The Battle of Aughrim
A meditation on landscape, violence and identity.
The battle of Aughrim was fought on the 12th July, 1691 near the village of the same name in Co. Galway, Ireland, between the Irish Jacobite army of James II, and the combined armies of William of Orange. 40,000 soldiers took part. More men were killed here than on all the D-Day beaches combined.
Signpost to a Forgotten Battle
In July 2010, I returned to Ireland, the country of my birth, on a private errand and pilgrimage. I wanted to return something that I felt was not mine, by rights, to own. My uncle by marriage had given it to me more than a decade before in 1995. He asked me if I was still interested in Ireland’s Jacobite war. His ancestors had fought on the Irish side. When I replied that I was, he handed me a small jewellers box that once contained a ring. Inside was a musket ball. He winked at me. It was from Aughrim he said.
For years it sat on a shelf in my office in Bangkok next to Buddha images and Khmer Rouge bank notes. When my uncle died four years later, in 1999, I decided to return it to the battlefield where I felt it belonged.
Every summer, my family would go for our annual holiday from our home in Dublin to Connemara in Galway. We would cross the centre of Ireland on a journey that, for a small boy, seemed to go on for an eternity. In central Ireland the countryside is flat, uneventful and bleak. The initial excitement of holiday anticipation would give way to long silences in our white Fiat. I would press my forehead against the window, my mind dulled by the repetitive sweep of hedgerows as we drove through the expanse of Kildare and Meath. Apart from the occasional ruin in the distance, there was little to punctuate the boredom. I remember the surge of excitement as we crossed the Shannon and the pungent smell of smoke from turf fires seeped into the car. From here on the fields were divided by loose stone walls, a feature of the Galway landscape and a sure sign that we were nearly there. Next would be Oranmore and then the Atlantic and eventually the rock pools and sandy white beaches of ‘the West’.
I don’t know exactly when it was that I first saw the signpost. What I do remember was that it was peeling and dilapidated, even then. As soon as I’d see it, it was gone. But like the outline of a bulb switched off in a dark room, it branded itself on my mind’s eye. It featured two crossed sabres and the single word ‘Aughrim’, and the date; 1691. Apart from the sign, there was nothing to indicate that anything had ever taken place there.
Over the years I would always keep a lookout for the sign. And the excitement of seeing it never diminished. My father often played traditional Irish music in the car. As we approached the battlefield and, at my request, he would play The Battle of Aughrim by the Chieftains. To me, the musical arrangement of uilleann pipes, tin whistles and the menacing rhythm of bodhran drums reached back to an ancient past rooted in the landscape. Lost in the music, I would gaze out of the window and imagine heavy cavalry in full gallop alongside us as we swept over the battlefield.
A version of this story was published in Granta magazine here
Who owns the land where musket-balls are buried
In blackthorn roots on the eskar, the drained bogs
Where sheep browse, and credal war miscarried?
Names in the rival churches are written on plaques.
The Battle of Aughrim , (1968)
The story I have to tell
Was told to me by a teacher
Who read it in a poem
Written in a language that has died.
Two hundred and fifty years ago
The poet recalled
Meeting a soldier who had heard
From veterans of the war
The story I have to tell.
Deep red bogs divided
Aughrim, the horse’s ridge
Of garland hedgerows and the summer dance,
From the colonialist’s advance:
Twenty thousand soldiers on each side,
Between them a morass
Of godly bigotry and pride of race,
With a causeway two abreast could pass.
In bowler hats and Sunday suits,
Orange sashes, polished boots,
Atavistic trainbands come
To blow the fife and beat the drum.
Apprentices uplift their banner
True blue-dyed with 'No Surrender!'
Claiming Aughrim as if they'd won
Last year, not 1691.
'At the very top of the hill, cavalry were mixed with infantry. The firing was so intense that the ridges seemed to be ablaze. As dusk fell, the cavalry began to move away and take flight, abandoning the infantry, who, in turn threw down their arms, left their colours and ran.
Terrible scenes followed as the English fell on the rear of the fugitives. Stricken with fear, we saw them fleeing in all directions across the countryside into the mountains, woods, bogs and wildernesses. Like mad people, the women, children and wagoners filled every road weeping and wailing.
Worse still, was the sight after the battle of the many men and horses too badly wounded to get away, who when attempting to rise fell back unable to bear their own weight. Some mutilated and in great pain begged to be put out of their misery, and others coughed out blood and threats, their blooded weapons frozen in their hands as if in readiness for some future battle.
The blood from the dead so covered the ground that one could hardly take a step without slipping. This grisly scene of slaughter remained untouched and unchanged for several days, the horror of which cannot be imagined except by those who saw it.'
- A Danish eyewitness account.