Remembering Aughrim, July 21, 1691

Galway Advertiser, July 24th, 1997.

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—covered 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 — fought to determine the future of Catholic Ireland. The loser — overwhelmingly — 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 — made up of British, Protestant Anglo—Irish, 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—McCoy, 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—McCoy concludes: "Aughrim, and not the the decisive conflict of the Jacobite war", 16891691.

Like so many worthwhile initiatives, especially those involving local history — 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—dimensional displays, but there's also a brilliant half—hour documentary film that explains both the course of the battle and its significance in the context of the three—year 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 — a victory — was a way of redeeming his own reputation.

And when he viewed the countryside around Aughrim, he realised he had found a near—perfect 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—day discrepancy that had gradually developed in the Julian calendar due to faulty initial astronomical calculations. England — anticipating its suspicion of EC integration in the 1990s — 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—run 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 — 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 — 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.