If to be sung, like the Cid, in popular ballads, marks a man as a national hero, that honourable title belongs unquestionably to Sarsfield. Ballads in Irish, ballads in English, together with many little scraps of local tradition, live on in the memory of his countrymen: sure evidence of the hold he has upon the heart and imagination of the Irish people.

In this case, at least, the Irish have chosen their hero well. Sarsfield stands out from among the men of his time as a true lover of his country. He fought for Ireland, the land of many dreams, of many sorrows; not for his own glory or advantage. His contemporary detractors, and notably that somewhat priggish military pedant, James Fitzjames, Duke of Berwick, may insinuate that he was no general but merely a dashing cavalry officer; a handsome fellow if you like, a fine, good-natured, generous, irascible Irish giant, exceeding even his own dragoons, so much admired by the French, in strength and stature, “brave but without brains.” His countrymen, especially those who served under him, knew that he had a true Irish heart, and loved him for it. Scanty as are the records of what he thought and felt, and even did, it is abundantly evident that he was a man of magnetic personality, a born leader of Ireland’s long forlorn hope. He knew the country well as a practical campaigning-ground, and had an instinct for the tactics of enthusiasm and dash, the only possible tactics with the half-drilled peasantry under his command. He knew how to wait patiently, watch his opportunity, strike suddenly and boldly, accept reverses undauntedly, and recover rapidly. Above all, he loved Ireland and the “mere Irish,” as no other captain of his day did. It was that true Irish heart in him that made him “the darling of the army” while he lived, the legendary hero of popular imagination after his death.

The testimony of his enemies is uniformly favourable to him. They recognised him as a brave and honourable adversary, singularly humane and courteous to the vanquished. They also had a very just apprehension of the sureness of his judgment, the rapidity and boldness of his attacks. It is noteworthy how frequently the mention of his name is accompanied by expressions which show that they felt he was constantly on the alert, and well informed as to their own movements; and that there was cause for anxiety whenever he menaced an important point, even where the force under his command was small.

He was, indeed, as no other soldier of King James was, an animating spirit, a flame of genuine unselfish valour and enthusiasm. He never despaired of his country. This is his claim to immortality in the hearts of his countrymen. Patrick Sarsfield, created by James II, in February, 1691, Earl of Lucan, Viscount Tully and Baron of Rosberry, came of the best Irish blood on both sides; his father’s family being Norman, his mother’s of the old Irish stock. The Sarsfields, or De Saresfelds, came over in the reign of Henry II, and settled in Ireland as Anglo-Norman gentry of the pale, a Thomas De Saresfeld being standard-bearer to King Henry in 1172. In 1302 they fought under Edward I against Wallace; and again in 1335 they served in the expedition sent by Edward III against the Scots, in revolt from Edward Baliol. In Tudor times they gave mayors to Dublin, in 1531, 1554, and 1566. In the reign of James I there were two branches of the family. The first had for its head Sir Dominic Sarsfield, the first baronet created in Ireland. He was subsequently ennobled as Viscount Kinsale; a title changed in the reign of Charles I to that of Viscount Kilmallock, the De Courceys, as Barons of Kinsale, having a prior claim to it. His descendant, Dominic, Lord Kilmallock, who married Sarsfield’s sister, came from France to fight for James II in Ireland, served as colonel of infantry there, and afterwards with the Irish Brigade on the Continent, where he died after the Peace of Ryswick. The head of the other branch was Sir William Sarsfield, who held the manor of Lucan in the County of Dublin. His grandson, Patrick, married Anne O’Moore, and had by her three children: William, who succeeded to the title, Patrick, the subject of this memoir, and Mary, who married Colonel Rossiter, of Rathmacnee Castle, County Wexford.[1]

Sarsfield’s elder brother, William, having no son by his marriage with Mary, a natural daughter of Charles II by Lucy Walters, and sister to the Duke of Monmouth, left the estates, worth about £2,000 a year, to his brother Patrick. This William had, however, one daughter, Anne, who married Agmondesham Vesey, of whom (or of someone of the same name) it was said: –

“Sir Agmondesham Vesey out of his great bounty,
Built this bridge, at the expense of the county.”

