Battle of Aughrim

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


ST. RUTH fell back to Ballinasloe, on Ginckel's road to Galway, which city was now held by the Irish, and was in truth one of their most important possessions. The Frenchman was a prey to conscious guilty feeling. He knew that Sarsfield held him accountable for the loss of Athlone, and his pride was painfully mortified. How often do dire events from trivial causes spring! This estrangement between St. Ruth and Sarsfield was fated to affect the destinies of Ireland, for to it may be traced the loss of the battle of Aughrim, as we shall see.

At a council of war in the Irish camp it was at first resolved to give battle in the strong position which the army had now taken up, but St. Ruth moved off to Aughrim, about three miles distant, on the road to Galway. The new position was not less strong than that which had just been quitted. In truth its selection, and the uses to which St. Ruth turned each and all of its natural advantages, showed him to be a man of consummate ability.

Close to the little village of Aughrim—destined to give name to the last great battle between Catholic and Protestant royalty on the soil of Ireland—Is the Hill of Kilcommedan. The hill slopes gradually and smoothly upward to a height of about three hundred feet from its base, running lengthways for about two miles from north to south. On its east side or slope, looking toward the way by which Ginckel must approach on his march westward to Galway, the Irish army was encamped, having on its right flank the pass or causeway of Urrachree, and its left flank resting on the village of Aughrim. A large morass lay at foot of Kilcommedan (on the east, sweeping round the northern end of the hill) which might be crossed in summer by footmen, but was impracticable for cavalry. Through its center, from south to north, ran a little stream, which with winter rains flooded all the surrounding marsh. Two narrow causeways, "passes," or roads, ran across the morass to the hill; one at Urrachree, the other at the town of Aughrim; the latter one being defended or commanded by an old ruin, Aughrim Castle, at the hill base.[1]

Along the slopes of the hill, parallel with its base, ran two or three lines of whitethorn hedgerows, growing out of thick earth fences, affording admirable position and protection for musketeers. It may be questioned if the genius of a "Wellington could have devised or directed aught that St. Ruth had not done to turn every feature of the ground and every inch of this position to advantage. Yet by one sin of omission he placed all the fortunes of the day on the hazard of his own life; he communicated his plan of battle to no one. Sarsfield was the man next entitled and fitted to command, in the event of anything befalling the general; yet he in particular was kept from any knowledge of the tactics or strategy upon which the battle was to turn. Indeed he was posted at a point critical and important enough in some senses, yet away from, and out of sight of the part of the field where the main struggle was to take place; and St. Ruth rather hurtfully gave him imperative instructions not to stir from the position thus assigned him without a written order from himself.

"At Aughrim," says an intelligent Protestant literary periodical, "three apparent accidents gave the victory to Ginckel. The musketeers defending the pass at the old castle found themselves supplied with cannon balls instead of bullets; the flank movement of a regiment was mistaken for a retreat; and St. Ruth lost his life by a cannon shot."[2] The last mentioned, which was really the accident that wrested undoubted victory from the Irish grasp, would have had no such disastrous result had St. Ruth confided his plan of battle to his lieutenant-general, and taken him heartily and thoroughly into joint command on the field.

I know of no account of this battle, which, within the same space, exhibits so much completeness, clearness, and simplicity of narration as Mr. Haverty's, which accordingly I here borrow with very little abridgment:

"The advanced guards of the Williamites came in sight of the Irish on the 11th of July, and the following morning, which was Sunday, July 12, 1691, while the Irish army was assisting at mass, the whole force of the enemy drew up in line of battle on the high ground to the east beyond the morass. As nearly as the strength of the two armies can be estimated, that of the Irish was about fifteen thousand horse and foot, and that of the Williamites from twenty to twenty-five thousand, the latter having besides a numerous artillery, while the Irish had but nine field pieces.

"Ginckel, knowing his own great superiority in artillery, hoped by the aid of that arm alone to dislodge the Irish center force from their advantageous ground; and as quickly as his guns could be brought into position, he opened fire upon the enemy. He also directed some cavalry movements on his left at the pass of Urrachree, but with strict orders that the Irish should not be followed beyond the 'pass,' lest any fighting there should force on a general engagement, for which he had not then made up his mind. His orders on this point, however, were not punctually obeyed; the consequence being some hot skirmishing, which brought larger bodies into action, until about three o'clock, when the Williamites retired from the pass.

