The bloodiest battlefield in Irish history: An Irishman’s Diary on the Battle of Aughrim

It takes only about two hours to walk the perimeter of the bloodiest battlefield in Irish history. Between 6,000 and 9,000 men were killed in a little over four hours in the Battle of Aughrim in Co Galway – more than the combined fatality totals of the Battles of Clontarf, Kinsale, the Boyne, Vinegar Hill and Easter 1916.

The battle, between two armies of about 20,000 men each, took place just outside Aughrim village, between Ballinasloe and Loughrea, on Sunday July 12th, 1691 (July 22nd on the contemporary Julian calendar).

It was the last pitched battle on Irish soil and the final and decisive battle in the Williamite war, or the War of the English Succession.

Patrick Sarsfield, Gen Henry Luttrell, the French Marquis of St Ruth and the Dutch Gen Baron Von Ginkel were among the most prominent participants in what was effectively the final battle of a war for west European dominance involving three kings: the Dutch William of Orange, his uncle James II of England, and Louis XIV of France, who backed James, “a feud of absent kings”, as the poet Richard Murphy called it in his 1968 account.


William’s army, better resourced and paid in silver and gold, was made up of Anglo-Irish, English and Scottish troops, as well as Dutch, Danish, German and Huguenot mercenaries. It was buoyed by recent victories at the Boyne and Athlone and it had more cavalry and twice as many cannon guns as its opponents (18 to nine).

James’s troops – the Jacobites – were mostly Irish, but led by French generals who spoke neither Irish nor English. They were low in morale, retreating westward, paid in brass and short of ammunition. It was said that those defending the already-ruined Aughrim Castle were given bullets that did not fit their muskets and that they had to try to improvise with buttons from their tunics.

“More execution was done at Aughrim than in all Europe besides”, wrote the Rev George Story, an English army chaplain who accompanied William’s army.

“Seen from the top of the hill, the unburied dead covered four miles, like a great flock of sheep”, he added.

The land was manured, not with sand or dung, but with the bodies of soldiers left on the ridges, one of Lady Gregory’s “wise old neighbours” in south Galway told her more than 200 years later.

Briseadh Eachroma became a West of Ireland byword for defeat and ruination. The poet Raftery (Antoine Ó Raifteiri) said it was at Aughrim “that many a son of Ireland found sorrow, without speaking of all that died”. The Thomas Davis song The West’s Asleep laments those who died “at Aughrim’s slopes”. After Aughrim is the title of 19th-century poems by Emily Lawless and Arthur Geoghegan mourning the flight of the Wild Geese that quickly followed the battle and the Treaty of Limerick.

Landmarks along the line of the battle, which stretched for about a mile and a half, include Gleann na Fola (Bloody Hollow), where the fighting was fiercest; Luttrell’s Pass, where through treachery or cowardice Luttrell abandoned the left flank of the Jacobite defence; and St Ruth’s Bush, beside where St Ruth was decapitated by a cannonball immediately after he had prematurely shouted Le jour est à nous, mes enfants (The day is ours, my children).

The battlefield trail of just under 10km begins at the Visitor Centre in Aughrim village, which also houses a coffee shop, an interactive exhibition and a display of artefacts recovered from the battle sites.

After crossing the R446 – the old Galway-Dublin road – the trail runs south beside Kilcommadan Hill, the front line of the battle and the location of St Ruth’s Bush and Bloody Hollow.

Along this section too is the first of two other ancient landmarks on the trail: the site where in 1603 Donal Cam O’Sullivan Beare repulsed an attack by a far greater English force during his epic march from Cork. The second is a remnant of the ice-age Esker Riada, which runs across the Midlands from Dublin to the Atlantic coast of Galway and which can be seen on the eastern flank of the battlefield.

The last leg of the trail runs from east to west and includes Luttrell’s Pass, the ruins of Aughrim Castle and a 24ft Celtic cross on which is inscribed: “To the memory of Lieutenant General Marquis De Saint Ruth and those who fell at Aughrim 1691”.