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The History of England from the Accession of James II
By Thomas Babington MacAulay
Chapter 4 Part 4

On the sixth of June Ginkell moved his head quarters from Mullingar. On the seventh he reached Ballymore. At Ballymore, on a peninsula almost surrounded by something between a swamp and a lake, stood an ancient fortress, which had recently been fortified under Sarsfield's direction, and which was defended by above a thousand men. The English guns were instantly planted. In a few hours the besiegers had the satisfaction of seeing the besieged running like rabbits from one shelter to another. The governor, who had at first held high language, begged piteously for quarter, and obtained it. The whole garrison were marched off to Dublin. Only eight of the conquerors had fallen.

Ginkell passed some days in reconstructing the defences of Ballymore. This work had scarcely been performed when he was joined by the Danish auxiliaries under the command of the Duke of Wirtemberg. The whole army then moved westward, and, on the nineteenth of June, appeared before the walls of Athlone. Athlone was perhaps, in a military point of view, the most important place in the island. Rosen, who understood war well, had always maintained that it was there that the Irishry would, with most advantage, make a stand against the Englishry. The town, which was surrounded by ramparts of earth, lay partly in Leinster and partly in Connaught. The English uarter, which was in Leinster, had once consisted of new and handsome houses, but had been burned by the Irish some months before, and now lay in heaps of ruin. The Celtic quarter, which was in Connaught, was old and meanly built. The Shannon, which is the boundary of the two provinces, rushed through Athlone in a deep and rapid stream, and turned two large mills which rose on the arches of a stone bridge. Above the bridge, on the Connaught side, a castle, built, it was said, by King John, towered to the height of seventy feet, and extended two hundred feet along the river. Fifty or sixty yards below the bridge was a narrow ford.

During the night of the nineteenth the English placed their cannon. On the morning of the twentieth the firing began. At five in the afternoon an assault was made. A brave French refugee with a grenade in his hand was the first to climb the breach, and fell, cheering his countrymen to the onset with his latest breath. Such were the gallant spirits which the bigotry of Lewis had sent to recruit, in the time of his utmost need, the armies of his deadliest enemies. The example was not lost. The grenades fell thick. The assailants mounted by hundreds. The Irish gave way and ran towards the bridge. There the press was so great that some of the fugitives were crushed to death in the narrow passage, and others were forced over the parapets into the waters which roared among the mill wheels below. In a few hours Ginkell had made himself master of the English quarter of Athlone; and this success had cost him only twenty men killed and forty wounded.

But his work was only begun. Between him and the Irish town the Shannon ran fiercely. The bridge was so narrow that a few resolute men might keep it against an army. The mills which stood on it were strongly guarded; and it was commanded by the guns of the castle. That part of the Connaught shore where the river was fordable was defended by works, which the Lord Lieutenant had, in spite of the murmurs of a powerful party, forced Saint Ruth to entrust to the care of Maxwell. Maxwell had come back from France a more unpopular man than he had been when he went thither. It was rumoured that he had, at Versailles, spoken opprobriously of the Irish nation; and he had, on this account, been, only a few days before, publicly affronted by Sarsfield. On the twenty- first of June the English were busied in flinging up batteries along the Leinster bank. On the twenty-second, soon after dawn, the cannonade began. The firing continued all that day and all the following night. When morning broke again, one whole side of the castle had been beaten down; the thatched lanes of the Celtic town lay in ashes; and one of the mills had been burned with sixty soldiers who defended it.

Still however the Irish defended the bridge resolutely. During several days there was sharp fighting hand to hand in the strait passage. The assailants gained ground, but gained it inch by inch. The courage of the garrison was sustained by the hope of speedy succour. Saint Ruth had at length completed his preparations; and the tidings that Athlone was in danger had induced him to take the field in haste at the head of an army, superior in number, though inferior in more important elements of military strength, to the army of Ginkell. The French general seems to have thought that the bridge and the ford might easily be defended, till the autumnal rains and the pestilence which ordinarily accompanied them should compel the enemy to retire. He therefore contented himself with sending successive detachments to reinforce the garrison. The immediate conduct of the defence he entrusted to his second in command, D'Usson, and fixed his own head quarters two or three miles from the town. He expressed his astonishment that so experienced a commander as Ginkell should persist in a hopeless enterprise. "His master ought to hang him for trying to take Athlone; and mine ought to hang me if I lose it."

