Battle of Aughrim, 12 July 1691

Battle of Aughrim, 12 July 1691

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The Irish Brigade 1670-1745 – The Wild Geese in French Service, D P Graham.An excellent history of the Irish troops who went on to form the Wild Geese, the exiled Irish forces fighting for the French. At its best when looking at the Williamite War in Ireland in 1678-81 when the Irish troops were fighting directly for James II after he had been expelled from England, and on the period before that, when Irish troops served the French and Spanish because the Test Acts prevented most Catholics from joining the British forces (Read Full Review)

Remembering Aughrim , July 21, 1691

The N6 is one of the most heavily used roads in Ireland , which is not very surprising as it's the main road linking the western and eastern parts of the country. In recent years the road between Loughrea and Ballinasloe has gained an unfortunate reputation as an accident danger zone. A maximum speed limit has been set for the five most dangerous miles, and there is an absolute prohibition on motorists passing in this zone.

As you near the end of this speed zone, roughly 6 km from Ballinasloe , you notice by the side of the road a "number of small, distinctive signs, featuring tossed swords and the date 1691 , that inform you you've reached the village of Aughrim .

Aughrim today is little more than a few pubs and shops, dominated by the squat Catholic church on one side, and the soaring spire of the Church of Ireland place of worship on the other, There used to be a castle opposite the Protestant church , which was a ruin even in 1691 , but there's little enough now to suggest its existence: a lumpy, grass&mdashcovered mound and a few bits of shapeless masonry.

There is, in fact, very little to indicate the nature or the scale of the bloody conflict that took place in these fields and on these hills during the late afternoon of July 22, 1691 , when two armies one, the English, commanded by a Dutch general named Ginckle , and the other, that of the Irish, led by a French general, the Marquis St. Ruth &mdash fought to determine the future of Catholic Ireland . The loser &mdash overwhelmingly &mdash was the Irish army, fighting, on the face of it, for the cause of the usurped Stuart King, James II , but, by that stage in the three year war, actually for the political and religious freedom of the old Irish population. The winner was the English army &mdash made up of British, Protestant Anglo&mdashIrish, Dutch, French Huguenot , and Danish regiments, fighting for Prince William of Orange , the Dutch husband of James II 's daughter, Mary .

Everybody on this island knows what is meant by the 'marching season', and what all those marching feet and bands signify. The relief of Derry and the Battle of the Boyne , the victory of ' King Billy ' over Catholic James II : momentous events that were to determine the history of Ireland for the next 200 years.

However, as the late G. A. Hayes&mdashMcCoy , one of Ireland 's foremost military historians, pointed out in an article about the Battle of Aughrim : "Three Irish battles are of major significance in that their results had a decisive effect on the history of the country, Clontarf , Kinsale and Aughrim . In each case the vanquished had a good chance of being victorious, in each a different result must have altered subsequent history."

Hayes&mdashMcCoy concludes: " Aughrim , and not the Boyne . is the decisive conflict of the Jacobite war", 1689 &mdash 1691 .

Like so many worthwhile initiatives, especially those involving local history &mdash think, for example, of Naoise Cleary , the guiding spirit behind the Corofin Heritage and Genealogical Centre , the Aughrim Interpretative Centre was the dream come true of local Aughrim teacher, Martin Joyce .

Living in an area where old men could still remember their fathers and grandfathers recounting stories and local traditions about the battle, where you could still stumble across musket balls, rusty, broken swords, buttons from uniforms, Martin Joyce , after his retirement, devoted his time and energy to authenticating, where it was possible, the folklore, and harmonising it with the few contemporary accounts of the battle that have come down to us.

Happily, Martin Joyce lived just long enough to see his dream come true. Battle of Aughrim Interpretative Centre , which opened in 1991 ,: the result of a unique collaboration between the Aughrim Heritage Committee , Ireland West Tourism , and Galway County Council .

Open daily from 10.00am to 6.00pm from Easter to September, the Aughrim Centre gives you a wonderfully vivid account of what happened in these fields all those centuries ago. Not only are there many artifacts gathered up from the battlefield, and three&mdashdimensional displays, but there's also a brilliant half&mdashhour documentary film that explains both the course of the battle and its significance in the context of the three&mdashyear Jacobite war.

Superb though the Aughrim Centre is, the real way to get a feel for what happened here in 1691 is to follow the signs set up in and around the village that direct you to the sites of particular engagements during the battle.

For example, you can read all about the strategic importance of St Ruth 's picking Kilcommadan Hill as the place where he disposed his forces, but it's really only when you stand at the highest point of the actual hill, and gaze across at Urraghry Hill , where Ginckel placed his troops, and then note the sharp drop from Kilcommadan Hill to what is still bog, in between the two armies, that you begin to get an idea of how the battle was fought.

The two armies were more or less evenly matched, with infantry and cavalry regiments and heavy guns. Morale in the Irish army, however, had been badly shaken by the loss of the important town of Athlone on June 30, and the subsequent rout of the defenders, many of whom deserted, thinking the war was all but won by Ginckel . The loss of Athlone left only Galway and Limerick still in Irish hands.

The Irish commanders, headed by Patrick Sarsfield , did not want to fight a battle at Aughrim they had lost confidence in St. Ruth , and they believed it would be more to the advantage of the Irish army to fortify the walled towns of Galway and Limerick , and hold on until the campaigning season ended in the autumn. With a breathing space of five or six months, Sarsfield felt, and the arrival of a French army, the Irish could take the initiative in the new year.

St. Ruth , however, was smarting from the loss of Athlone , a loss that was owed largely to his complacency and poor military planning. He was aware that his master, Louis XIV , would not be pleased with the latest news. A battle &mdash a victory &mdash was a way of redeeming his own reputation.

And when he viewed the countryside around Aughrim , he realised he had found a near&mdashperfect spot on which to fight a battle, with all the natural advantages of the landscape in his favour.

(The date of the Battle of Aughrim is sometimes given in older historical works as July 12 instead of July 22. The explanation is that the rest of Europe had adopted the reformed Gregorian calendar in place of the older and less accurate Julian calendar in 1582 . In that year, October 5 was followed immediately by October 15 the gap of 10 days was to make up for the roughly 10&mdashday discrepancy that had gradually developed in the Julian calendar due to faulty initial astronomical calculations. England &mdash anticipating its suspicion of EC integration in the 1990 s &mdash only adopted the reformed calendar in the 18th century.)

