Thinking Back

by Thomas John Mulvey, PhD

shamrock Childhood reflections of rural, 1870s Ireland and Celtic history. shamrock
Edited by Eric C. Biemiller and William L. Mulvey
Grandsons of Thomas John Mulvey, PhD

Copyright© William L. Mulvey, all rights reserved

Old Stories


Chapter Three

So my father and mother returned to Ireland toward the end of 1869 and I was born on June 9 in 1870.

He very soon discovered that things were different from what he thought they would be. There was no weekly pay envelope, for one thing. The little money that he and my mother may have had was soon exhausted and very little in the way of income existed to take its place. The sale of a couple of calves, maybe, or, when the sow farrowed, the sale of the young pigs, or of a few firkins of butter in Drumshanbo on market day, these were their only source of ready cash. Besides, in June he became a father by my birth. Here were new responsibilities. He would have to visit the pot of gold in the Eldorado of the West once more. So, in the spring of 1871 he set out again for America, leaving my mother and me behind. She was carrying her second child who was born shortly after, on July the sixth, 1871, and was christened Ellen for her two grandmothers, Ellen O'Connor Mulvey and Ellen O'Neill Slack. My mother's name before her marriage was Annie Slack. She was the daughter of Pat Slack and Ellen O'Neill Slack of Drumhubrid, also in County Leitrim.

Later on I was fascinated by the names of O'Connor and O'Neill as belonging to me, especially that of O'Neill. Didn't it belong to Hugh O'Neill, the friend of Queen Elizabeth, who took up arms for his native soil and gave Elizabeth' soldiers such a hard time of it in putting down the uprising? Weren't the O'Neills prominent as far back as the fourteenth century in the reign of English Edward Third? They lead a successful rebellion in Edward's reign.

But, of course, it is vain to attempt to trace any connection between grandmother O'Neill and the famous bearers of that name. Suffice it to say that it merely fostered a great love for the Emerald Isle in my boyish breast.

I got other bits of biographical history too. Napoleon was highly spoken of in the family circle. Remember that my grandfather Mulvey was born somewhere in the first or at the beginning of the second decade of the nineteenth century so that the memory of Napoleon and of Waterloo in 1815 would be fresh in people's memory. Napoleon was held up to me as a great general and conqueror, so that when I was older and able to read about him, the impression had not departed from me. I was fascinated by his life and by his achievements. I remember learning by heart a poem describing his death on Saint Helena and his mental wanderings incident thereto, in which he lived his victories over again and fought some of his famous battles once more. I thrilled at "Again Marengo field was won and Iena's bloody battle," as I in fancy saw him lying there, dying, the victim of the fortunes of war and of the too late arrival at Waterloo of one of his generals, de Grouchy. Napoleon was a hard, calculating man without a spark of human emotion, as I came to know later. He never had loved a human soul, not even Josephine, and by no human soul was ever loved—a cold, bleak, thinking iceberg, un-warmed and un-melted by any spark, much less by any flame, of human affection.

My father was wont to recount such glimpses of history and tradition to us children many an evening, for he had what I considered a great store of such stories that would fire the imagination of a young boy. He had a good elementary education before, as a youth of 17 or 18, he went to America. He had a yen for learning, as, indeed, every Irishman has, and when he came to this country he took advantage of the opportunities offered him, and all like him, by attending night school in the old Grand Street school house. He read a great deal and remembered most of what he read. That was during and after the Civil War all through the decade of the sixties.

He and my mother often told me of the draft riots in the summer of 1863 in the city of New York. In the first place, the government offered a "bounty" of three hundred dollars to the man who would enlist. Many young fellows took advantage of this offer, enlisted, received the $300.00 and then disappeared. This was called "jumping the bounty." It was said to be practiced often by the same individual each time in a different locality, after which, with two or three such payments in his pocket, he would make off with the boodle, or "jump the bounty," or bounties, never again to be heard of.

It seems the names of those who were believed subject to the draft were placed in a large bowl and then drawn out one by one. Some of those whose names were drawn were the names of the well-to-do who did not wish to go to war—did not wish to fight. Many a man sought out some one else who was not yet a citizen, who would be willing to serve as his substitute. The substitute would assume his name for three hundred, or up to eight hundred dollars, and go off to war in his stead.