Saint Ruth, however, was by no means at ease. He had found, to his great mortification, that he had not the full authority which the promises made to him at Saint Germains had entitled him to expect. The Lord Lieutenant was in the camp. His bodily and mental infirmities had perceptibly increased within the last few weeks. The slow and uncertain step with which he, who had once been renowned for vigour and agility, now tottered from his easy chair to his couch, was no unapt type of the sluggish and wavering movement of that mind which had once pursued its objects with a vehemence restrained neither by fear nor by pity, neither by conscience nor by shame. Yet, with impaired strength, both physical and intellectual, the broken old man clung pertinaciously to power. If he had received private orders not to meddle with the conduct of the war, he disregarded them. He assumed all the authority of a sovereign, showed himself ostentatiously to the troops as their supreme chief, and affected to treat Saint Ruth as a lieutenant. Soon the interference of the Viceroy excited the vehement indignation of that powerful party in the army which had long hated him. Many officers signed an instrument by which they declared that they did not consider him as entitled to their obedience in the field. Some of them offered him gross personal insults. He was told to his face that, if he persisted in remaining where he was not wanted, the ropes of his pavilion should be cut. He, on the other hand, sent his emissaries to all the camp fires, and tried to make a party among the common soldiers against the French general.

The only thing in which Tyrconnel and Saint Ruth agreed was in dreading and disliking Sarsfield. Not only was he popular with the great body of his countrymen; he was also surrounded by a knot of retainers whose devotion to him resembled the devotion of the Ismailite murderers to the Old Man of the Mountain. It was known that one of these fanatics, a colonel, had used language which, in the mouth of an officer so high in rank, might well cause uneasiness. "The King," this man had said, "is nothing to me. I obey Sarsfield. Let Sarsfield tell me to kill any man in the whole army; and I will do it." Sarsfield was, indeed, too honourable a gentleman to abuse his immense power over the minds of his worshippers. But the Viceroy and the Commander in Chief might not unnaturally be disturbed by the thought that Sarsfield's honour was their only guarantee against mutiny and assassination. The consequence was that, at the crisis of the fate of Ireland, the services of the first of Irish soldiers were not used, or were used with jealous caution, and that, if he ventured to offer a suggestion, it was received with a sneer or a frown.

A great and unexpected disaster put an end to these disputes. On the thirtieth of June Ginkell called a council of war. Forage began to be scarce; and it was absolutely necessary that the besiegers should either force their way across the river or retreat. The difficulty of effecting a passage over the shattered remains of the bridge seemed almost insuperable. It was proposed to try the ford. The Duke of Wirtemberg, Talmash, and Ruvigny gave their voices in favour of this plan; and Ginkell, with some misgivings, consented.

It was determined that the attempt should be made that very afternoon. The Irish, fancying that the English were about to retreat, kept guard carelessly. Part of the garrison was idling, part dosing. D'Usson was at table. Saint Ruth was in his tent, writing a letter to his master filled with charges against Tyrconnel. Meanwhile, fifteen hundred grenadiers; each wearing in his hat a green bough, were mustered on the Leinster bank of the Shannon. Many of them doubtless remembered that on that day year they had, at the command of King William, put green boughs in their hats on the banks of the Boyne. Guineas had been liberally scattered among these picked men; but their alacrity was such as gold cannot purchase. Six battalions were in readiness to support the attack. Mackay commanded. He did not approve of the plan; but he executed it as zealously and energetically as if he had himself been the author of it. The Duke of Wirtemberg, Talmash, and several other gallant officers, to whom no part in the enterprise had been assigned, insisted on serving that day as private volunteers; and their appearance in the ranks excited the fiercest enthusiasm among the soldiers.