July 12 was hot and muggy thunderstorms had drenched the country during the preceding days, making the bog that divided the armies even wetter and more difficult to cross. The battle finally got underway around five o'clock in the evening by about nine o'clock it was all over. Something like 9,000 men lay dead and scattered all over the battlefield.

It was, however, as the Duke of Wellington was to say of the Battle of Waterloo , "a near&mdashrun thing". At one stage it looked like St. Ruth was going to have his victory. He was heard to cry out, "They are beaten, let us beat them to the purpose!"

But a series of disasters began to mount &mdash the brave and almost foolhardy charge of the English cavalry across a crucial narrow causeway that placed them behind the Irish lines the disastrous withdrawal of the Jacobite cavalry from this position to reinforce the centre: the incredibly bad luck of the Jacobite defenders of the castle overlooking the causeway, who discovered that their replacement shells' were the wrong size for their guns and the death of St. Ruth himself from a cannon shot at a crucial moment &mdash and the strong Irish line crumbled, and what had been a battle became a slaughter as the Irish soldiers threw down their guns and ran for their lives.

Sarsfield led the retreat to Loughrea and from there led the Irish army to Limerick . Galway surrendered 10 days after Aughrim . Limerick surrendered a month later. The War of the Two Kings was over: what followed a few years later were the harsh Penal Laws .

As for Aughrim , all around the little village the bodies of the dead Irish soldiers, apart from those claimed by relatives, lay rotting. A later traveller reported that wolves had returned to the area, feeding off the flesh.

July 21, 1691 was a terrible day in Irish history. But it was also a day on which an army that was almost entirely Irish fought bravely and to the death for the independence of its country. Patrick Sarsfield , the chief Irish commander, was highly respected, even by his enemies, and remains one of the few genuine Irish heroes. Together with several thousand of the soldiers he led, Sarsfield joined the ' Wild Geese ', going to Europe , where the Irish regiments became part of the army of France . On July 29, 1693 , Sarsfield and the Irish Regiments of the army of Louis XIV defeated the English commanded by King William at the Battle of Landen .

Afterwards, several witnesses testified to Sarsfield 's bravery:

"It was just as the French reinforcements had finally made their way into and through the village, and the supporting cavalry following in their track had reached the plain stretching northwards of it, that Sarsfield was struck by a bullet in the breast."

According to Thomas Davis , as he lay dying, he was heard to say, "Oh! That this were for Ireland".

Aughrim is his memorial, and the memorial of many brave men who died for an Ireland that might have been.

King Billy&rsquos other July 12th victory: Aughrim of the Slaughter

Strangely enough, on July 12th two Williamite victories are celebrated by Orangemen: Aughrim and the Boyne, for up to 1795 the latter battle was still being celebrated on July 1st, despite the calendar change in 1752 which would have brought it to the 12th, the original, Old Calendar date of the Battle of Aughrim.

The famous Battle of the Boyne carries enormous symbolic weight in Irish history and politics even though it is dwarfed in most respects by the humiliating slaughter at Aughrim. Overall, the casualty figures were quite low for such a battle: about 2,000 dead, of which 1,500 were Catholic Jacobites, the same proportion as at Aughrim.

Both battles involved much post-victory brutality but the scale of this at the Boyne paled beside that of Aughrim, and wasn’t as bad as it might have been, given that at the time numerous battle casualties arose from the pursuit of an already-beaten enemy. The Williamites triumphantly marched into Dublin two days after the battle, whereas James scooted off to France with indecent alacrity.

The Battle of Aughrim on July 12th, 1691 was arguably the most bloody ever recorded on Irish soil, with a death toll of over 4,000 men in one short day, at least 3,000 of them Jacobites, though thousands more either deserted or were taken prisoner. To this day, one area of the battlefield is known locally as “The Bloody Hollow”, and in the Irish language tradition Aughrim came to be known as “Eachdhruim an áir” (Aughrim of the slaughter). Aughrim was far more bloody, painful and morally humiliating than the Boyne, since it carried the last real hope of an honourable settlement or, even, for some, (in retrospect?) of Irish Catholic governance.

Both armies numbered about 20,000 men, the Jacobites under St Ruth being mostly Irish Catholics, while Godert van Ginkel, the Williamites’ Dutch general, commanded a force of Irish, English, Scottish, Danish, German and Dutch Protestants, along with French Huguenots. The Jacobites’ position in the summer of 1691 was a defensive one, since they hoped to get military aid from Louis XIV of France and possibly be in a position to eventually retake the rest of Ireland, though some argue that this was never a realistic hope.

The left of the Jacobite position was bounded by soggy, wet ground, through which there was only one causeway, overlooked by Aughrim village, a ruined castle and a hill lined with small stone walls and hedgerows marking the boundaries of local farmers’ fields. On the other, open, flank, St. Ruth placed his best infantry under his second-in-command, and most of his cavalry under Patrick Sarsfield, who did not distinguish himself that day. This left Ginkel having to force a way through the causeway on the Jacobite left, which should have been an impregnable position since it forced the attackers into a narrow lane covered by the defenders of the castle.

The Jacobites duly stalled this attack with heavy fire from the castle, but then found, tragi-comically, that their reserve ammunition, made in England, would not fit into the muzzles of their French-supplied muskets! Thus, when the Williamites charged again with a reasonably fresh cavalry regiment they faced only weak gunfire, easily crossed the causeway and reached Aughrim village with few casualties.

St Ruth, after the third infantry rush on the Williamite position, believed that the battle was there for the winning, but following his decapitation by a cannonball and the disappearance of his second-in-command, his cavalry, demoralised by the general confusion and their leader’s sudden death, fled the battlefield on the left flank. The Jacobite cavalry on the right, under Luttrell, which had been held in reserve to cover this flank, were ordered, inexplicably, not to counter-attack at this point but to actually withdraw, causing many to believe he was in the pay of the Williamites, for which he paid dearly when assassinated in Dublin some time later. The castle quickly fell, its Jacobite garrison surrendered, and thousands, judging the situation to be hopeless, began to flee as dusk threatened, but were easy meat for the Williamite cavalry, since many of them had thrown away their weapons and supplies in order to run faster.