"Ginckel now held a council of war, and the prevalent opinion seemed to be that the attack should be deferred until an early hour next morning, but the final decision of the council was for an immediate battle. At five o'clock, accordingly, the attack was renewed at Urrachree, and for an hour and a half there was considerable fighting in that quarter; several attempts to force the pass having been made in the interval, and the Irish cavalry continuing to maintain their ground gallantly, although against double their numbers.

"At length, at half-past six, Ginckel, having previously caused the morass in front of the Irish center to be sounded, ordered his infantry to advance on the point where the line of the fences at the Irish side projected most into the marsh, and where the morass was, consequently, narrowest. This, it appears, was in the Irish right center, or in the direction of Urrachree. The four regiments of colonels Erle, Herbert, Creighton, and Brewer were the first to wade through the mud and water, and to advance against the nearest of the hedges, where they were received with a smart fire by the Irish, who then retired behind their next line of hedges, to which the assailants in their turn approached. The Williamite infantry were thus gradually drawn from one line of fences to another, up the slope from the morass, to a greater distance than was contemplated in the plan of attack, according to which they were to hold their ground near the morass until they could be supported by reinforcements of infantry in the rear, and by cavalry on the flanks.

The Irish retired by such short distances that the Williamites pursued what they considered to be an advantage, until they found themselves face to face with the main line of the Irish, who now charged them in front; while by passages cut specially for such a purpose through the line of hedges by St. Ruth, the Irish cavalry rushed down with irresistible force and attacked them in the flanks. The effect was instantaneous. In vain did Colonel Erle endeavor to encourage his men by crying out that ' there was no way to come off but to be brave.' They were thrown into total disorder, and fled toward the morass, the Irish cavalry cutting them down in the rear, and the infantry pouring in a deadly fire, until they were driven beyond the quagmire, which separated the two armies. Colonels Erle and Herbert were taken prisoners; but the former, after being taken and retaken, and receiving some wounds, was finally rescued.

"While this was going forward toward the Irish right, several other Williamite regiments crossed the bog nearer to Aughrim, and were in like manner repulsed; but, not having ventured among the Irish hedges, their loss was not so considerable, although they were pursued so far in their retreat that the Irish, says Story, 'got almost in a line with some of our great guns,' or, in other words, had advanced into the English battleground. It was no wonder that at this moment St. Ruth should have exclaimed with national enthusiasm, 'The day is ours, mes enfants!'

"The maneuvers of the Dutch general on the other side evinced consummate ability, and the peril of his present position obliged him to make desperate efforts to retrieve it. His army being much more numerous than that of the Irish, he could afford to extend his left wing considerably beyond their right, and this causing a fear that he intended to flank them at that side, St. Ruth ordered the second line of his left to march to the right, the officer who received the instructions taking with him also a battalion from the center, which left a weak point not unobserved by the enemy. St. Ruth had a fatal confidence in the natural strength of his left, owing to the great extent of bog, and the extreme narrowness of the causeway near Aughrim Castle. The Williamite commander perceived this confidence, and resolved to take advantage of it. Hence his movement at the opposite extremity of his line, which was a mere feint, the troops which he sent to his left not firing a shot during the day, while some of the best regiments of the Irish were drawn away to watch them. The point of weakening the Irish left having been thus gained, the object of doing so soon became apparent.

A movement of the Williamite cavalry to the causeway at Aughrim was observed. Some horsemen were seen crossing the narrow part of the causeway with great difficulty, being scarcely able to ride two abreast. St. Ruth still believed that pass impregnable, as indeed it would have been, but for the mischances which we have yet to mention, and he is reported to have exclaimed, when he saw the enemy's cavalry scrambling over it, 'They are brave fellows, 'tis a pity they should be so exposed.' They were not, however, so exposed to destruction as he then imagined. Artillery had come to their aid, and as the men crossed, they began to form in squadrons on the firm ground near the old castle. What were the garrison of the castle doing at this time? and what the reserve of cavalry beyond the castle to the extreme left? As to the former, an unlucky circumstance rendered their efforts nugatory. It was found on examining the ammunition with which they had been supplied, that while the men were armed with French firelocks, the balls that had been served to them were cast for English muskets, of which the calibre was larger, and that they were consequently useless. In this emergency the men cut the small globular buttons from their jackets, and used them for bullets, but their fire was ineffective, however briskly it was sustained, and few of the enemy's horse crossing the causeway were hit. This was but one of the mischances connected with the unhappy left of St. Ruth's position. We have seen how an Irish officer, when ordered with reserves to the right wing, removed a battalion from the left center. This error [3] was immediately followed by the crossing of the morass at that weakened point by three Williamite regiments, who employed hurdles to facilitate their passage, and who, meeting with a comparatively feeble resistance at the front line of fences, suceeded in making a lodgment in a cornfield on the Irish side."

