James II’s Irish Campaign (3)

Eleanor Hull
James II’s Irish Campaign | start of chapter

The battle of Aughrim is the last pitched battle fought by Irishmen on Irish ground. Aughrim was twenty miles from Athlone, west of the Shannon, in Co. Galway. St Ruth selected an excellent position along the ridge of Kilcommedan Hill, with a morass in front and an old broken causeway on the left only wide enough for two horsemen to ride abreast.

Beyond the causeway was the castle of Aughrim, which Colonel Walter Bourke was sent to occupy with two hundred men. The Irish cavalry reserve was marshalled in two lines, with Sarsfield and d’Usson commanding. The foot, who rapidly entrenched their position, were about ten thousand strong, under Dorington and Hamilton, and they fought that day with stubborn valour, to the surprise and delight of St Ruth, who had heard in France a bad account of the Irish infantry.

On July 12 Ginkel’s army appeared in sight, and he quickly appreciated the sternness of the task that lay before him. As often as they advanced, the English were beaten back, and at sunset the Irish foot still maintained the ground; even the advance of the cavalry, who pushed their way among the infantry holding the bog, did not cause them to flinch. The communicating trenches between their lines enabled the Irish to throw the weight of their defence on whichever side it was needed, and Colonel Earl, whose men were struggling uphill knee-deep through mud and water, was taken prisoner, and the infantry driven back almost level with their guns.

The English cavalry then endeavoured to pass the narrow causeway close under the castle; this made even St Ruth exclaim “They are brave fellows; it is a pity they should be so exposed,”[20] but they managed to make good the pass and get in among the Irish on the flank. But the centre was firmly pushing back Ginkel’s foot, and St. Ruth, watching the steady advance of his men from the slopes of the hill, exclaimed that he would beat the enemy back to the gates of Dublin.[21] Then, giving an order to the gunners where to direct their fire, he put himself at the head of the cavalry and turned to relieve the right flank, which was struggling with the English horse. But as he rode down the hill a cannon-shot picked him out, and he fell, throwing the cavalry into momentary confusion.

The sudden halt made the ill tidings known, and as St. Ruth had kept the command entirely in his own hands there was no one prepared to take up his authority, for Sarsfield, the only officer who could have retrieved the situation, had been left, through jealousy, with his regiment far in the rear and out of sight of the action.

St Ruth’s French guards withdrew from the field, followed by some of the Irish horse, and though the foot still stubbornly maintained their ground they were unsupported and un-officered. Slowly they were pushed back again up the hill toward their camp, dropping in numbers as they struggled upwards. The fall of night and a heavy rain alone put an end to the slaughter and, finding themselves leaderless and under a torrent of fire on the open hillside, they gradually melted away.

The battle of Aughrim was followed by the surrender of Galway and Sligo, and their garrisons marched out with favourable terms to take part in the last scene of the great drama behind the walls of Limerick. With the fall of St. Ruth at Aughrim, says Colonel O’Kelly, “died the hope and good fortune of Ireland.”

The short second siege of Limerick, to be ended by the treaty, was carried out amid a succession of disasters, which could not all have been accidental. The drawing off of the cavalry by Sheldon before the siege began removed the only impediment to the completion of the bridge which Ginkel was building across the Shannon; and Colonel Clifford, who was in command at the pass where the bridge was being constructed, persistently looked the other way.

The schemes of Tyrconnel, who hastened to write to James that all was lost and that submission to William was the only means to save Ireland, came to a sudden end by his death from apoplexy after dining with d’Usson, the French commander, with whom, in spite of the desperate condition of Irish affairs, “he was very merry and jocose.”[22]

Luttrell was carrying on a secret correspondence with Ginkel, and d’Usson was eager to get home to France. Within the city Sarsfield was in vain trying to hold the townsmen in check, being as usual placed in the position where he could be of least avail, while his cavalry, who might have relieved the place, were being marched off towards Sligo by Sheldon.

