A novel approach – An Irishman’s Diary on the Battle of Aughrim
The story of two opposing generals, Patrick Sarsfield and Hugh Mackay
Growing up on a battlefield and attending a classroom lined with the detritus of that long-ago battle was normal in my childhood. So normal that it wasn’t very interesting.
The battlefield was in Aughrim, Co Galway, where roughly 6,000 died on a sunny Sunday afternoon in July 1691 in Ireland’s bloodiest battle. The bodies of the defeated Jacobite army, who suffered at least twice as many casualties as the Williamite victors, were left on the hill where most died, bleaching into skeletons over time.
The classroom was that of my father, Martin Joyce, then principal of the national school.
But my friends and I had little interest in the cannonballs, handfuls of musket balls, rusted swords, and frames of pistols that he had collected over the years from farmers who ploughed them up accidentally. We were more interested in a Webley revolver, not because it had been used in the War of Independence but because it resembled the six-shooters of Western films.
We re-enacted those Hollywood stories over the battlefield and among the woods and lakes at its edge. Even if we weren’t very interested in its history, we were always conscious that there was something different about this place, that its unexceptional landscape had another dimension to it, one that has exerted its pull over many people.
Among them was Richard Murphy who stayed in our house several times when researching and writing his epic poem The Battle of Aughrim, arriving one teatime outside the dining room window on a borrowed farm horse – the poet as method actor getting into the part.
In his memoir The Kick, he described my father as living in two time zones, 1691 and the present.
My father certainly enjoyed living in the present but he was ready and willing to go back to 1691 at the slightest excuse. There were many Sundays when we three children were crammed into the back of an Austin Seven (a Mini by another name) for an afternoon drive only to be decanted when someone, earlier out for a Sunday drive, arrived to see the school museum or tour the battlefield.
To the disgust of my mother, who had zero interest in history, my father was gone with the velocity of a cannon shot, not to be seen again for hours. “I could compete with another woman,” she used to say, “but how do you compete with an old battle.”
Almost 30 years after his death, just as the Aughrim Interpretative Centre was being built, I’m still surprised by the number of people who have memories of his museum and battlefield tours.
Last year, an email out of the blue from photographer and writer Nic Dunlop in Thailand told me of his childhood fascination with the battered sign on the old N6 to Galway, then one of the few markers of the battlefield.
His family stopped one year, met my father, and he has been back numerous times to photograph the landscape in evocative black and white (see nicdunlop.com).
Another friend who attributes his lifelong interest in the battle to visiting Aughrim with his father as an eight-year-old is Colman Morrissey, who inveigled me into writing a book about it with the promise of access to his unique collection of contemporary accounts, now in the library of NUIG.
In retirement, my father did try to put pen to paper but preferred to talk and walk those fields than write about them.
He enjoyed being a member of Galway County Council’s Ancient Monuments Committee (named, he liked to say, after its membership as much as its speciality).
The result of Colman’s arm-twisting is 1691: A Novel, the story of two opposing generals, Patrick Sarsfield and Hugh Mackay, as they went through a fateful year of four sieges as well as the pitched battle at Aughrim. My father wouldn’t have written it as fiction but, I’m sure, would be happy that it is based on fact. Unlike my three previous historical novels, set in Emergency Dublin, this book has no made-up characters or events.
The techniques of fiction come in the dialogue and in teasing out the friendships, enmities, relationships and beliefs of the main participants. Many of the Irish, English, Scottish, and French commanders on both sides knew each other, or of each other, from their previous service together in one army or another.
Reading military history written as fiction might not be the first choice of those interested in the subject. But trying to approach historical events without the benefit of hindsight allows for greater understanding of the dilemmas facing people who couldn’t know the ultimate outcomes of what they decided. The past was never simpler than our present when it too was facing an unknowable future.
This approach doesn’t change the overall historical narrative but provides more nuances and a deeper understanding of the real people involved. And it raises the possibility that one man who has gone down in history as a traitor –Henry Luttrell – may have been the victim of a clever enemy deception and not deserving of his posthumous infamy. No more than Hollywood Westerns, our stories of the past like to have heroes and villains. But we don’t always have to play that game. 1691: A Novel is available as a paperback and ebook from Amazon.co.uk. More information at https://bit.ly/3badnad