It was, however—as the historian just quoted remarks in continuation—still very easy to remedy the effects of these errors or mishaps thus momentarily threatening to render questionable the victory already substantially won by the Irish; and St. Ruth, for the purpose of so doing—and, in fact, delivering the coup de grace to the beaten foe—left his position of observation in front of the camp on the crest of the hill, and, placing himself in joyous pride at the head of a cavalry brigade, hastened down the slope to charge the confused bodies of Williamite horse gaining a foothold below. Those who saw him at this moment say that his face was aglow with enthusiasm and triumph. He had, as he thought, at last vindicated his name and fame; he had shown what St. Ruth could do. And, indeed, never for an instant had he doubted the result of this battle, or anticipated for it any other issue than a victory. He had attired himself, we are told, in his most gorgeous uniform, wearing all his decorations and costly ornaments, and constantly told those around him that he was to-day about to win a battle that would wrest Ireland from William's grasp. About halfway down the hill he halted a moment to give some directions to the artillerymen at one of the field batteries.

Then, drawing his sword, and giving the word to advance for a charge, he exclaimed to his officers: "They are beaten, gentlemen; let us drive them back to the gates of Dublin." With a cheer, rising above the roar of the artillery—which, from the other side, was playing furiously on this decisive Irish advance—the squadron made reply; when, suddenly, louder still, at its close, there arose a cry—a shriek—from some one near the general. All eyes were turned upon the spot, and for an instant many failed to discern the cause for such a startling utterance. There sat the glittering uniformed figure upon his charger. It needed, with some, a second glance to detect the horrible catastrophe that had befallen. There sat the body of St. Ruth indeed, but it was his lifeless corpse—a headless trunk. A cannon shot from the Williamite batteries had struck the head from his body, as if the Tyburn ax and block had done their fearful work. St. Ruth, the vain, the brave, was no more!

The staff crowded around the fallen commander in sad dismay. The brigade itself, ignorant at first of the true nature of what happened, but conscious that some serious disaster had occurred, halted in confusion. Indecision and confusion in the face of the enemy, and under fire of his batteries, has ever but one result. The brigade broke, and rode to the right. No one knew on whom the command devolved. Sarsfield was next in rank; but every one knew him to be posted at a distant part of the field, and it was unhappily notorious that he had not been made acquainted with any of the lost general's plan. This indecision and confusion was not long spreading from the cavalry brigade which St. Ruth had been leading to other bodies of the troops. The Williamites plainly perceived that something fatal had happened on the Irish side, which, if taken advantage of promptly, might give them victory in the very moment of defeat. They halted, rallied, and returned. A general attack in full force on all points was ordered.

"Still the Irish center and right wing maintained their ground obstinately, and the fight was renewed with as much vigor as ever. The Irish infantry was so hotly engaged that they were not aware either of the death of St. Ruth, or of the flight of the cavalry, until they themselves were almost surrounded. A panic and confused flight were the result. The cavalry of the right wing, who were the first in action that day, were the last to quit their ground. Sarsfield, with the reserve horse of the center, had to retire with the rest without striking one blow, 'although,' says the Williamite captain Parker, 'he had the greatest and best part of the cavalry with him.' St. Ruth fell about sunset; and about nine, after three hours' hard fighting, the last of the Irish army had left the field. The cavalry retreated along the high road to Loughrea, and the infantry, who mostly flung away their arms, fled to a large red bog on their left, where great numbers of them were massacred unarmed and in cold blood; but a thick misty rain coming on, and the night setting in, the pursuit was soon relinquished."

The peasantry to this day point out a small gorge on the hillside, still called "Gleann-na-Fola,"[4] where two of the Irish regiments, deeming flight vain, or scorning to fly, halted, and throughout the night waited their doom in sullen determination. There they were found in the morning, and were slaughtered to a man. The slogan of the conqueror was: "No quarter."[5]

Above five hundred prisoners, with thirty-two pairs of colors, eleven standards, and a large quantity of small arms, fell into the hands of the victors. The English loss in killed and wounded was about three thousand; the Irish lost over four thousand, chiefly in the flight, as the Williamites gave no quarter, and the wounded, if they were not, in comparative mercy, shot as they lay on the field, were allowed to perish unfriended where they fell.