It appears that out of the rents of the estate, Sarsfield was to pay an annual allowance of £300 to his niece. This gave rise to litigation after some time, as there is on record a claim for arrears on the part of Anne; Sarsfield, like other Catholic gentlemen, having impoverished himself by raising forces to fight for King James. Anne’s daughter, Anne Vesey, married Sir John Bingham, and her son Charles was created Baron Bingham in 1776, and Earl of Lucan in 1795.

So much for Sarsfield’s paternal ancestry: that of his mother, Anne O’Moore, is more ancient and more racy of the soil of old Ireland. The stream of her descent touches many a “shore of old romance.”

Her great ancestor was Conall Cearnach (the victorious), of the race of Rury, and claiming descent from Ir, the son of Milith, from whom Ireland takes its name: Conall, that Red Branch champion, whose two terrible eyes, “the blue eye and the black,” are celebrated in the Bardic Tales. His descendent, Lugad Laighis, repelled an invasion of the men of Munster, for which he obtained a grant of land from Cucorb, King of Leinster; and in direct line from him (twenty-fifth in descent, say the genealogists) came Mordha (the majestic) from whom sprang the family of O’Mordha (O’Moore).

These O’Moores were driven from their estates in Leix (anglicised from Laighis) by a “plantation of the stranger” in Queen’s County, about the middle of the sixteenth century; and in the reign of Charles I, Rory and Lewis, sons of Calvagh O’Moore, were colonels in that Catholic Army raised by Strafford for Charles, who intended to employ it in Scotland, and afterwards was about to send it to serve the King of Spain in Flanders. This led to a resolution in Parliament against “the transporting of troops out of His Majesty’s dominions”; and Strafford’s “8,000 Papists” were disbanded after his fall. The disbanded soldiers became a leaven of disaffection amongst the already discontented Catholic population; and Rory O’Moore, on the principle that “England’s extremity is Ireland’s opportunity,” stirred up the insurrection of 1641, in which Sir Phelim O’Neill and some other Irish chieftains banded together to drive the “foreigners” out of Ireland. He thus became a popular hero, and “For God and our Lady and Rory O’Moore!” was the watchword of a formidable party. This Rory (or Roger) O’Moore was the father of Anne O’Moore, the mother of Sarsfield.

No record of the place or date of Patrick Sarsfield’s birth has so far come to light. In all probability he was born at his father’s residence at Lucan, about 1650, the date of William III’s birth, and of Marlborough’s.

He was educated in a French military college, and his first commission was, it is said, in the regiment of Monmouth, under whom he served as ensign in France and Flanders, carrying the golden Fleur de Lys of France, and no doubt, as Macaulay says, “fighting gallantly” for his first master, Louis XIV. He may have taken part in that great campaign against the Dutch, in 1672, in which they opened their dykes and let in the sea, to clear their swamped country of its invaders.

In Dalton’s Army List Sarsfield’s name first occurs, with the rank of lieutenant in Monmouth’s Regiment of Foot, in 1678. In the same year he appears in the list as captain in Sir Thomas Dongan’s (or Dangan’s) Regiment of Foot.

Sarsfield thus learnt his first lesson in the art of war under William’s most redoubtable adversary, Luxembourg, under whose command he long afterwards fought at Landen, his last battle.

After his first campaigns on the Continent, he came to England, and is said to have obtained a commission as Lieutenant in Charles II’s Regiment of Guards. At that time there was no standing army in England, unless this, the King’s Body Guard, composed of men of good family, paid (or left unpaid) out of the King’s privy purse, may be so regarded. Even the privates of this aristocratic regiment were styled “the Gentlemen of the Guard,” and their discipline as by no means strict.