There were a great many abuses connected with this method of drafting for war in New York City, and these abuses led to rioting. There were charges of discrimination in the drawings due to favoritism, as well as resentment against the Negro as the alleged occasion of or cause for the war. This gave rise to race riots in which the Irish population joined on the charge that they were being drafted instead of the sons of the wealthy. Moreover, it was charged that the privilege of purchasing a substitute was permitted to those with the money to pay for men to serve in their place. This was unfair to those not able to do so.

As usual, the poor Irish were blamed for the riots. They were liberty-loving enough to resent the discrimination, and protested against it.

The military was called upon to disperse the mob of rioters, mostly hoodlums. My father and mother often described the scenes to me—the rioting, the destruction of property, the loss of life—about 300 were killed, and some $50,000.00 in property damage was done. An attempt was made to sack the offices of Horace Greely's Tribune because of its abolitionist policy.

When my father took his wife home to Ireland in 1869, he was influenced as much by his love for the "auld sod" as he was by any sense of filial obligation to care for his parents in their declining years. Like every true Irishman, he loved the land of his birth and longed to spend the rest of his days there. He longed for County Leitrim, that small county in the west of Ireland that is the epitome of the rest of the Emerald Isle, abounding in mountains, lakes and meadows, each at its best. Besides, its people are steeped in Irish lore of the ancient time, of Emain Macha and of Conchubor, the tyrant king. He loved its green fields, its rippling streams, its glens and shadowy places. He had imbibed that love of them with his mother's milk. Irish imagination, a mixture of love for and awe at the stories and traditions of native folklore were strong in him. The Irish habitually live in the presence of the preternatural, not to say of the supernatural. Stories of leprechauns, of "the good people," of the banshee, of whose crying and moaning before the death of a loved one he was as certain of having heard as he was of anything; as well as the stories of the heroic men of Erin far and wide and of some nearer home—all this and much more, played on his heart strings, and the chords evoked by them found a response in his desire to return to the land which alone could cause them to vibrate.

The recollections of his young boyhood spent in his beloved Connaucht, once made the internment camp for Catholics by a cruel England, these also smote at those same heart strings. For Connaucht is the most Irish part of Ireland, because the Irish Catholics of Leinster after the battle of the Boyne, were forced to settle there in the time of Cromwell and William of Orange.

Connaucht, and County Leitrim in Connaucht, a miniature of the whole of Ireland, with its source of the Shannon River, that's worthy of a continent by reason of its volume of water, and Lough Allen that the Shannon flows through on its way to the sea; Connaucht, with its wealth of historic and romantic place-names such as Emain Macha and others equally romantic. My father was familiar with many of the towns, cities and places, not only in his native County Leitrim, but in the counties round about. Those names made music in my ears every time I heard them. There were Manor Hamilton and Mohill, Drumaweel and Drumshanbo, Ballinamore and Drumhubrid—all towns or places with which I, too, was acquainted.

Then there were Drumod and Drumlish, Carrigallen and Carrick on Shannon, Ballyshannon, Drumkeeran, and Enniskillen, all within striking distance of Aughagrania, where we lived, and of Drumshanbo, our nearest town for fair or market days.

Not only of these relatively nearby places, but he talked to me, when I was older, of historic names such as Clontarf, and of Brian Boru, the great Irish king who defeated the Danes at Clontarf, and there, in the hour of victory, was treacherously slain while on his knees giving thanks to God. My father told me that a fleeing Dane came upon Brian in his tent and, before the aged king could rise and draw his mighty sword, slew him in cold blood. I tell you, such stories made my own blood boil as I listened to these acts of treachery and wanton slaughter by the oppressors of our race, be he Dane or his Saxon counterpart.

Brian was Ard Ri, or High King of all Ireland. He succeeded in driving the Danish invaders from her shores. Those were the days of real warriors, clothed in armor from top to toe, with shield and buckler and a sword that, in their hands could cleave an adversary in two.