It was six o'clock. A peal from the steeple of the church gave the signal. Prince George of Hesse Darmstadt, and Gustavus Hamilton, the brave chief of the Enniskilleners, descended first into the Shannon. Then the grenadiers lifted the Duke of Wirtemberg on their shoulders, and, with a great shout, plunged twenty abreast up to their cravats in water. The stream ran deep and strong; but in a few minutes the head of the column reached dry land. Talmash was the fifth man that set foot on the Connaught shore. The Irish, taken unprepared, fired one confused volley and fled, leaving their commander, Maxwell, a prisoner. The conquerors clambered up the bank over the remains of walls shattered by a cannonade of ten days. Mackay heard his men cursing and swearing as they stumbled among the rubbish. "My lads," cried the stout old Puritan in the midst of the uproar, "you are brave fellows; but do not swear. We have more reason to thank God for the goodness which He has shown us this day than to take His name in vain." The victory was complete. Planks were placed on the broken arches of the bridge and pontoons laid on the river, without any opposition on the part of the terrified garrison. With the loss of twelve men killed and about thirty wounded the English had, in a few minutes, forced their way into Connaught.

At the first alarm D'Usson hastened towards the river; but he was met, swept away, trampled down, and almost killed by the torrent of fugitives. He was carried to the camp in such a state that it was necessary to bleed him. "Taken!" cried Saint Ruth, in dismay. "It cannot be. A town taken, and I close by with an army to relieve it!" Cruelly mortified, he struck his tents under cover of the night, and retreated in the direction of Galway. At dawn the English saw far off, from the top of King John's ruined castle, the Irish army moving through the dreary region which separates the Shannon from the Suck. Before noon the rearguard had disappeared.

Even before the loss of Athlone the Celtic camp had been distracted by factions. It may easily be supposed, therefore, that, after so great a disaster, nothing was to be heard but crimination and recrimination. The enemies of the Lord Lieutenant were more clamorous than ever. He and his creatures had brought the kingdom to the verge of perdition. He would meddle with what he did not understand. He would overrule the plans of men who were real soldiers. He would entrust the most important of all posts to his tool, his spy, the wretched Maxwell, not a born Irishman, not a sincere Catholic, at best a blunderer, and too probably a traitor. Maxwell, it was affirmed, had left his men unprovided with ammunition. When they had applied to him for powder and ball, he had asked whether they wanted to shoot larks. Just before the attack he had told them to go to their supper and to take their rest, for that nothing more would be done that day. When he had delivered himself up a prisoner, he had uttered ome words which seemed to indicate a previous understanding with the conquerors. The Lord Lieutenant's few friends told a very different story. According to them, Tyrconnel and Maxwell had suggested precautions which would have made a surprise impossible. The French General, impatient of all interference, had omitted to take those precautions. Maxwell had been rudely told that, if he was afraid, he had better resign his command. He had done his duty bravely. He had stood while his men fled. He had consequently fallen into the hands of the enemy; and he was now, in his absence, slandered by those to whom his captivity was justly imputable.

On which side the truth lay it is not easy, at this distance of time, to pronounce. The cry against Tyrconnel was, at the moment, so loud, that he gave way and sullenly retired to Limerick. D'Usson, who had not yet recovered from the hurts inflicted by his own runaway troops, repaired to Galway. Saint Ruth, now left in undisputed possession of the supreme command, was bent on trying the chances of a battle. Most of the Irish officers, with Sarsfield at their head, were of a very different mind. It was, they said, not to be dissembled that, in discipline, the army of Ginkell was far superior to theirs. The wise course, therefore, evidently was to carry on the war in such a manner that the difference between the disciplined and the undisciplined soldier might be as small as possible. It was well known that raw recruits often played their part well in a foray, in a street fight or in the defence of a rampart; but that, on a pitched field, they had little chance against veterans. "Let most of our foot be collected behind the walls of Limerick and Galway. Let the rest, together with our horse, get in the rear of the enemy, and cut off his supplies. If he advances into Connaught, let us overrun Leinster. If he sits down before Galway, which may well be defended, let us make a push for Dublin, which is altogether defenceless." Saint Ruth might, perhaps, have thought this advice good, if his judgment had not been biassed by his passions. But he was smarting from the pain of a humiliating defeat. In sight of his tent, the English had passed a rapid river, and had stormed a strong town. He could not but feel that, though others might have been to blame, he was not himself blameless. He had, to say the least, taken things too easily. Lewis, accustomed to be served during many years by commanders who were not in the habit of leaving to chance any thing which could he made secure by wisdom, would hardly think it a sufficient excuse that his general had not expected the enemy to make so bold and sudden an attack. The Lord Lieutenant would, of course, represent what had passed in the most unfavourable manner; and whatever the Lord Lieutenant said James would echo. A sharp reprimand, a letter of recall, might be expected. To return to Versailles a culprit; to approach the great King in an agony of distress; to see him shrug his shoulders, knit his brow and turn his back; to be sent, far from courts and camps, to languish at some dull country seat; this was too much to be borne; and yet this might well be apprehended. There was one escape; to fight, and to conquer or to perish.