Slaughter and humiliation
Contemporary accounts spoke of the grass being slippery with blood and of “vast numbers of languishing forms, left lifeless in the mountains and corroded by worms”. It is worth noting, too, that the Jacobite dead, like countless Famine victims, were deprived of burial, according to John Dunton, an English author, writing in 1698, seven years later, though he can’t have appreciated the impact of the elided traditional keening and highly codified funeral rites:

“After the battle, the English did not tarry to bury any of the dead but their own, and left those of the enemy exposed to the fowls of the air, for the country was then so uninhabited that there were not hands to inter them. Many dogs resorted to this Aceldama where for want of other food they fed on man’s flesh.” His bleak description was to become commonplace after the catastrophic Famine losses of 1845-52, and may be discerned, obliquely, behind the sense of loss, shame and anxiety permeating Joyce’s The Dead.

On July 12th, 1691, then, Aughrim’s field saw slaughter on a grand scale, the death or capture of half the high command, with the consequent massive transfer of their lands, bringing an effective end to Irish/Jacobite resistance in Ireland, although Limerick held out until that autumn. (Limerick, like Aughrim, inspired one of our three greatest pipe laments, “Marbhna Luimnighe.”)

Remembering Aughrim
Now Dominic Bryan rightly insists that we need to be wary of assigning any simple meaning to Williamite commemorations, but the celebration of such a bloody defeat in 18th-century Dublin so soon after Aughrim must have been seen by Catholics and nationalists as unabashed, arrogant displays of conquest that intensified their humiliation twice a year in the centre of their own city.

Williamite bonfires and parades in Dublin were partly organised by the state from 1690 until the early 19th century, when it ceded control of such occasions to the Orange Order, which set about appropriating Williamite rituals soon after its formation in 1795, proposing a more reactionary political programme and instituting a more divisive form of celebration. However, as the century unfolded the Order was to have a very chequered and complicated relationship with both government and the main commemorations, the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, particularly before the 1870s, often being quite hostile to the procession and supportive of more passive Williamite celebrations such as annual dinners.

Since it marked the decisive battle of the Williamite war in Ireland and the triumphant crushing of Irish Catholic resistance, Aughrim became the focus of Williamite celebrations in Ireland on July 12th and November 4th, William’s birthday, up to the late 18th century, especially in Dublin, when the Lord Mayor presided over an assembly of “The Quality” and all major dignitaries, including the Provost and Fellows of Trinity, all of whom took part in a procession and ritual involving, as in Joyce’s The Dead, three encirclings of William’s statue, followed by bonfires, music, feasting and claret galore. Little wonder, then, that many attempts to deface and destroy the statue were made before the final, successful one in 1836, though it was replaced in 1855.

This huge, very imperial statue of William on horseback was erected in 1701, at Dublin Corporation’s expense, on the most prominent site in the city, precisely 10 years after the catastrophic carnage at Aughrim, and for most of the century was the focus of two elaborate ceremonial displays, though after 1795 the main focus for most ordinary Orangemen was the battles. On these occasions, William’s statue was painted white and adorned with a yellow cloak, the horse garlanded with orange lilies and ribbons and the surrounding railings painted orange and blue. And just to put the boot in, shamrock and ribbons in the national colours, green and white, were placed under the horse’s uplifted foot, provoking nationalists to retaliate with stone throwing and rioting and some Trinity students to steal the statue’s sceptre and smear it with mud or tar so often that watchmen were engaged to protect it.

Orangeism and “the Twelfth” in 19th-century Irish politics
After 1800, the story of Williamite celebrations is hard to disentangle from the rise of the Orange strand in 19th-century Irish politics. Already in 1815, 20 years after the Orange Order’s foundation in 1795, O’Connell started to unleash his fierce energies denouncing the weakness, corruption and Orange politics of the Dublin municipality. And though its growing strength was noted by Thomas Moore during his tour of Munster in 1823, it does look as if the real power of Orangeism lay in Belfast, Ulster and Dublin.

When we track the history and success of such provocative Williamite commemoration in the heart of the Irish capital over two centuries it is hard not to see The Pale as another Ireland, and Dublin between 1700 and 1900 as, in effect, a city British in spirit and governance, with a definite Orange coloration after 1800. Perhaps that was why sporadic nationalist protest and oppositional activity could be easily contained over a 95-year period and why these officially-supported Williamite celebrations were largely tolerated by an impotent, demoralised, cowed and craven people.

The new Twelfth celebrations could become very fraught events, as in 1796 when hundreds of Catholics were expelled from their homes, but even some years earlier Catholic patience had been wearing thin, and they were being increasingly resented as triumphalist reminders of conquest, even for someone like William Parnell, a liberal Protestant, who insisted that they were “notoriously intended by one party, and felt by the other, as a parade of insulting domination”. In 1791, for example, the Catholic Society of Dublin formally protested against the right of every Protestant to vote and bear arms, and against the “celebration of festivals memorable only, as they denote the era, and the events, from which we date our bondage.” Despite Protestant misgivings, Irish Catholics were granted these rights in 1793, and were thus emboldened to demand full political equality, but powerful interests opposed further concessions.

In 1797, gentry in mid-Ulster helped to fortify the martial tradition when they actively encouraged ordinary Orangemen to see their clashes with Defenders, now allies of the United Irishmen, as part of a military tradition stretching back to the Williamite era. After the rising of ‘98, Catholics were perceived to pose a special threat, since incidents during the rebellion prompted accusations that Catholics had aimed to extirpate Protestants, and led to Dublin Castle reluctantly allowing a partial arming of Orangemen.

These fears, allied to the Napoleonic threat and other strategic considerations, ultimately led the British government to pass the Act of Union in 1800, something that led Sir Jonah Barrington to argue that unless England was prepared to repeal the Union, Ireland could only be governed “by physical force of arms, and the temporary right of conquest”.