The condition of affairs in the besieged city is described by a native poet, David O’Bruadair, a devoted admirer of Sarsfield, to whom several of his poems refer. He was shut up in Limerick during the wars and sieges of this period. He was an adherent of the Stuarts, bitterly sarcastic against men who secured their way of retreat by going over to William’s side, and lamenting the miseries of the people who were crowding into the town for shelter and safety. Later his laments were addressed to the Irish troops “sent o’er the ocean in cheerless ships” and to the clergy, many of whom were enduring cold and exposure. But he shows that the city was broken into factions and seamed with treachery. A considerable party, to which he seems to have belonged, were in favour of accepting the Articles of Capitulation, which he calls “these relief-bringing Articles”; and in this view he seems to have been of one mind with Sarsfield, who, to the astonishment and consternation of all Ireland “appeared now most active to forward the treaty and took most pains to persuade the colonels and captains to a compliance.” This “sudden, unexpected, and prodigious change in Sarsfield,” as brave Colonel O’Kelly calls it, had such influence that the terms were accepted with little difficulty, few like himself being determined that there should be no agreement.

Many followed Sarsfield as they would have followed him anywhere, though with reluctance and regret. He may have considered that continued resistance was useless, that the terms offered were good, and that the people were weary of war. Money, too, was being freely expended to buy over the goodwill of the officers. Yet O’Kelly feels that there was some mystery in this rapid change of feeling. O’Bruadair boldly lays the blame of the capitulation on the dissensions within the town and the universal anarchy without.

The highwaymen, largely recruited from the broken regiments of James’s army, were a terror to the country. They had grown from small bodies of marauders into formidable armies of irregulars, who would obey no orders save those given by their own chosen leaders, of whom the most noted at the time was Baldearg O’Donnell, a descendant of the old princely house of Ulster, who had served in Spain until the landing of William of Orange in Ireland. Then he had slipped off to his own country, and was given some troops by Tyrconnel with an indefinite commission. But O’Donnell, around whom a popular superstition grew up, on account of a prophecy that one of his name should free Ireland from the English yoke, began to form a party of his own, and Tyrconnel, who feared a combination of the Ulster Irish under one of their own race, did all he could to thwart him and render him powerless.

King James says that he had raised eight regiments of over seven thousand men “besides a rabble of irregulars that destroyed the country.” Baldearg played fast and loose with all parties. He took £2,000 from Ginkel and joined his irregulars to the Williamite army, forcing old Sir Teague O’Regan to surrender Sligo, which was strongly holding for James, on September 14, 1691. He then took to the life of a Rapparee, at the head of a large band of followers.

We hear of bodies of these freebooters in Connacht and the Bog of Allen numbering several hundreds at a time, who lived in the hills or islands and terrorized the country. They would meet at appointed signals, but when searched for they seemed to disappear in the long grass, dropping their arms, so that “they looked like the poorest humblest slaves in the world, and the soldiers might search till they were weary before they would find one gun.”

All parties united to try and put down these outlaws; even O’Bruadair says that the earth had not before known “a litter of such a kind,” whose conduct had been the disgraceful cause of gallows erected like shop-signs in every town.

“How that gang, who spared not man or woman, could hope to find mercy is more than the wisest know.”[23]

Added to these pests of society were the storekeepers and subalterns, who seized upon goods and food of all kinds under guise of the King’s orders and often holding papers signed by Sarsfield, but little of whose ill-gotten gains reached the King’s army. “These caterpillars,” as O’Kelly calls them, came out in swarms, escorted by parties of soldiers, “searching all places both above and under ground.”[24]

The country was in such a distracted state that the very thought of peace was sufficient to secure the signing of the Articles. The Articles of Capitulation, which we consider in a separate chapter, consisted of two parts, Military and Civil—the Military Clauses being signed first. Yet at the time of their presentation Limerick was not subdued, and there was news of a French fleet at sea coming to its relief. But Ginkel was anxious to close the war and get his troops back to England before the winter.

On October 3, 1691, after long discussion, the Military Articles proposed by Ginkel were signed by Sarsfield, Gallmoy, Purcell, Dillon and Brown, and by the Lords Justices recently appointed to succeed Tyrconnel, on the Irish side, and by Ginkel on the other. The French generals also signed. A day or two later the French fleet sailed into Dingle Bay.