Written by Barry Lally (Originally Published in Aug/Sept 2016 issue of Ballinasloe Life Magazine)
“Sign oh they died their lands to save
At Aughrim’s slopes and Shannon’s wave.”
Entrusted with the supreme command of the Jacobite armz in Ireland General Charles Chalmont arrived in Limerick from France on 9th May 1691 accompanied by 51 vessesls loaded with arms, ammunition, uniforms and provisions. At this stage in the War of the Two Kings the Irish suppoerters of King James had retreated to west of the Shannon, and were determined to hold the line of the river against an expected Willimite advance.
Chalmont, officially known as the Marquis de Saint Ruhe (commonly though incorrectly rendered as Saint Ruth), was tall, well-built, and very ugly. In contrast to his title, his character seems to have been anything but saintly; contemporaries describe him as vain, strutting and insufferable rude. According to one source, he behaved so brutally towards his wife that she was obliged to appeal to King Louis XIV, who dispatched Chalmont to Ireland so that the poor woman might enjoy a respite from his reprehensible conduct. Relations between himself and Richard Talbot, James’s Lord Deputy, were said to be toxic.
In the conflict between the Catholic King James II and his Protestand son-in-law William of Orange, the Gaelic Irish aristocracy and their follower had allied themselves with James in the hope that the effects of the Cromwellian cofiscations would be reversed and that they would be protected agains religious persecution. Ironically, the Pope was backing William and had advanced him a considerable sum of money as a war loan.
Notwithstanding the support of France, the army of King James had suffered serious reverses in Ireland, particularly at the Battle of the Boyne the previous year. The Jacobites, however, did not regard their cause as beyond redemption, and they still looked forward to seeing the fortunes of war turn in their favour. It was in this mood that Chalmont set out for Athlone, where it was anticipated that the Williamites would attempt to effect a crossing of the Shannon.
After the town had been pulverised by an intense and prolonged bombardment by Williamite artillery, the Jacobites concentrated their defensive positions on the west bank of the river. Seiying the opportunity presented by the low lever of the Shannon following a lengthy dry spell, on 30th June the Williamites launched a surprise attack by fording the river under cover of darkness. In the absence of Chalmont, who allegedly had taken time off to go hunting, the attackers under the Dutch General Godaard van Reede (later known as Count van Ginkel) quickly overran their opponents’ defences. Having suffered a humiliating defeat, a demoralised Jacobite army was forced to withdraw to Ballinasloe, losing nearly half its infantry to desertions on the way.
Chalmont was blamed for the loss of Athlone and he knew it. Desperate to salvage his reputation, he disregarded the Lord Deputy’s oders to retreat to Limerick to await reinforcements from France, and decided to offer battle to the advancing Williamites at Aughrim. He may have been influenced in his choice of ground by hearing that O’Sullivan Beare had defeated a numerically superior English force at the site in 1602.
Sunday 12th July had begun with fog which had dispersed by midday as the armies stood facing each other on the opposite slopes of Kilcommedan and Urrachree, about three and a half miles sout-west of Ballinasloe. Ginkel commanded a mixed force of Englsih, Irish Portestand, Dutch, Danish and French Juguenot soldiers, approximately 20,000 strong, roughly the same in number as the army of his adversary, though the Williamites had the edge in artillery. The Jacobite position was a good defensive one since a bog separated them from their opponents, but could prove difficult in the event of their attempting a counterattack.
The conflict raged from noon to sunset, during which time the Williamite assaults had been successfully repulsed until the tide of battle unexpectedly turned against the Jacobites. As he was about to lead a charge he hoped would clinch his victory, Chalmont was decapitated by a conon ball. Confusion ensured in the Jacobite ranks, for he had failed to communicate his battle plan to his subordinates.
In another part of the field an equally disastrous event occurred. A narrow causeway led across the bog – approximating to the present-day Aughrim-Ballinasloe road – from the Williamite right to the Jacobite left flank. The Williamite General Mackay perceived this as a vulnerable point in his opponents’ defences, and resolved to lead a cavalry charge along the route. It used to be thought that a detachment of cavalry detailed to defend the causeway was treacherously withdrawn by their commander, Henry Luttrell, without engaging the enemy. Recent research suggests that this was not so, and that, on the contrary, a vigorous defence had been conducted until an order to retreat had come from further up the chain of command. Eventually the Williamites broke through, taking the main body of the Jacobites completely by surprise. Finding the enemy suddenly in their midst, they proved easy meat for their opponents.
The result was a crushing defeat for the Jacobite cause on a field strewn with an estimated 4,000 corpses. Amongst the consequences of the battle were the Jacobite surrender on 28th August, the Flight of the Wild Geese, the expropiation of the landed property of those on the losing side, and the enactment of the Penal Laws. More than a century would pass before Ireland would again rise in arms.
Aughrim is now no more, St. Ruth is dead,
And all his guards are from the battle fled;
As he rode down the hill he took a fall,
And died the victim of a cannon ball”