The Irish always fought for freedom and always strove against the invaders of their beloved Isle, whether he was Twath de Danaan, or Dane, or Sassenach. Yes, they fought among themselves because every Irishman was loyal to his chieftain, loyal to his clan, and would fight at the drop of the hat to defend his clan's good name, its rights, real or fancied, its cattle or any of its belongings. They were fierce fighters when aroused, and it took very little to arouse them—always ready for a shindig. Some of England's best soldiers have been Irishmen, whether they fought in the rank and file or led their men into battle. "Trice at the huts of Fontenoy the English columns failed," and then they turned over to the Irish dragoons the taking of the outworks of the town of Fontenoy. They took it. That was in the year 1745.

My father used to recite the poem, "Fontenoy," with great gusto, and to tell me of the Siege of Limerick and of the "Treaty of Limerick," that was broken by the English "before the ink was dry on the paper." Limerick was, still is, alive in the memory of every Irishman, though the name of the town and the name of the Treaty made there on the occasion of its surrender seems to have disappeared from our English history books. Closely linked with the siege of Limerick is the name of Patrick Sarsfield, that Irish general with the blood of the Gael in his veins, though his family was Norman-Irish. The years of loose Anglo-Norman rule were good years for the Irish cities when the Normans became more Irish than the Irish. The Irish lords intermarried with great Anglo-Normans.

Limerick is situated on an island in the Shannon River. A bridge dating from the 13th century connected the island city with the County Clare bank. A great trap for salmon and eels stood a little way above the city. The Danes, before the Norman-English, settled themselves on this island at the head of the Shannon tideway and beside the lowest of the rapids. From the date of their arrival in 831, the Danes of Limerick, according to Stephen Gwynn in his book, "The Famous Cities of Ireland," were among the boldest and the most numerous of the invaders of Ireland. There were several encounters between them and the native Irish; but it was not until 969 that the Danes were finally defeated by Brian Boru who sacked and burnt their city. This is the same Brian Boru who later became Ard Ri, or High King of all Ireland, and who, with his son, fell in battle against the Danish invaders on that historic Good Friday in 1014 at Clontarf.

Limerick became a large and important city in the years that followed, so much so that Edward Bruce, King of Ireland for a scant year, from September 1316, until the following Easter, made Limerick his capital and held court there. "But this was only a passing episode. Limerick was, on the whole, loyal to the power under which she had become for Ireland what Bristol was for England—the second city in the kingdom."

In the centuries which followed, Limerick, like other Irish boroughs, developed in two separate sections, at least topographically. The English section occupies the island in the Shannon River; the Irish section of the town which spread "out on the east bank close around the bridge leading to the island." However, the Irish part of the town came to be included within the fortifications so that the two towns formed a unit. An English writer describes the town of Limerick as it looked to him in 1020. It had, he says, the shape of an hour-glass with the bridge across the King's River for its waist, so that travelers affirm they have not seen the like in Europe…The High Towne is a lofty building of marble, built from one gate to the other in one form like the colleges at Oxford, so magnificent that at my first glance it out did imagination.

King John visited Limerick in 1210 and built what has been known from that day to this as King John's Castle. He also caused to be built the Thomond Bridge which connected the city on the island with the Clare bank.

Such was Limerick in the thirteenth century, and such it continued to be and progress up to the time of Cromwell and William of Orange in the middle of the seventeenth century. In what has been called a black hour for Ireland, Cromwell landed there in 1649. Marching southward against Limerick, he was checked temporarily at Clonmel in Tipperary by Hugh O'Neill, Owen Roe's nephew.

Limerick's walls and fortifications embraced, indeed, the two parts of the town; that of the English Protestants and Orangemen on the island in the Shannon River, and that of the Irish residents on the east bank of the Shannon. The two factions were one in law, i.e. the corporate city of Limerick; but not in fact. The English Protestants and Orangemen of the exclusive island allowed no Irish into their merchant guilds. In their homes the Irish tongue was as alien as it was familiar in the streets beyond the river.

Today, all that is changed. All the people in Limerick are Irish; nearly all are Catholic; but all speak only English.

