King Billy’s other July 12th victory: Aughrim of the Slaughter

The Battle of Aughrim on July 12th, 1691 was arguably the most bloody ever on Irish soil

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.