Remembering Aughrim

Aughrim and the Boyne are, of course, foregrounded and engraved in Orange memory by The Sash My Father Wore, a famous, stirring, Ulster marching song – and rallying cry:

“It is old but it is beautiful, and its colours they are fine,
It was worn at Derry, Aughrim, Enniskillen and the Boyne.
My father wore it as a youth in bygone days of yore,
And on the Twelfth I love to wear the sash my father wore.”

But the Williamite victories and the scale of loss and slaughter is only half the story of Aughrim: the psychic and cultural wounds must have been even greater, and much harder to articulate. Little wonder, then, that so many poets and musicians stepped into this breach – most, according to Lady Gregory, from Munster! Indeed, it took a contemporary Oriel poet, and probably harper, Séamas Dall Mac Cuarta, to write a harrowing, plangent lament, Tuireadh Shomhairle Mhic Dhomhnaill, for a patron, Sorley MacDonnell, who lost his land after Aughrim, possibly to Richard Murphy’s Protestant ancestors. In this poem, which was to haunt Northern Irish manuscripts, Mac Cuarta plumbed the depths of that calamity for Catholic Ireland, evoking the shades of slain Catholics, uncoffined skeletons strewn to the winds, just like the Famine dead, their bones lying around the battlefield, looking, from the hill above Aughrim, like white sheep grazing.

But the most powerful, heart-wrenching threnody that I know here is The Lament for Aughrim, which Francis McPeake learned from an old Galway uilleann piper around 1903, and played at the Oireachtas in 1912, where Joyce might well have been present. That same year, two years before the publication of Dubliners, Joyce reports hearing Galway pipers play a “vague and strange” music that might have been the same lament.

The Mulvany painting of the Battle of Aughrim
After 1691, many chroniclers reported that this battle “made a searing impression on Irish consciousness”: and even as late as 1882, the Irish Club of Chicago had not forgotten, commissioning a strong republican, John Mulvany, to paint The Battle of Aughrim, which he finished in 1885. Mulvany, a lifelong member of the Irish secret society, Clan na nGael, whose aim was to break away from England, narrowly escaped imprisonment by the English authorities while researching uniforms for his painting, just days before the 1885 Fenian dynamite campaign!

Richard Murphy’s The Battle of Aughrim
Even as late as 1968, when Richard Murphy’s powerful long poem, The Battle of Aughrim, was published, the memory of Aughrim was still a very live issue for him, since his ancestors had fought on both sides there, his Protestant forbears being generously rewarded for their support with 70,000 acres of Irish land. By imagining the perspective of both sides, Murphy drew on this appalling bloodbath to explore the complexity of his own identity, his divided psyche, aiming to “get clear a division in [his] mind between England and Ireland – between an almost entirely English education, an English mind and Irish feeling” and to understand “what the religious conflict meant in the past and how the past is still influencing us.” He was exceptionally aware of history’s continued presence in modern Irish politics: as he puts it in the poem, “the past is happening today”. And, ironically, the repetition of history was to be enacted yet again in the shameful Widgery Report on Bloody Sunday.

More recently, we are fortunate in having historians like Roy Foster and Pádraig Lenihan to remember Aughrim for us, the latter calling it “the bloodiest battle in Irish history…a bloodbath seared into the Irish memory on both sides of the religious and political divide”, giving birth to “a rich body of Irish language literature mourning the losses at Aughrim”.

Disremembering Aughrim
For at least a century in Irish memory and imagination, Aughrim stood for humiliation, unbearable loss of life, pride and even hope for the control of national destiny. Why, then, was it gradually ousted in the 19th century by the Boyne as the main commemorative focus for Protestants? And why did such a catastrophic loss fall into a chasm of amnesia for such a long time? After all, not to remember Aughrim should be as unthinkable for us as for the Scots not to remember Culloden, where, though infinitely fewer Jacobites were killed, it is still much commemorated by them in music, song and story. (In the US, the Donner Party loss of 39 souls to starvation and freezing snow, which hovers over Joyce’s The Dead, is still remembered by hundreds of thousands each year – as well as in The Shining!)

Joyce seems to have had a particular talent for disremembering Aughrim, to judge from his trivial, indeed unprofessional review of Lady Gregory’s Poets and Dreamers (1903) and from the sequence in The Dead where Gabriel enacts the story of Johnny, the long-dead Morkan family horse, in what I believe to be a Freudian screen memory of Aughrim. This is especially odd if we consider that around 1900-03 both Yeats, and particularly Lady Gregory, had put in the work on the battle, finding, for example, that the raw wounds of Aughrim were still suppurating among the people in rural Galway. Why, then, we might wonder, could Joyce still turn a blind eye to their testimony, even though he knew their writings on the event?

And the disremembering of Aughrim still continues, to judge from the opening in 2009 of a motorway going through the battlefield, against the opposition of historians, environmentalists and members of the Orange Order. This deeply unsettling, indeed violent, action, suggests to me that cultural memory here has finally been murdered by Mammon, for this powerful memorial to a profound national trauma is now buried forever, traded for a simple Celtic cross marking the doomed spot.

What effect, I wonder, will this latest disremembering of Aughrim have on the Irish psyche? Disremembering history is a dangerous stratagem, leading to dissociation, acting-out and mindless repetition.

Another disaster at Aughrim?

