Thomas Leland on the Battle of Aughrim

(Extract from Leland's "History of Ireland")

From The Cabinet of Irish Literature, Volume 1 (1880), edited by Charles A. Read

The fate of Ireland was now ready to be decided. Whether the English power was to be at length unalterably established in this harassed country, or whether it was to be once more exposed to the calamities of a tedious intestine war, seemed to depend on the event of a few days, and the minds of all men were in consequence strained to a painful pitch of anxiety and expectation. On the 10th day of June Ginckle marched from Athlone, and encamped along the river Suc, in the county of Roscommon, a pass which the Irish might have maintained with advantage; but it soon appeared that they had taken their station to greater advantage, about three miles further to the south-west. Their camp extended more than two miles along the heights of Kilcommeden, with a rivulet on their left running between hills and morasses, and these again skirted by a large bog, in breadth almost a mile; on the side of which stood the ruins of an old castle, called by the name of the neighbouring village Aughrim, entrenched and occupied by infantry, and commanding the only pass on that side to the Irish camp. All along the front, at a distance of about half a mile from their encampment, the bog extended to their right, where was another pass through a range of small hills opening into wider ground. The slope of Kilcommeden, even to the edge of the bog, was intersected by hedges and ditches communicating with each other, and lined with Irish musketeers. Ginckle, with 18,000 men, was now to attack an enemy amounting to 25,000 thus posted, and who wanted only an additional number of cannon to take the full advantage of their situation. St. Ruth, from his eminence, had a full view of the motions of the English; he saw them cross the river and prepare to give him battle; he drew out his main army in front of his camp. He rode to every squadron and battalion; he reminded the Irish officers that their future fortune depended upon the issue of one encounter; that they were now to fight for their honour, their liberty, and their estates; that they were now to establish their religion, for which he himself had displayed an extraordinary zeal, on such a firm basis as the powers of hell and heresy should never shake; that the dearest interests and most honourable engagements of this life, and the ravishing prospect of eternal happiness, called for a vigorous exertion of that valour which their enemies affected to deny them. The priests ran through the ranks, labouring to inspire the soldiers with the same sentiments; and, we are told, obliged them to swear on the sacrament that they would not desert their colours.

On the 12th day of July at noon (for the fogs of the morning had hitherto prevented them) the English army advanced in as good order as their broken and uneven ground would permit. It was in the first place deemed necessary to gain the pass on the right of the enemy. A small party of Danes sent to force it, fled instantly at the appearance of a still smaller party of the enemy. Some English dragoons were next employed, were boldly opposed, were sustained by other bodies; the enemy retreated; as the assailants pressed forward they found themselves encountered by new parties, but after an obstinate contest of an hour they forced their way beyond the bog; nor possibly was St. Ruth displeased to have an opportunity of fighting one wing of the English separately in a place where, if defeated, their retreat must prove fatal. The skirmish served to convince Ginckle both of the spirit and of the advantages of the enemy. It was now debated whether the battle should not be deferred to the next morning; and, with difficulty, resolved to prevent the enemy from decamping in the night and prolonging the war, by an immediate renewal of the engagement. By the advice of General Mackay it was resolved to begin the attack on the enemy's right wing, which would oblige St. Ruth to draw off some forces from his left, so that the passage by Aughrim Castle would be rendered less dangerous for the English horse, and the whole army be enabled to engage. About the hour of five in the evening the left wing of the English, both horse and foot, advanced boldly against the enemy, who obstinately maintained their posts. The musketeers, supported by their cavalry, received and returned the English fire, defending their ditches until the muskets of each side closed with the other; then retiring by their lines of communication, flanked their assailants, and charged them with double fury. The engagement was thus continued for one hour and a half, when St. Ruth, as was foreseen, found it necessary to draw a considerable part of the cavalry from his left to support his right wing. Mackay seized the favourable moment, and while the cavalry were in motion to gain the pass by Aughrim Castle, several regiments of infantry in the centre were ordered to march through the bog extending along the front and to post themselves on the lowest ditches, until the horse should gain the passage, and wheel from the right to support their charge. The infantry plunged into the bog and were instantly sunk to their middle in mire and water; they floundered on unmolested, but no sooner had they gained the opposite side than they received a furious fire from the hedges and trenches occupied by the enemy. They advanced still undismayed; the Irish retired on purpose to draw them forward; transported with ardour, they forgot their orders, and pursued almost to the main battle of the Irish. Both horse and foot now poured down upon them, assailed them in front and in flank, forced them from their ground, drove some of them back into the bog, pursued them with slaughter, and took several prisoners of note; while St. Ruth exclaimed in an ecstasy of joy, "Now will I drive the English to the very walls of Dublin."

His attention was soon diverted to the English cavalry on his left, commanded by Talmash, who, seeing the alarming disorder of the centre, pushed with incredible ardour close by the walls of the castle, through all the fire of the enemy, forcing their way through a narrow and dangerous pass, to the amazement of St. Ruth, who asked what the English meant? "To force their way to our left," replied his officers. "They are brave fellows!" said the general, "it is a pity they should be so exposed."

Mackay, Talmash, Rouvigny now gradually pressed forward from the light, bearing down all opposition; the infantry of the centre rallied, advanced, and regained their former ground; the left wing fought bravely and was bravely opposed. St. Ruth saw that the fortune of the day depended on making an impression on the enemy's cavalry in their rapid progress from the right. He rode down from his station on the hill, and having directed one of his batteries where to point their fire, led a body of horse against them. In this critical moment a cannon-ball deprived him of life. His body was conveyed away, and the intelligence of his death ran through the lines. His cavalry halted, and as they had no orders, returned toward their former station. The Irish beheld this retreat with dismay; they were confounded and disordered; their disorder increased; Sarsfield, upon whom the command devolved, had been neglected by the proud Frenchman ever since their altercation at Athlone. As the order of battle had not been imparted to him, he could not support the dispositions of the late general. The English in the meantime pressed forward, drove the enemy to their camp, pursued their advantage until the Irish, after an engagement supported with the fairest prospect of success while they had a general to direct their valour, fled precipitately,--the foot to a bog, the horse towards Loughrea.

During the heat of this action some Danish forces stationed at the extremity of the left wing kept several bodies of the enemy in awe. When they perceived the advantage at length gained by the battalion in the centre they charged their opponents, to prevent their falling back to the relief of their associates. The Irish received them intrepidly, and continued the contest for some time; but on the general rout of the army, fled with their countrymen. In the battle and in a bloody pursuit of three miles 7000 of the Irish army were slain. The unrelenting fury of the victors appeared in the number of their prisoners, which amounted only to 450. On their side 700 fell, 1000 were wounded. All the cannon, ammunition, tents, and baggage of the enemy were taken, with a great quantity of small arms, eleven standards, and thirty-two colours, destined as a present to the queen. Such was the crowning victory of the English army.