The exact time at which Sarsfield became a Gentleman of the Guard is uncertain, as this commission does not appear in Dalton’s imperfect List; and we have but few scraps of authentic information respecting his life at the Court of King Charles. He seems to have been again in France in 1678, as in the Records of the Corporation of Chester we find a deposition on his part before the mayor, that “in May, June, or July last” he had come from France to London, lodging at the house of the King’s saddler at Charing Cross, and receiving pay during that time from Mr. Trant (probably Sir Patrick Trant, afterwards James II’s Commissioner of the Revenue). “About three or four weeks ago,” he received a Commission as Captain in Colonel Dangan’s regiment, dated 9th of February last, which Commission delivered to him by Lieutenant Colonel Dempsy, or Mr. Trant, “they being then together at the Crown and Scepter Tavern in Pick-a dilly.” The occasion of this deposition was that the mayor had arrested and detained certain persons about to go over to Ireland without passports; and in a letter from Whitehall, dated November 9th, Mr. Secretary Williamson praises the mayor for his “zeal and circumspection” in so doing, but informs him that certain persons, whose names are given, “being Irishmen dismissed from his Majesty’s service, have leave to retire to their own country.” He adds that besides those named “a considerable number more of that country” have a similar permission granted them. Sarsfield, just promoted to a captaincy in an Irish regiment, can scarcely have been one of these dismissed soldiers. His deposition is probably the result of the worthy mayor’s anxiety to maintain his reputation for zeal and circumspection.

We next hear of Sarsfield in the diary of Narcissus Luttrell, which extends from 1678 to 1714, and contains many interesting items.

His first appearance upon the stage of contemporary history is eminently characteristic of the man. He challenges a nobleman for an insulting speech about a fellow-countryman, who was certainly “not in society.” He is now somewhere about thirty years of age, but evidently not prominently before the public in any way.

Here is the entry, on September 9th, 1681:

“There has been a tall Irishman to be seen in Bartholomew fair, and the Lord Gray being to see him, was pleased to say he would make a swinging evidence; on which one Captain Sarsfield, an Irishman, sent his lordship a challenge, taking it as an affront on his countrymen.”

The sting of this, no doubt, lay in its insinuation of perjury against Catholic witnesses in connection with the “Popish Plot.” Oates was still posing as a Saviour of Society. Under the same date in Luttrell’s diary is the entry: –

“Dr. Oates hath taken a house in Broad-street, London, where he now resides.”

A few days later, September 14th, we read: –

“Captain Sarsfield, who challenged the Lord Gray, was taken into custody, but hath since made his escape out of the messenger’s hands.”

Nothing more seems to have come of this business; but a few months later Sarsfield did, as was then customary, fight as second in a duel.

December 9th.

“There was a duell fought the 6th, between the lord Newburgh and the lord Kinsale, as principalls (two striplings under twenty), and Mr. Kirk and Captain Sarsfield, seconds: the principalls had no hurt; but Captain Sarsfield was run through the body, near the shoulder, very dangerously,”

Lord Kinsale was, of course, an Irishman, a member of the De Courcey family. The accession of James, and the troubles which followed, soon brought Sarsfield into active service. The breath was scarcely out of Charles’s body, when James, an avowed Catholic, who had already suffered much obloquy and narrowly escaped being ousted from the succession, for his creed’s sake, found himself obliged by the duties of his office, as head of the heretic Church, to declare that he would maintain the Protestant religion, as by law established. This he did in a speech which gave great satisfaction to the Lords and gentlemen of the Privy Council who had come to see Charles die. He afterwards naively explained in his Memoirs that he did not really mean what he said.

“Not doubting but the world would understand it in the meaning he intended, and which would be agreeable to the circumstances he was in.”

The irony of his fate was thus made manifest from the beginning! Charles, the idealist martyr of divine right, Charles the cynical voluptuary, with more shrewd common sense than his father and brother had, were now succeeded by James the blunderer – Shemus of the opprobrious epithet in the Irish vernacular. Charles II, as Buckingham sarcastically said, “could see things if he would, James would see things if he could.” He inherited the dregs of the Stuart nature, its arrogance, its meanness, its shifty futility. He began well, he ended badly, shattered by the force of circumstances. “He was naturally candid and sincere, and a firm friend,” says Burnet. There is truth in this. He meant to be upright, but he tottered; and there is a curious candour in his apologetic pieces of self-revelation. He lied, of course, even debased the currency of lies; but everyone around him lied, and he went with the current, not on principle, or because he loved lies, but because he was in a false position. As to his friends, he had the art of choosing them badly, and trusting the wrong men.

His meanness was shown in his allowing “lying Dick Talbot” (afterwards Earl of Tyrconnell) to bring the most gross and unfounded charges against his first wife, Anne Hyde, whom he wished to repudiate. Charles bluntly told him “He had married the lady, and must live with her.” He kept his wife and his friend Talbot too.

