of the line of the Shannon. The Williamites knew that Athlone was vital to the defence of Connacht, so they attacked Athlone with a force of 10,000 under the Scottish Lieutenant General, James Douglas. The aged Colonel Richard Grace defended the castle and the Williamites retreated. Apparently he declared that he would ‘defend Athlone until he had eaten his old boots’ and then blow himself up rather then surrender. 

The following year the Williamites returned, this time numbering 25,000 men under the command of the Dutch Godard van Reede, baron de Ginkel. The Irish troops defended the town from the Connacht side of the river, under the command of the French General the marquis St. Ruth, and broke down several arches of the bridge so the Williamite forces could not cross over from the captured Leinster side of Athlone.

 The Williamite forces bombarded the castle with grenades, stone shot and canon balls, and attempted to repair the damaged bridge. Sergeant Custume and his Irish men defended the bridge and dislodged the attempted repairs of the bridge, but Ginkel crossed at the ford and entered the castle on June 30th 1691. His reward from William II was the title of Earl of Athlone (a title that remained with his descendants until 1844) and Baron of Aughrim. The Jacobite war continued with the Battle of Aughrim and reached its climax in Limerick, where the Irish army under Patrick Sarsfiled fell. Under the treaty of Limerik they were given the choice of sailing to France to join the army of Louis XIV, or returning to their farms. Those that went to France became known as ‘the wild geese’.


The Ballad of Athlone

Does any man dream that a Gael can fear?
Of a thousand deeds let him learn but one!
The Shannon swept onwards broad and clear,
Between the leaguers and broad Athlone.

‘Break down the bridge!’ – Six warriors rushed
Through the storm of shot and the storm of shell;
With late but certain victory flushed.
The grim Dutch gunners eyed them well.

They wrench’d at the planks ‘mid a hail of fire;
They fell in death, their work half done;
The bridge stood fast; and nigh and nigher
The foe swarmed darkly, densely on.

“Oh, who for Erin, will strike a stroke?
Who hurl yon planks where the waters roar?
Six warriors forth from their comrades broke,
And flung them upon that bridge once more.

Again at the rocking planks they dashed;
And four dropped dead, and two remained;
The huge beams groaned, and the arch down-crashed –
Two stalwart swimmers the margin gained.

St. Ruth in his stirrups stood up, and cried,
“I have seen no deed like that in France!”
With a toss of his head, Sarsfield replied,
“They had luck, the dogs!’Twas a merry chance!

O many a year, upon Shannon’s side,
They sang upon moor and they sang upon heath,
Of the twain that breasted that raging tide,
And the ten that shook bloody hands with Death!

By Aubrey de Vere


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