The first assault on Athlone came in 1690 after the defeat of the Irish at the Battle of the Boyne. General Douglas leading a substantial force, consisting mostly of Ulster regiments was the Williamite commander. His troops possibly numbered 10,000. When he arrived at Athlone he was confident that he would quickly conquer the town for King William but he hadn’t reckoned on the spirited defence of Athlone by Colonel Richard Grace. Grace who was at that time over seventy years of age, a veteran of the Confederate War and Governor of Athlone, refused to surrender. After a week the Williamite army retreated.
In 1691 determined to capture Athlone, the Williamites returned with their full army of almost 25,000 men. The army was under the command of a Dutch general, Godard de Ginkle. The Jacobite forces were under the command of a French general, the Marquis de St. Ruth. The Williamites breached the town wall and captured the Leinster town. The Jacobites in a desperate attempt to keep the enemy at bay broke down several arches of the bridge and the Williamites quickly attempted to repair them. A brave sergeant of dragoons, Custume by name, led his men onto the bridge to dislodge the Williamite repair work, this they succeeded in doing before meeting their death at the hands of enemy fire.
Ironically the capture of Athlone came when the Williamites discovered the ford that gave Athlone its name and in a surprise attack dislodged the Jacobites and took the castle by storm resulting in wholesale carnage and slaughter. For his services to King Billy, but certainly not to Athlone, Ginkle was given the title Earl of Athlone. The bravery of Sgt Custume has not been forgotten – the military barracks in Athlone is called Custume Barracks in his honour (the only Barracks in Ireland called after a non-commissioned officer) and Custume Place is the name of a street adjoining the town bridge.
Photo: Athlone Castle, Co Westmeath