It was this “king of shreds and patches” that Sarsfield had the misfortune to serve. The Army Lists of the time are very imperfect and puzzling; officers holding commissions in two or more regiments at the same time, and often with a different rank in each. In Dalton’s Lists, Sarsfield appears as captain in Sir Richard Hamilton’s Dragoons in June, 1685; major in Lord Dover’s Horse in July; and lieutenant-colonel in that regiment in October of the same year. His effective service was probably with Hamilton’s Dragoons, who were sent to Ireland in the autumn of 1685, returned to England November, 1687, and were disbanded by William in 1689. Yet we next hear of him at the battle of Sedgemoor, where Monmouth was defeated. Sarsfield’s elder brother had, as we have seen, married Monmouth’s sister, and he himself had served in Monmouth’s regiment. now fought against him in the army of James, serving, it is said, with the Horse Guards, though no commission in that regiment is noted by Dalton until 1686.

It was in 1685, the year of James’s accession, that Monmouth made his ill-advised attempt to depose him and mount the throne as a Protestant king; opening by his failure a way for his astute cousin, William of Orange.

After many purposeless marches and counter-marches, abandoning his intended attack on Bristol, Monmouth was about to fly the country in despair, when he heard from a farmer named Godfrey that the Royal army, under Feversham, was encamped at Sedgemoor, and determined to make a night attack upon it. On the night of July 5th, about eleven o’clock, guided by Godfrey, he marched out of Bridgewater, Lord Gray leading with the Horse, Monmouth himself following with the Foot, and by two o’clock in the morning of the 6th his half-armed force of miners, weavers and peasants had come within a mile of Feversham’s lines. They had crossed one deep ditch, the Black Ditch, and were crossing another, the Longmoor Rhine, when a pistol went off, accidentally, of treacherous purpose, or fired by one of Feversham’s vedettes, and gave the alarm. The king’s drums beat to arms, and in an instant all was bustle and confusion in the camp; the men tumbling into order, from drunken sleep, as best they could.

Monmouth ordered Gray to press forward with the cavalry round the east side of the camp, burn the village of Weston which lay behind, and attack in the rear, as already planned. Gray advanced; found his way stopped by a third wider and deeper ditch, the Bussex Rhine, of which Godfrey, whom he had sent away, had said nothing. He turned westward by mistake, and came right upon the infantry camp. Gray, with all his cavalry of undrilled rustics, mounted on plough-horses and unbroken colts, fled in hopeless panic at the first volley of the foot-guards, carrying with them the ammunition waggons left in the rear.

Then Monmouth came up with his infantry, who stood their ground well, exchanging volleys with the regulars until their powder failed, and King Monmouth himself ran away. Yet still his poor followers fought gallantly with scythes and clubbed muskets against Sarsfield and his cavalry of the Life Guards, who had got across the ditch and charged on their right flank. Sarsfield himself was dangerously wounded, and left for dead on the field, and his men were severely handled and repulsed.

Churchill (afterwards Duke of Marlborough), who was Feversham’s second in command, now brought up the artillery, drawn by the Bishop of Winchester’s coach horses, opportunely lent for the occasion. This was that Dr. Mews, who “fought and prayed for the peace of the kingdom and the Church,” and was nicknamed “Old Patch,” from a wound in the cheek received in the Low Countries, where, like many other clergymen of the period, he had served as a soldier before taking holy orders.

Churchill’s advance with the Foot, who managed to scramble across the ditch, put an end to the business, and the rout was complete. Feversham came late into the field, and simply looked on. “He won the battle in bed,” as Buckingham phrased it, and was made a Knight of the Garter for his prowess.

Two days after his defeat Monmouth was taken, concealed in a ditch on the borders of Hampshire. A week after, on July 14th, he was beheaded on Tower Hill; James playing the part of Joab to this “Absalom” of Dryden’s poem.

Next year, 1686, we find a grant of lands in the Barony of Offaly, county of Kildare, to a Patrick Sarsfield, probably our hero. It is in the Record Office in Dublin, and bears date 8th day of June, “Anno Secondo Regis Jacobi.” In the same year Sarsfield appears in Dalton’s List as lieutenant, and lieutenant-colonel, in the fourth troop of the Horse Guards. Next year, 1687, he is entered merely as lieutenant in the same troop. In one of the earlier Lists he is noted as a Catholic not conformed under the Test Act.