The last conventional battle in Irish history was fought on Sunday 12 July 1691 at Aughrim, Co. Galway. A 20,000-strong Irish Jacobite army under the command of French Lt.-Gen. St Ruth occupied a defensive position stretching over one and a half miles along the ridge from Aughrim village. On the opposite, north-east or Ballinasloe, side of the impassable bog that separated them was a similar-sized but better-equipped army, commanded for King William of Orange by the Dutch general Ginkel. He had three Ulster battalions and large contingents from England, Holland, Denmark and France.
Both sides displayed tremendous courage, and until late in the day the heaviest casualties were suffered by the attacking force. After about five hours of fighting, most of which occurred at either end of the Irish line, sections of Ginkel’s army succeeded in getting a cavalry force, two abreast, along the narrow tóchar or causeway near Aughrim village and across to the side of the bog occupied by the Irish left wing. The Irish musketeers in the ruins of the old castle who were covering the tóchar had run out of suitable ammunition, and other forces in that area had been depleted to support the right wing. This bridgehead was quickly augmented St Ruth was killed by a chance cannon shot and from then onwards everything went wrong for the Irish side.
Led by Brig. Henry Luttrell of Luttrelstown Castle, and in the hope of saving their property, a section of the Irish cavalry that could have stopped the breakthrough abandoned their infantry comrades to their fate and rode off to Loughrea through an area known ever since as ‘Luttrell’s Pass’. The poet Raftery expressed the tradition of treachery: ‘Ag Lutrell’s Pass ’sea díoladh na Gaelaigh, ar scilling a’s réal amach an péire’ [‘At Lutrell’s Pass the Gaels were sold for a shilling and sixpence for two’]. By nightfall the Irish army was all but destroyed, its dead numbering about 7,000 about 2,000 of Ginkel’s men were killed.
Aughrim heralded the end of the War of the Two Kings in Ireland, with eventual total victory for King William. Aughrim, not the Boyne, was the most significant battle of the war. The surrender of Galway and Limerick, the Treaty of Limerick, the departure of the remnants of the Irish army to France, the confiscation of land, the destruction of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy and the Penal Laws were all consequences of this defeat.
The battlefield of Aughrim is in fact a vast cemetery. The Williamite dead were buried, probably in several mass graves, the locations of which are not known. The bodies of most of the Irish were left unburied for over a year. The unburied dead were a cause of great hurt and were lamented bitterly in a traditional poem:

‘Tá leasú ag Ó Ceallaigh
Nach gaineamh é ná aoileach,
Ach saighdiúirí tapaidh,
A dhéanfadh gaisce le píce.’

[‘O’Kelly has topdressing,
which is neither sand nor manure,
but lithe soldiers,
who would do deeds of valour with a pike.’]

In 1842 the English writer William Makepeace Thackeray quoted lines from an early eighteenth-century Williamite verse play, The Battle of Aughrim, that was then being staged in Galway:
‘Nothing but dread confusion can be seen,
For severed heads and trunks o’erspread the green
The fields, the vales, the hills, and vanquished plain
For five miles round are covered with the slain’.

The battle of 1691 was, in fact, the second Battle of Aughrim. Here, on 10 January 1603, with only 280 soldiers left, Ó Suilleabháin Béara faced and defeated an 800-strong English and Irish force.
In modern times the preservation of sites of similar significance to Aughrim is commonplace in many parts of the world. Culloden is an example. The Battle of Culloden on 16 April 1745, the last conventional battle fought in Scotland, was smaller than Aughrim the dead numbered some 1,700. Since the end of the nineteenth century Culloden has been legally protected, the surviving structures preserved, access for pedestrians enabled and interpretation handsomely provided. Ongoing restoration work recently included the felling of a 50-year-old pine forest and the removal of the main road to Inverness, which in less enlightened days had been routed through the battlefield. Culloden is deservedly one of the premier tourist attractions in Scotland.

On other parts of the battlefield that are outside the 500-metre area, increasing numbers of ‘once-off’ houses are appearing. (Padraig Lenehan)

Over the centuries the physical features of the Aughrim battlefield, together with economic conditions, acted as a deterrent to excessive development. Despite the lack of any institutional defender, it still remains unspoiled to a surprisingly large extent. Now, however, it is being rapidly degraded. About 1970 Galway County Council diverted the main Ballinasloe–Galway road from the village of Aughrim and routed it directly through the battlefield. In recent years the council widened that section of road. In the process further damage was done, particularly to some of the ditches that almost certainly featured in the battle and indeed may well have been constructed or modified by St Ruth for his defensive strategy.
Owing mainly to the concerns expressed, not least in the North, more care is being taken with the preparation of plans for the new N6 Ballinasloe–Galway dual-carriageway, which is to pass close to Aughrim village. The road will not now go through the centre of the battlefield, as was feared, but it will cut off what are believed to be important sites connected with the battle and will destroy some of the physical context.
But worse is to come. As battlefields are unprotected by the National Monuments Acts, the local planning authority, Galway County Council, is the only public body possessing powers, limited as they are, to protect a battlefield by declaring it to be a place of exceptional historical interest. Naively, many of those who understand its historical significance, its national and international dimensions and its potential as a focus for North–South reconciliation assumed that the council was quietly ensuring that, at least in the matter of housing and commercial development, Aughrim would remain generally intact. Instead, in their County Development Plan 2003–2009, the only possible protectors of Aughrim selected a 500-metre radius from the centre of the village as ‘an appropriate boundary for development’. This entire area was involved in the battle. The causeway over which the Williamite cavalry crossed and the areas in which they first clashed in hand-to hand combat with the Irish infantry, the ruined castle from which the Irish musketeers covered the causeway, Luttrell’s Pass, several other identifiable battle-related sites and possible burial locations are all included. They are unprotected. Sites that are the common heritage of nationalists and unionists alike are now at the mercy of developers. On other parts of the battlefield that are outside the 500-metre area, increasing numbers of ‘once-off’ houses are appearing. In December 2005 an 11-acre site within the radius and near the causeway was offered for sale ‘for housing or commercial development’. It is a virtual certainty that this land and the human remains, Jacobite and Williamite, that may still be there will soon be covered with houses.
It is a feature of democracy that governments and public bodies usually have to respond to public opinion. A campaign of information and political lobbying for preservation and suitable development on the Culloden model, undertaken jointly by nationalists, northern unionists and others, could yet prevent another disaster at Aughrim and, in contrast to the events of 1691, result in enhanced mutual respect on both sides of the historical divide on the island of Ireland.

Battle of Aughrim Visitor Centre

The 1691 Battle of Aughrim Visitor Centre … Where a historic and pivotal battle becomes alive!!

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The Battle of Aughrim Visitor Centre is currently closed due to Covid 19.

The health and safety of our visitors and team members is our top priority therefore, we have put a comprehensive COVID-19 policy in place. Please read it carefully and adhere to all safety protocols during your visit. COVID-19 Policy

More than 5,000 men killed in four hours. The most electrifying battle in Irish military history. The decisive battle of the Williamite War in Ireland!