In 1641 there was an uprising of practically all Ireland against English rule. Limerick united with the rest of Ireland, for it was tired of centuries of acquiescence in English domination. The town portion was penetrated by the insurgent Irish and the castle on the English inhabited island was forced to capitulate to the invaders. In the years that immediately followed, Limerick was all for the bolder action and against the temporizing policy that, due to the presence of the English Protestant and Orangemen element in the island part of the town, had marked it heretofore.

When Hugh O'Neill checked at Clonmel the southward march of the Roundheads, for so they are known in history, Cromwell withdrew from Ireland, for he was needed at home in England. In 1650 the command of the English force was delegated to Ireton who continued on to Limerick. In the spring of 1651, Ireton gained control of both banks of the River Shannon and found the old tower on the Laxweir occupied by Irish troops. These he drove out by turning his cannon on them. They took boats to land on the County Clare side, where they were slaughtered. "The Clare end of Thomond Bridge was held by a fort for the possession of which there was sharp fighting, till the garrison contrived to evacuate it, after the walls had been breached. They regained the city and blew up the bridge behind them. A landing party from the Limerick shore which crossed the King's River to the island, was driven back with great loss," and this first siege of Limerick became a blockade. Hugh O'Neill put up a stubborn resistance and withstood the blockade for six months until the approach of winter. Then, far from lifting the blockade, the English general Ireton ordered an assault; the wall was breached and the city of Limerick was forced to surrender. The terms were that the garrison and townsfolk should be spared with the exception of twenty-four persons—of whom O'Neill was the first. He was sentenced to death. But the feeling of some of the officers who had admired O'Neill's bravery, succeeded in having his execution postponed, until the sentence was converted to life imprisonment in London, where, a prisoner of England, "this last of the great O'Neill fighters died after some years."

That siege of Limerick was in 1651. Though Cromwell had withdrawn from Ireland in 1650, yet his shadow and his policy had remained to blacken the pages of its history for the years immediately following.

But it was the second siege of Limerick by William of Orange and its surrender to Ginkel in 1691, and the Broken Treaty which followed that surrender, that held the greatest interest for my father. He was full of stories about it.

First, he told me of the famous exploit of Patrick Sarsfield. While the latter was defending the city against William's besieging army, a certain Huguenot deserted the royal forces, came to the Irish lines, defending Limerick, and sought to be taken to Sarsfield within the walls. To him he revealed that King William had summoned a siege train from Dublin and that it was even then on its way under a small escort with supplies of gunpowder, cannon, and pontoons for an assault on the defenses of the city.

Sarsfield saw his chance. He at once determined upon the gallant, if reckless, exploit of surprising and destroying the convoy. That was on the night of the tenth of August. He had secured the aid of a daring soldier, Galloping Hogan, who knew every inch of the countryside. On the stroke of midnight at the head of five hundred horsemen, Sarsfield slipped out of the beleaguered city, crossed Thomond Bridge, and struck up through County Clare and the valley of the Shannon. They crossed the river stealthily and when day dawned were hidden in the moors and ravines of Keeper Mountain. From here they could look down "on the Golden Vale and the plain leading from Cashel betwixt them and the Galtees."

Here my father would tell me of the surprise attack upon the siege train, an attack led by Sarsfield in person. Scouts sent out reported on the route and disposition of the convoy. They learned also that the password for this particular night was, by a strange coincidence, the name of the Irish general defending Limerick—"Sarsfield." This information he learned with great glee, for he could make use of it to good purpose. And so, when night fell again, the five hundred horsemen saddled and mounted. They took the road to Ballymeely about seventeen miles from Limerick where the convoy had halted and bivouacked for the night.

When they reached the first outposts of the siege train, a sentry challenged, "Halt! Give the password!" "Sarsfield"! came the answer.

"All's well. Pass on!”

The sentry took the cavalcade to be an escort sent from King William's besieging army to see the convoy safely on its way to their fellows.

The five hundred horsemen jogged leisurely by the outer sentries until they came to the supplies in the relief train. Then in a loud voice that rang through the camp and startled the sleeping soldiery into sleepy-eyed bewilderment, the commander cried, "Sarsfield is the word and Sarsfield is the man!"