There is no need to go particularly into the events of James’s reign in England. The dread of “Popery,” which his ill-judged zeal had intensified in that country, became a panic among the Protestants of Ireland, who had good cause for alarm. Tyrconnell was his agent here. As general of the forces he defied the Lords Lieutenant, Ormond and Clarendon; and when he succeeded Clarendon he directed his whole policy against the “Protestant garrison.” He had already purged the army of Protestants. He now attacked the civil population, revoking the charters of cities and towns, Dublin among the rest, and avowedly aiming at the repeal of the “Act of Settlement” by which Charles II had confirmed the English settlers, Cromwell’s soldiers and others, in the possession of lands confiscated from the older Irish inhabitants.

It was, in fact, a bold attempt to make Ireland too hot for the “foreigners.” He acted on the principle that “All Protestants were rebels, because they were not of the King’s religion.” On his coming in as Lord Lieutenant there was a Protestant exodus. They “flocked to the Isle of Man,” and 1,500 families are said to have removed to England from Dublin when Clarendon went away.

There was a rough justice in all this. The invading English Protestants, Royalists and Cromwellians, had treated the native Catholics about as badly as possible. “Black Tom” Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, and Cromwell and his “Saints” have left unpleasant memories behind them. Tyrconnell’s persecution of the Protestants was a very mild affair in comparison, chiefly because, bold as he was, he did not dare to go farther.

The immediate results of Tyrconnell’s policy were beneficial to the cause of James in Ireland. He turned the tables on the Protestants, arrayed and organised the Catholics in his favour, and gave him the one opportunity he had for making a fight for his crown. The result was, however, unfortunate for the Catholics, and Tyrconnell’s attempt only exacerbated the religious hatred on both sides. It partly accounts for the scandalous treatment of Catholics during the subsequent “Protestant ascendancy” in Ireland. This was the policy of panic, as well as of religious bigotry. Persecution breeds counter persecution, and the Protestants of Ireland, as of England, had vividly in their imaginations the tortures of the Inquisition, the horrors of St. Bartholomew, and the fires of Smithfield; while the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes was a recent event. The Nonconformists of Ireland preferred the milder tyranny of the Church “as by law established,” and would have made common cause with it against the Catholics, as their brethren in England did under Charles and James.

When William determined to invade England, James had alienated both Church and State, and the army as well. He could not remodel the English army as thoroughly as Tyrconnell had the Irish. He put in many Catholics as officers, but the bulk of the forces remained Protestant; and when Tyrconnell sent over some of his Irish levies to England, it caused great dissatisfaction in the army, as well as among the civil population. These poor “Papist cut-throats,” who were supposed to sup upon Protestant babies, had a bad time of it, and did no good to James and his cause.

William had succeeded in obtaining the sanction of Innocent XI for his expedition, though His Holiness probably did not contemplate the actual dethronement of James, when the Dutch fleet sailed from Holland, wafted on their way by Catholic Te Deums. “James,” Prince Vaudemont, William’s envoy, told the Pope, “could do nothing for the Church while openly a Catholic. William, though a Protestant, was in favour of toleration, and would procure toleration for Catholics in England, if now helped by the Pope.” The Pope trusted William, he did not trust James. How far William kept his promise we shall see.

James, though repeatedly warned of his danger by Louis XIV, remained supine, refusing to believe an invasion possible. He was lulled into security by Sunderland, the most corrupt politician of that corrupt time, always ready to sell James to William, and William to Louis. When Louis offered James an army of 30,000 men, Sunderland persuaded him to refuse, on the ground that it was unnecessary, and would create bad feeling in England. Louis then offered to beleaguer Maestricht, and so prevent the sailing of William’s expedition. This offer James also scornfully refused. Louis then made his first grand mistake, sent the army elsewhere, and allowed William to sail.

On Monday, November 15th, 1688, he landed at Torbay, entered Exeter, and soon advanced to Axminster; James’s head-quarters being then at Salisbury.