Come to the enthralling Battle of Aughrim Visitor Centre in Co. Galway and immerse yourself in one of the most extraordinary military events in Ireland’s checkered history. On 12 th July (equivalent to 25th July in the modern calendar) 1691, approximately 35,000 troops from eight European nations made up the opposing forces of William of Orange and King James II who went head-to-head just outside Aughrim village as part of the wider struggle for the throne of England. It resulted in the highest loss of life in any single battle on Irish soil.

Immerse yourself in the combat through our gripping Battle of Aughrim video, which places you at the heart of the battlefield: hearing gunshots, seeing casualties fall, feeling the fear/tension of those soldiers. This vivid, pulsating re-telling of the story of one of Ireland’s most pivotal battles brings it to life and makes it feel real.

You’ll also get a very unique insight into the gripping Battle of Aughrim through our detailed Battlefield Diorama with model soldiers. This, coupled with expert commentary from our enthusiastic tour guides, gives you a 3D experience of the difficult terrain and tactics used by both sides.

Explore the Battle of Aughrim through our engaging audio-visual exhibition and discover the strategies, the players, the stakes and the calamitous mistake of the Jacobite commander in what was effectively the final armed conflict in this war as three kings strived for west European dominance. Find out what Ireland was like at the time of the Battle of Aughrim and learn more about the events that led up to the fateful day.

Get a sense of the weight of the muskets the soldiers had to carry into battle. Feel the fabrics of the uniforms and the weight of the weaponry. Enjoy the interactive experience of feeling like a soldier.

Discover implements contained in a typical Barber-Surgeon Kit from the 17th century — an era when few people survived surgery.

What makes us unique?

The Battle of Aughrim Visitor Centre is the only tourist attraction which depicts this very significant battle and, other than the Battle of the Boyne Visitor Centre, the only one that specifically deals with this period of history.

We provide you with a very personal touch: our knowledgeable tour guide will spend time with you to ensure that you get the chance to ask the questions that are of particular interest to you. At quiet times, s/he will be delighted to give you a private tour — this creates a more intimate and special experience.

A fantastic day out!

A visit to the Battle of Aughrim Visitor Centre is a fantastic experience for families, school children and anyone with an interest in history. After your riveting learning experience in the centre, why not relax with a coffee while the kids have fun in the playground. Enjoy a bite to eat in the village before walking the Battlefield Trail or bringing your children to the nearby park, which showcases a small recreation of the battlefield. It’s a delightful, cultural day out!

Tripadvisor Reviews

"A little gem. A beautiful, interesting visit. The detail is fantastic.”

Battle of Aughrim, 12 July 1691 - History

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The Battle of Aughrim was the decisive battle of the Williamite War in Ireland. It was fought between the Irish Jacobite army who were loyal to James II and the forces of William III.

It is considered one of Europe's most historic battles involving over 45,000 soldiers.

The battle took place on 12th July 1691 near the village of Aughrim in County Galway, Ireland.

It was the bloodiest battle ever fought on Irish soil with over 7000 men losing their lives.

The Jacobite defeat at Aughrim effectively ended James' campaign in Ireland.

Today you can visit the interpretive centre and follow the trails and information points around the village and local countryside giving you a real insight into this famous battle and its relation to the Battle of The Boyne, the sieges of Athlone and Limerick,

and the Flight of the Wild Geese.

Aughrim Tours App now available from the App Store .

The Aughrim Tours App takes you on an interactive audio guide of the village and all the

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Padraig Lenihan on the Battle of Aughrim

The battle of Aughrim as depicted in the late 19th century.

The Battle of Aughrim was the decisive battle in the Jacobite-Williamite war in Ireland – fought between supporters of the Catholic King James and Protestant King William.

In a previous audio feature on the Battle of the Boyne, Padraig explains the context of the conflict. It was at the same time a European war of France of Louis XIV against the Dutch-led Grand Alliance and in Ireland war of Irish Catholic Jacobites and Protestant Williamites.

The previous year, the Williamites had beaten the Jacobites back behind the river Shannon, the two Kings had departed but the war in Ireland went on. Here we talk about how Aughrim came to be the decisive blow that ended the war in the Williamites’ favour.

The battlefield at Aughrim

We also discuss what it was like to fight at Aughrim in a cloud of blinding smoke with unweildy, unreliable muskets, pikes or cold steel. The infantry, sometimes paid and fed, sometimes not did most of the fighting, but were most likely to fall victim to the the bloodiest phase of the battle – “the execution” when pursuing cavalry rode down broken and fleeing infantry formations.

Finally, the bloodbath at Aughrim seared into the Irish memory on both sides of the religious and political divide. We talk about the rich body of Irish language literature mourning the losses at Aughrim and conversely, the triumphal Protestant memory of the battle – marked by bonfires, prayers services and parades.

A map of the battle of Aughrim showing the Williamite attacks.

While modern Orangemen celebrate the battle of the Boyne on July 12, at the time, due to Britain’s late adoption of the Gregorian calender, it was Aughrim that was fought and celebrated on that day. It was only in the late 18th century that the focus of the newly founded Orange Order shifted to the Boyne, which in the new calendar took place on the Twelfth.

The Battle

It was on Sunday morning and masses were said and sermons were preached in the Irish camp, the soldiers were called upon to defend their country, their altars and their homesteads defeat would mean extermination, confiscation and ruin. They would become the serfs and slaves of a relentless foe. Brave words and brave deeds were the order of the day. Most of the officers and men were true to their dear country and fought bravely that memorable day at Aughrim , but fate entwined with treachery turned victory into defeat.

The strength of both armies was about the same, the English 23,000, the Irish 22,500, but the English had 24 guns, the Irish having only 10. St. Ruth had gone into position at an early hour and only awaited the disappearance of the fog from the moors below. At 12 o'clock the sun's rays pierced through, and both armies, in full view faced each other. St. Ruth placed five guns on his right, with De Tesse his second in command. On the left was Sheldon , with Henry Luttrell , Purcell and Parker as reserve supports. At Aughrim were placed two guns with Colonel Burke and a regiment of foot. The centre, and along the slopes were manned by infantry under Hamilton and Dorrington . The cavalry slightly to the rear were in charge of Galmoy . A battery of three guns was in position on the slope of the hill, and covering the bog and narrow pass leading to Aughrim Castle . The gallant Sarsfield , the hero of Ballyneety , was relegated to an inferior command, and was sent with the reserve cavalry two miles to the rear. St. Ruth could not then cast away his prejudice against the greatest soldier of that time.