Five hundred sabers leaped from their scabbards and five hundred horsemen charged down on the rudely awakened and startled convoy. It is all over in a matter of minutes. The English soldiery are sobered or put to flight; the pontoons are smashed; the guns are released from their caissons, filled with powder, their muzzles buried deep in the ground; powder barrels and wagons are piled around them in a circle, all movable paraphernalia placed atop them, trains of gunpowder are set to them, and the five hundred horsemen withdrew to a safe distance after igniting the gunpowder trains.

With a flash as of lurid lightning and roars as of pealing thunder, the explosion reverberates from the distant hills and is seen and heard even in King William's camp. The convoy is utterly destroyed. The tardy relief party that William had sent to meet the relief train did not arrive in time.

Sarsfield put spurs to his horse and he and his five hundred cavalrymen were off and away again to cross the Shannon far up at Anagher on the way to Athlone. There, leaving a broken bridge behind them, they turned sharply through County Clare and were welcomed back inside the walls of Limerick.

That was on the night of the 11th and 12th of August 1691. Already King James, the Spalpeen, not to apply the much uglier and obscene adjective to him which in Irish is generally used, had abandoned the army which took up his cause of Stuart King and Catholic. That army had been defeated at the Boyne Water in 1690. Orangemen in America hold a parade annually in cities where they are numerous enough to celebrate the victory of the Battle of the Boyne.

But Sarsfield's bold exploit did no more than prolong the siege, for William received fresh supplies of guns and ammunition from Waterford.

My father used to delight in narrating other incidents connected with that siege of Limerick. He dwelt with glee upon the blowing up of "The Black Battery." It seems that a Brandenburg regiment, fighting on the side of William of Orange, seized this particular battery under which was stored much gunpowder. By accident or design, the powder was set off and the Brandenburgers were blown to smithereens by the explosion.

William's men at last affected a breach in the walls of Limerick. The garrison rallied and drove the attackers back. "Three times the assault was renewed, three times it was driven back; and at last night fell. Three days later William's army was in retreat."

But that was not the end of Limerick's troubles. Sarsfield was entrusted with the command of the entire Irish army a year later, after it had fought at Aughrim, where it was worsted again by superior forces with superior equipment. He led once more what was left of that army to Limerick where he took his stand in that great fortress on the Shannon. William's general, Ginkel by name, followed slowly, and another siege began.

Ginkel approached Limerick from the Tipperary side. He threw a strong force across the river and attacked the defenses guarding the Clare approaches to Thomond Bridge. Here there were eight hundred Irish troops entrenched in a line of gravel pits guarding the approach to the Bridge. They were dislodged by a sudden attack of English Grenadiers. They held together in the open against Ginkel's massed troops and steadily retreated on to the Bridge itself. A French officer inside Limerick, seeing the fight between the Irish defenders and their assailants, feared that both should cross the Bridge together and thus enter the city. He ordered the drawbridge raised. About one hundred fifty of the Irish were forced by the pressure of the rest into the opening over the river thus made and fell into the water below. The rest of the Irish troops, cooped as they were between the open gulf made by the raised drawbridge and the attacking Grenadiers, died fighting. No quarter was asked and none given. "And all this happened before the eyes of the Irish who were holding the town for King James and his French officers."

But Ginkel was a trained soldier. He saw clearly that further fighting meant the slaughter of his own men as well as of the Irish defending Limerick; for the Irish, now in their last entrenchments, fought like beasts at bay. Therefore, Ginkel willingly entered upon negotiations and offered a soldier's terms. Sarsfield, at the head of his Irish troops, was allowed to march out of Limerick with drums beating and colors flying.

Not only that, but he was allowed to ask his men to follow him whithersoever he went. The thousand, some say twelve thousand, of Ireland's best soldiers quitted Limerick with him and took ship to France to serve under Louis the Fourteenth. With Sarsfield they were to meet Ginkel again on the Continent of Europe, or Ginkel's masters, the rulers of England.