In the first skirmish between the outposts of the two armies, which occurred at Wincanton, Sarsfield was engaged. He had now succeeded to the family estates at de Burgho, daughter of the Earl of Clanricarde. While in Ireland he had assisted Tyrconnell in organising the army, had been given his colonelcy, and was now sent over with a body of Irish troops. He was soon ordered with his dragoons on outpost duty; the advanced guards of the two armies having approached each other. Mackay, who commanded an English or Scotch regiment in William’s service, had sent forward a Lieutenant Campbell, with fifty men, to obtain baggage horses. He was just leaving Wincanton with the horses when Sarsfield, always vigilant, came up with a troop of 120 Irish dragoons. The gallant Scotch man, nothing daunted by superior numbers, promptly lined the hedges by the road and prepared to receive them, giving the usual challenge:

“Stand! For whom are you?”

“For King James!” was the answer.

“And I’m for the Prince of Orange,” said Campbell.

“We’ll prince you!” shouted the Irish, and charged, but were met by a sharp fire which emptied many saddles, one officer being shot through the head. They carried one of the hedges, and were attacking the other, when a country fellow came up and told Sarsfield that the Prince was entering the village in force, whereupon he prudently drew off his men, and allowed Campbell to retire. It was a false alarm, but it served its purpose.

James’s army had already begun to melt away, going over to William, officers and men; first in small numbers, then by squadrons and battalions. Churchill and Grafton (a natural son of Charles II) now deserted, Churchill leaving behind him a note of polite apology. His Protestant conscience carried him to William, but he left his kindest regards with his benefactor, James. Next Kirke and his “Lambs” became aware that they too had Protestant consciences, and refused to obey orders. The King broke up his camp and retired to Andover. There Prince George of Denmark, the Princess Anne’s husband, took many sympathetic pinches of snuff, exclaiming as each new tale of desertion came in: “Est il possible!

Thence he and the Duke of Ormond, having supped with the King, rode quietly away to pay their respects to William.

“Ah!” said James, when he heard this latest news, “is Est il possible! gone too?”

At Andover the King received a letter from Sarsfield giving an account of the desertions, and the unavailing efforts of the officers who remained faithful, to stop them; and from Andover he gave orders for the confiscation of Churchill’s estates. Then he hurried up to London, to find the Princess Anne herself missing smuggled out of the palace by Lady Churchill, and driven off to Nottingham by way of Epping Forest; her old tutor, Compton, the Bishop of London, formerly a cornet in the Blues, and now once more a gallant cavalier, riding by her coach in full military attire, buff-coat, jack-boots, sword, and pistols all complete.

In about a month after William’s landing, on Monday, November 15th, he was established in London and the king a fugitive; the Queen and the young Prince having been got safely out of the country in charge of De Lauzun, afterwards James’s general at the Boyne, but better adapted for this kind of service than for commanding an army. Dartmouth, the admiral, had refused to convey them, and handed over the fleet to William, with the apparent approbation of the king, who publicly defended him when charged with treachery.

James had, in fact, accepted the situation, and ordered Feversham to disband his army, to the great disgust of the Duke of Berwick, then a boy of eighteen, who, resolved to fight to the last for his father’s crown, held Portsmouth, and obeyed Feversham’s orders reluctantly after remonstrance.

James’ first attempt at escape was frustrated. On December 12th he writes to Lord Feversham:

“I had the misfortune to be stopped at Skelness by a rabble of seamen, fishermen and others, who still detain me here although they know me.”

He asks for servants, linen, clothes, and money – all his own being stolen.

He was taken back to London, and requested by William to retire to Ham, but was allowed to go to Rochester instead. It was “a matter of indifference” to the Prince of Orange, Bentinck writes. On hearing of his escape to France, William’s indifference changed to satisfaction. The game was now in his own hands. The nation “abdicated” James, and crowned William and Mary.

It is said that, when the disbanded Irish in London were disarmed and sent back across the Channel, William offered to confirm Sarsfield in his estates and rank in the army, and endeavoured to secure his services in negotiations with Tyrconnell, and that Sarsfield indignantly refused to be his agent. However this may be, it is certain that he followed his fallen king to France, and that William employed Richard Hamilton instead.

Hamilton proved an indifferent agent, as he strongly advised Tyrconnell not to negotiate with William at all, but to stick by James, and raise as large an army as he could for the defence of Ireland. He was himself active in organising this army. He was made a lieutenant-general, and, as we shall see, did good service at the Boyne.

[1] This is the received account of Sarsfield’s family; but see Colonel Drake’s mention of two sisters, quoted in the Epilogue.