Ginkle had for his second in command the Duke of Wurtembur . At the centre were Mackay and Talmash , with the cavalry under Scavemore and De Ruvigny . Near the bog, at the centre, were two batteries, and two more at the advanced position covering the pass where it widened to Aughrim . To the left were the Danes, the Dutch and the French Huguenots commanded by La Melloniere , Tetteau , Nassau , and the Prince of Hesse . The cavalry to the extreme left were placed with La Forest , Eppinger and Portland in charge.

The first engagement took place at Urrachree , where some Irish outposts advanced to a stream and were fired on by a party of Danes. Fighting developed at this sector, and reinforcements were rushed by both sides but the English were driven back. There was a lull in the conflict and Ginkle held a further council of war. He was in doubt as to the advisability of giving battle. Again the strong hand of Mackay carried sway and after two hours' silence the guns from the English lines boomed forth. The battle renewed, Ginkle led the way towards Urrachree . The Danes made an attempt to manoeuvre a flanking movement but the Irish extended their line of defence and stemmed their advance. The Huguenots advanced to attack the hedges near the pass, and the Irish according to plan, retired and drew them on. With terrible effect a flanking fire was opened on them and they fell back in disorder, the Irish horse attacking as they retreated. Again Ginkle brought up the reserves, but yet again the Williamites were beaten back and driven into the bog below. To hold this position intact, St. Ruth moved a regiment from near Aughrim , with fatal results later. It was said that he carried out this movement on the advise of Luttrell . Mackay felt the weakened pulse at this sector and took full advantage of it he at once sent his infantry across the bog. An hour and a half of hard fighting and how elapsed, and the Irish had held their ground with great gallantry.

It was at 6.30pm that 3,000 English advanced once more through the morass under cover of their artillery, and faced the hill in a vigorous attack on the Irish positions there. Again the Irish enticed them on until they were almost at the summit of the hill then with lightning rapidity and heroic dash faced about and opened a deadly fire on them and with the cavalry coming on they were cut to pieces and hurled into the bog once more. In this attack they suffered a severe reverse losing many officers. At one place only did the Williamites make any advance that seemed dangerous. A couple of regiments converged, and gained a foothold among some walls and fences near Aughrim Castle . Colonel Burke's turn now came but to his dismay, he found that the ammunition given to his men was too large they were compelled to use chapped ram rods and even buttons from their tunics. Here we find another act of unwarranted treachery. However, word was quickly conveyed to a body of cavalry in the immediate vicinity, and after a daring coup, and a stiff engagement, the English were driven back.

It is told that Mackay in all those defeats insisted in one last stand. He advanced with a body of cavalry through the pass at Aughrim , with only a couple of horses riding abreast at the time. St. Ruth watched the advance from the position above, and exclaimed "Pity to see such brave fellows throw away their lives in this way." He sent word to Sarsfield to send up 400 horse but stay on with the remainder, and await further orders. On the arrival of the body of cavalry St. Ruth placed himself at their head. He was in great heart and stated he would drive the English to the gates of Dublin . As he charged down the hill and veering towards one of his gunners to convey an order, a burst of chain shot got him, and his headless body rolled from the saddle.

I would like to add here that this seemed like fate, but tradition has it otherwise. A couple of days prior to the great battle a peddler named Mullin arrived at the Irish Camp , he sold laces and spent long enough to get the information he desired to convey to the enemy. He heard St. Ruth was to ride on a grey charger, as this was one of his favourite mounts. In that fatal charge the Williamite gunner picked on him as he sped across the plain to meet Mackay . The first shot missed and a young ensign named Trench took the gun in hand and fired. The gunner remarked to Trench "his hat is knocked off Sir." "Yes," said Trench , "but you will find his head in it too." The cavalry in their dash were halted with no responsible officer to lead them. St. Ruth's body covered with a trooper's cloak was carried to the rear and an attempt was made to conceal his fate, but the true facts leaked out. The result was, his regiment of Blue Guards (French cavalry) retired from the field, followed by the Irish.

No assistance came to Galmoy in his endeavour to hold up Mackay and the English made a flanking movement at Aughrim Castle . At the same time, Ginkle pressed at the centre and broke the front line of defence. The Irish infantry under Dorrington , made a brave stand, but were compelled to fall back in broken formation. At one place known as the Bloody Hollow about 2,000 Irish were encircled, and trapped the remainder retired in hot haste. Sarsfield galloped to the scene of battle but too late, and with a heavy heart, he gathered together the remnants of a defeated army. The slaughter was great, the English lost 2,700 killed and wounded, the Irish about 5,000. Included in this would be those surrendered in the bloody hollow.

In the early hours of the morning of the 13th after torrential rain during the night, the English in savage fury, murdered those prisoners. It was said that the little stream at the base of the hill ran red with blood of the slain. The dead were left unburied, and Story , the Williamite historian, said that a human being was not to be seen for miles around. Great packs of roving dogs took possession of the battlefield and devoured the bodies of the dead, and for months it was unsafe for the traveller to pass that way.

Sarsfield retreated through Limerick on his way he passed through Woodford and according to tradition, at that town he buried some pieces of artillery at Derrycregg wood. The enemy must have harassed him on the way, as at Woodford he reversed the shoes on his cavalry.

On the night of the 14th we find that Ginkle , with a body of cavalry, arrived at Eyrecourt , and bivouacked in the grounds of Eyrecourt Castle that night. Eyre received him with great pomp and splendour.

So much for the slogan that caught the eye of the visitor who entered the entrance door of the castle. It read:- "WELCOME TO THE HOUSE OF LIBERTY" To this we pass by with smile. So ended the battle of Aughrim with bitter memories to follow.