Thus took place the second flight of the "Wild Geese," the "Fighting Irish," whose fame spread all over the Continent of Europe, yes, and far beyond. They might seek honor and preferment anywhere but in their own cherished Isle.

The English, too late, tried to stop this exodus of Irish soldiers. France was the largest gainer by reason of that exodus. It is estimated that between the Treaty of Limerick in 1691, and the battle of Fontenoy in 1745, no fewer than 450,000 Irishmen fell in the service of France. Sarsfield fell glorious in victory on the field Landen. When he fell, and knew that he was mortally hurt, he brought his hand to the wound, took it away filled with his life-blood, and, looking at it intently, said, "Oh that this were for Ireland!"

This my father told me with great feeling, as he had told me many of the incidents connected with the Siege of Limerick and its soldierly surrender to a superior besieging force, together with the perfidious breaking of the Treaty of Limerick which was signed in the utmost good faith by Sarsfield for his nation and for his religion. "It guaranteed to Irish Catholics such privileges in the exercise of their religion as they enjoyed in the reign of Charles the Second. All in arms for King James, whether in Limerick or out of it, were assured their estates, and the freedom to follow all trades and professions as they did under James II, upon taking the oath of allegiance."

But the Wild Geese did not all go to France. They went wherever they were welcomed with appreciation and received with honor. Stephen Gwyn in "The Famous Cities of Ireland" says that "Spain had five Irish regiments, Naples had one, the Austrian army was crowded with Irish officers and soldiers…O'Briens of Clare came home in triumph from the field of Fontenoy; all the world except Ireland was full of illustrious names and acts of the older Irish. Little wonder that with such rewards in prospect, with a welcome everywhere waiting them, the wild geese crossed the seas."

Two months after the Treaty of Limerick was signed, it was broken. "The whole intelligence and enterprise of the Irish nation, so far as it was Catholic, was to be thrown into shackles. The system of penal laws elaborated by successive enactments from 1695 to 1710 was a gross and open beach of the treaty."

“It began with a general disarming." It went on with enactments forbidding education in a Catholic school, forbidding parents to send their sons abroad to be trained. Then the professions were closed. Priest-hunting began. Laws were passed forbidding a Catholic to inherit or acquire land which had ever been owned by Protestants. So successful was this that by 1739 'not twenty Papists in Ireland,' it was said, possessed $1,000 a year in land!"

That was the era which began for Irish Catholics with the Treaty of Limerick, or rather, with the breach of that Treaty. The Treaty was the means by which Sarsfield was induced to leave Ireland and take his army with him. He left, was forced by circumstances to leave, Ireland for the first time unprotected by any armed body of men, whether local or national, to resist oppression. "From that day onward Limerick had no history."

These Wild Geese, and others that were but goslings at the time of the signing and breaking of the Treaty of Limerick, winged their way to other lands where they served with glory and distinction. Many a bright page of history records their achievements; their military genius in the strategy of campaigns; their valor in the field, and their devotion to their adopted fatherlands.

My father often told me of the privations and injustices done to the Irish race in contravention of the signed articles of the Treaty of Limerick. He told me of the transportations of Irishmen to the West Indies, to the American Colonies, to Van Diemen's Land, to Australia and New Zealand. In some of those places, for example, in the American Colonies, they were sold into slavery as slave laborers. Thousands and tens of thousands were thus driven into bondage. Other thousands were despoiled of their farms. The Catholics were herded into Connaucht and their possessions in land and livestock were given to Protestants, mostly from Ulster. Connaucht thus became the outstanding Province of the Irish Catholics.

This further privation and injustice was inflicted on the Irishman. It was declared unlawful for an Irish Catholic to own a horse worth more than five pounds! If a Protestant met on the road a Catholic riding or driving a horse that he, the Protestant, fancied, he could offer the Catholic the five pounds and take possession of the animal. We can imagine what a grievous trial, not to say injustice that was to any spirited Irishman with his inherent love of a good horse. There is scarcely another people in all Europe that ride so well and that love the horse so much as your Irishman.

Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six
Chapter Seven My Father Leaves
For America
Chapter Nine Chapter Ten Chapter Eleven
Chapter Twelve
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