Sarsfield, Patrick (d. 1693), soldier, lst earl of Lucan , was the second son, and youngest of five children, of Patrick Sarsfield and his wife Anne, daughter of Rory O'More (qv), a leader of the 1641 rebellion. The Sarsfields were an Old English family who had estates at Lucan, Co. Dublin, and Tully, Co. Kildare. Patrick's branch of the family resided at Tully but his father moved to Lucan on inheriting that property in the early 1650s. Both estates were confiscated by the Cromwellian regime and the family was transplanted to Connacht in 1657. His father was restored to the Tully lands in 1661 by order of Charles II, and it was here that Patrick, who was almost certainly born in the 1650s, grew up. Nothing is known about his childhood or education, and the earliest references to him (1678) show that he had embarked on a military career, serving in one of the English regiments in the French army. These had been formed as a result of the secret treaty of Dover and allowed catholics to avoid the test act and serve as officers. When these were disbanded in 1678, Sarsfield returned to England but fell foul of the ‘popish plot’ and was dismissed from the army. During a brief visit to Ireland he tried unsuccessfully to regain the family estate at Lucan to which he was then the heir presumptive. Back in London from 1681, he spent the next five years without employment, frequently in debt and involved in periodic scandals arising from his participation in duels and female abductions.
His military reputation soared as a consequence of his significant role in the defeat of Monmouth's rebellion (1685), and James II (qv) rewarded him with an army commission and speedy promotion to the rank of lieutenant-colonel. After the invasion of William of Orange (qv), Sarsfield joined James in France, was promoted to brigadier, and given command of the best cavalry regiment in the Jacobite army when the war in Ireland began in 1689. After the defeat at the Boyne (1 July 1690) and the abrupt decision of James to return to France, Sarsfield played an important role in preserving morale in the army and coordinating the retreat to Limerick. His attack on the Williamite siege train at Ballyneety near Limerick (11 August 1690) is the main source of his fame as a hero to subsequent generations of Irish nationalists. The daring nature of the attack, and the psychological blow it dealt to the Williamites, has tended to overshadow its actual military significance. Only two of the eight siege guns were permanently disabled and the destruction of other armaments and supplies was not of great significance. The exploit did delay the start of the siege by a crucial few days, but this was only one factor in William's decision to abandon the siege after his attempted assault on the city had failed. The unresolved debate on whether Sarsfield killed civilians, including women and children, during the raid has tended, perhaps unfairly, to tarnish his reputation.
The most significant long-term result of the victory at Ballyneety was to strengthen Sarsfield's political position as leader of the war party and deepen the divisions within the Jacobites. It was partly to heal this rift and encourage a more moderate policy that James created him earl of Lucan in January 1691. The strategy failed, as he continued to attack the peace party and undermine its leader, the viceroy, Tyrconnell (qv), until the latter's sudden death (August 1691). Ironically, little more than a month later Sarsfield was urging surrender along the lines that had been argued by Tyrconnell since the Boyne. His volte-face was triggered by Ginkel's (qv) success in crossing the Shannon to assault the city from the Clare side. This had been facilitated by Sarsfield's decision to place the defence of the river crossing in the hands of a suspected Williamite collaborator despite warnings about his unreliability. Sarsfield argued that they should treat while they could still negotiate reasonable concessions, as further delay would lead to inevitable defeat. This analysis of the situation was certainly flawed: Ginkel was in a weaker position than he supposed and the ability of the city to resist was stronger than he argued, or believed, particularly as the arrival of French help was imminent.
In his negotiations for the articles of the treaty of Limerick (signed 3 October 1691) Sarsfield's main concern was for the army, and he skilfully achieved his aim of securing permission for thousands of his men who wished to go to France, including the extraordinary concession of having the ships for this purpose provided by Ginkel. His handling of the civil articles was less assured. He took care to protect the property and interests of those in Limerick, and in the other areas still under Jacobite control, by having a special clause to this effect inserted in the articles. However, he abandoned all those who had previously surrendered and the families of those who had been killed. The article promising religious toleration was not only vague and ambiguous but in effect self-contradictory. This careless drafting facilitated the resultant penal legislation.
Sarsfield's military reputation rests as much on the adulation of some of his followers and the myth-making of later nationalist writers as on his actual achievements. He was certainly a dashing cavalry commander whose impressive physical appearance and charismatic personality endeared him to the Irish officers and soldiers, but his English and French commanding officers were often critical of many of his actions and decisions. Their claims that he was rash, easily manipulated, and not very intelligent appear to have a reasonable basis, as even his apologists tacitly concede. Apart from the Ballyneety success, itself more of a risky gamble than a brilliant military stratagem, his record in the war was not particularly impressive. In the summer of 1689 the Williamites at Enniskillen humiliatingly outmanoeuvred him. He played a limited role in the two major field battles of the war at the Boyne and Aughrim, and his defence of the Shannon in the winter of 1690–91 was merely competent. His failure to obtain the command of the Jacobite forces has allowed his defenders to suggest that the war would have been more successful had he been fully in charge. If his actions at Limerick in September 1691, when his authority was at its greatest, are an accurate guide, then this argument lacks conviction.
His military career in exile was brief. The defeat at La Hogue in May 1692 and the resultant disbandment of James's army dashed his hope of returning to Ireland. He became a maréchal de camp in the French army and impressed his commanding officer, the noted French general Marshal Luxembourg, with his bravery at the battle of Steenkirk in Flanders (August 1692). He was fatally wounded at the battle of Landen (29 July 1693) and died from fever a few days later in the city of Huy in the Austrian Netherlands.
The absence of any journal, diary, or memoir makes it impossible to determine the precise nature of his political views or what personal or intellectual influences may have formed them. His few surviving letters deal only with military affairs and practically nothing is known about his family life. He married Lady Honora Burke, the 15-year-old youngest daughter of the 7th earl of Clanricarde (qv), sometime during the winter of 1689–90. Their only child was born (April 1693) at the court in exile of James II in Saint-Germain-en-Laye and was named (in honour of the prince of Wales) James Francis Edward. He served in both the French and Spanish armies and died without issue in St Omer in 1719.
There is a very fine statue of Sarsfield, by John Lawlor (qv), in the grounds of St John's presbytery in Limerick city, where it was erected in 1881 after a long controversy about its location. None of the portraits and engravings allegedly of Sarsfield in the NGI, NLI, and Franciscan Library in Killiney, can be authenticated.