To the music of one of the most plaintive of our Irish melodies—"The Lamentation of Aughrim"—Moore (a second time touched by this sad theme) has wedded the well-known verses here quoted:

"Forget not the field where they perished—
The truest, the last of the brave;
All gone—and the bright hope they cherished
Gone with them, and quenched in their grave.

"Oh! could we from death but recover
Those hearts, as they bounded before,
In the face of high Heaven to fight over
That combat for freedom once more—

"Could the chain for an instant be riven.
Which Tyranny flung round us then—
Oh!—"tis not in Man, nor in Heaven,
To let Tyranny bind it again!

"But 'tis past; and though blazoned in story
The name of our victor may be,
Accurst is the march of that glory
Which treads o'er the hearts of the free!

"Far dearer the grave or the prison,
Illumed by one patriot name,
Than the trophies of all who have risen
On Liberty's ruins to fame!"

We cannot take leave of the field of Aughrim and pass unnoticed an episode connected with that scene which may well claim a place in history; a true story, which, if it rested on any other authority than that of the hostile and unsympathizing Williamite chaplain, might be deemed either the creation of poetic fancy or the warmly tinged picture of exaggerated fact.

The bodies of the fallen Irish, as already mentioned, were for the most part left unburied on the ground, "a prey to the birds of the air and the beasts of the field." "There is," says the Williamite chronicler, "a true and remarkable story of a greyhound,[6] belonging to an Irish officer. The gentleman was killed and stripped in the battle,[7] whose body the dog remained by night and day; and though he fed upon other corpses with the rest of the dogs, yet he would not allow them or anything else to touch that of his master. When all the corpses were consumed, the other dogs departed; but this one used to go in the night to the adjacent villages for food, and presently return to the place where his master's bones only were then left. And thus he continued (from July when the battle was fought) till January following, when one of Colonel Foulkes' soldiers, being quartered nigh at hand, and going that way by chance, the dog fearing he came to disturb his master's bones, flew upon the soldier, who, being surprised at the suddenness of the thing, unslung his piece then upon his back, and shot the poor dog."[8] "He expired," adds Mr. O'Callaghan, "with the same fidelity to the remains of his unfortunate master, as that master had shown devotion to the cause of his unhappy country. In the history of nations there are few spectacles more entitled to the admiration of the noble mind and the sympathy of the generous and feeling heart, than the fate of the gallant men and the faithful dog of Aughrim."[9]


[1] The most intelligible, if not the only intelligible, descriptions of this battlefield are those of Mr. M. J. M'Cann, in the Harp for June, 1859; and in a work recently issued in America, "Battlefields of Ireland," unquestionably the most attractive and faithful narrative hitherto published of the Jacobite struggle.

[2] Dublin University Magazine for February, 1867.—"Some. Episodes of the Irish Jacobite Wars."

[3] Many Irish authorities assert it was no "error," but downright treason. The officer who perpetrated it being the traitor Luttrell, subsequently discovered to have long been working out the betrayal of the cause.

[4] The Glen of Slaughter.—The Bloody Glen.

[5] Moore, who seems to have been powerfully affected by the whole story of Aughrim—"the Culloden of Ireland—is said to have found in this mournful tragedy the subject of his exquisite song "After the Battle:"

"Night closed around the conqueror's way,
And lightnings showed the distant hill,
Where those who lost that dreadful day
Stood few and faint, but fearless still!
The soldier's hope, the patriot's zeal,
Forever dimmed, forever crossed—
Oh! who shall say what heroes feel,
When all but life and honor's lost?

"The last sad hour of freedom's dream
And valor's task moved slowly by,
While mute they watched, till morning's beam
Should rise and give them light to die.
There's yet a world where souls are free,
Where tyrants taint not nature's bliss:
If death that world's bright op'ning be,
Oh! who would live a slave in this?"

[6] It was a wolf-hound or wolf-dog.

[7] Meaning to say, killed in the battle and stripped after it by the Williamite camp-followers, with whom stripping and robbing the slain was a common practice. They did not spare even the corpse of their own lieutenant colonel, the Right Rev. Dr. Walker, Protestant Bishop of Derry, which they stripped naked at the Boyne. [8] Story's "Cont. Imp. Hist.," page 147.

[9] "Green Book," page 459.