Battle of Aughrim, 12 July 1691 - History

The eventful day that was to decide the fate of the town was now drawing nigh. On the 12th of July, 1691, the hostile armies of the two contending monarchs met on the memorable plains of Aughrim, whence the noise of their cannon might be easily heard at its gates. It is not our intention to enter into a description of the sanguinary and decisive engagement which here took place: the news of its result was known that night in the town, whither several of the fugitives fled for shelter. The alarm of the inhabitants may be easily conceived to have been extreme, and every preparation was made for defence. Many, however, were so panic-struck, that they would have compromised for their safety by immediately surrendering almost on any terms. Lord Dillon, the governor, the French lieutenant general D'Ussone, and the other officers of rank in the town, immediately held a council of war. It appeared that the town, though strong and well stored with provisions, was deficient in men and arms, which were drawn away by degrees to supply other exigencies. The garrison consisted but seven regiments of foot with a few troops of horse, and these neither full nor well armed but their great dependance was on the promises of Balldearg O'Donnell, whom they hourly expected from Iar-Connaught with the troops under his command. [cc]

Patrick Sarsfield

Though thus circumstanced, it was unanimously resolved to defend the town. General Ginckle, the English commander, having judged it necessary to reduce Galway before he should proceed to Limerick, after a few days delay to refresh his troops, marched on the 17th of July towards Athenry, and encamped on the surrounding plains. On the same day he advanced, with a party, three miles nearer Galway, to a rising ground, from whence he could see the shipping in the bay. On his return to the camp he found a Mr. Shaw, a merchant of the town, (who, with a few other Protestants, had that morning escaped,) from whom he received a full account how matters stood within. This information was the most satisfactory, as it differed entirely from what he had previously received from others, that the garrison consisted of five thousand men, and those well armed that the stores were considerable, and the town almost impregnable that Sarsfield, with the whole of the Irish horse, was upon his march with a resolution to raise the siege and that Ballderg's party was about six thousand strong: all which led him to apprehend that he would have more trouble with Galway than he expected, and the siege would be protracted to the ensuing winter a circumstance which, above all others, he was most anxious to avoid.

British Army Lineages

Today 319 ago the hard fought battle of Aughrim was fought on 12 July 1691 (O.S.). The outcome of this battle was more decisive than that of the much more celebrated Battle of the Boyne fought a year earlier. Though the Williamite Army certainly had the better cards in 1691, there was a real chance that the war in Ireland could, literally, be dragged on well into 1692. This would certainly have had consequences for the operations in the main theater of war, the Spanish Netherlands.

The Williamite Army (composed of Dutch, Danish, Ulster and English regiments) was commanded by the future Earl of Athlone. The Irish were led by the French general Charles Chalmont, marquis de Saint-Ruth. Saint-Ruth would be killed during the battle.

After the battle, and defeat and rout of the Irish army, the city of Galway surrendered without offering resistance ten days later. The 2nd Siege of Limerick followed in August. Here the Jacobite high-brass thought is was better to negotiate profitable terms of surrender, and continue the fight for the Jacobite cause elsewhere. This led to the Treaty of Limerick of September 3rd 1691, and end of the Williamite War in Ireland. Large part of the Irish Army went into exile to France, forming a Jacobite Army in exile for James II. The bulk of the Williamite regiments were almost immediately transferred to the Spanish Netherlands.

An order of battle of the Williamite Army was posted earlier on this blog. Information on the Irish/Jacobite order of battle is not forthcoming unfortunately. Hayes-McCoy discusses the Jacobite army in his paper The Battle of Aughrim 1691 (in: Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society, Vol. 20, No.1/2 (1942), pp. 1-30), and, more recently, Richard Doherty discussed the battle in The Battle of Aughrim (in: History Ireland, Vol. 3, No. 3 (1995), pp. 35.42).

Legacy and memory

The ‘War of the Two Kings’ was the major military conflict of what is known in British history as the ‘Glorious Revolution’, in which Britain was, according to the national narrative, saved from absolutism and the monarch was forced to govern through a parliament and while respecting a bill of rights.

Obviously, when applied to Ireland, this narrative fits rather awkwardly. The war may have played a part in founding constitutional government – the Irish Parliament was to be a much more important institution throughout the 18th than before – but it also disenfranchised the majority of the population, not only Catholics but also Protestant ‘dissenters’ such as Presbyterians.

The popular memory of the war is complex and has changed over time.

Ireland in the 18th century was ruled by a small class of landowning Anglican Protestants, mostly of English stock.

It is therefore not surprising that the war was celebrated by the victorious Williamites and their descendants as a ‘deliverance from Popery and tyranny’. However the modern Orange tradition that keeps alive the memory today is in fact the product of a much later and more tangled history.

Throughout the 18th century, Irish Protestants commemorated the outbreak of the rebellion of 1641, when they believed their community had only just escaped extermination, more than the battles of Aughrim or the Boyne.

It was not until the 1790s, at a time when Catholics were again agitating for political rights and the Republican revolutionaries the United Irishmen were preparing for insurrection, the Orange Order was founded in Armagh. Its history of marching on the Twelfth of July in commemoration of the battle of the Boyne dates from this era and not from the 1690s.

Nevertheless even today the Orange Order states that it commemorates William’s ‘victory over despotic power laid the foundation for the evolution of Constitutional Democracy in the British Isles’.

On the other side, memory of the Jacobite cause was more complex. James II himself was mocked by Irish poets as ‘Seamus a chaca’ – ‘James the shit’ – the cowardly English King who had ‘lost Ireland’. But there was also a nostalgic genre of Jacobite poetry and songs throughout the 18th century that pined for the return of the ‘true king’, with the ‘Wild Geese’ or Irish soldiers who had left for French service, who together would who would rescue Irish Catholics from ‘slavery’.

The later Irish nationalist tradition would also rehabilitate many Jacobite heroes such as Patrick Sarsfield as fighters for Irish freedom and the nationalists like Thomas Davis and later Charles Gavin Duffy would christen the Jacobite parliament of 1689 as the ‘Patriot Parliament’ for its assertion of independence.

But unlike the Orange tradition, modern Irish nationalist and particularly Republican narratives tend to be uncomfortable with the Jacobites’ loyalty to an English monarch, let alone with ideas such as the divine right of kings, which James Stuart held to.

The War of the Two Kings, was a time when Ireland was briefly at the centre of European-wide struggle for power and also a decisive turning point in Irish history.

Watch the video: Battle of Aughrim