In such a temper Saint Ruth pitched his camp about thirty miles from Athlone on the road to Galway, near the ruined castle of Aghrim, and determined to await the approach of the English army. His whole deportment was changed. He had hitherto treated the Irish soldiers with contemptuous severity. But now that he had resolved to stake life and fame on the valour of the despised race, he became another man. During the few days which remained to him he exerted himself to win by indulgence and caresses the hearts of all who were under his command. He, at the same time, administered to his troops moral stimulants of the most potent kind. He was a zealous Roman Catholic; and it is probable that the severity with which he had treated the Protestants of his own country ought to be partly ascribed to the hatred which he felt for their doctrines. He now tried to give to the war the character of a crusade. The clergy were the agents whom he employed to sustain the courage of his soldiers. The whole camp was in a ferment with religious excitement. In every regiment priests were praying, preaching, shriving, holding up the host and the cup. While the soldiers swore on the sacramental bread not to abandon their colours, the General addressed to the officers an appeal which might have moved the most languid and effeminate natures to heroic exertion. They were fighting, he said, for their religion, their liberty and their honour. Unhappy events, too widely celebrated, had brought a reproach on the national character. Irish soldiership was every where mentioned with a sneer. If they wished to retrieve the fame of their country, this was the time and this the place.

The spot on which he had determined to bring the fate of Ireland to issue seems to have been chosen with great judgment. His army was drawn up on the slope of a hill, which was almost surrounded by red bog. In front, near the edge of the morass, were some fences out of which a breastwork was without difficulty constructed.

On the eleventh of July, Ginkell, having repaired the fortifications of Athlone and left a garrison there, fixed his headquarters at Ballinasloe, about four miles from Aghrim, and rode forward to take a view of the Irish position. On his return he gave orders that ammunition should be served out, that every musket and bayonet should be got ready for action, and that early on the morrow every man should be under arms without beat of drum. Two regiments were to remain in charge of the camp; the rest, unincumbered by baggage, were to march against the enemy. Soon after six, the next morning, the English were on the way to Aghrim. But some delay was occasioned by a thick fog which hung till noon over the moist valley of the Suck; a further delay was caused by the necessity of dislodging the Irish from some outposts; and the afternoon was far advanced when the two armies at length confronted each other with nothing but the bog and the breastwork between them. The English and their allies were under twenty thousand; the Irish above twenty-five thousand.

Ginkell held a short consultation with his principal officers. Should he attack instantly, or wait till the next morning? Mackay was for attacking instantly; and his opinion prevailed. At five the battle began. The English foot, in such order as they could keep on treacherous and uneven ground, made their way, sinking deep in mud at every step, to the Irish works. But those works were defended with a resolution such as extorted some words of ungracious eulogy even from men who entertained the strongest prejudices against the Celtic race. Again and again the assailants were driven back. Again and again they returned to the struggle. Once they were broken, and chased across the morass; but Talmash rallied them, and forced the pursuers to retire. The fight had lasted two hours; the evening was closing in; and still the advantage was on the side of the Irish. Ginkell began to meditate a retreat. The hopes of Saint Ruth rose high. "The day is ours, my boys," he cried, waving his hat in the air. "We will drive them before us to the walls of Dublin." But fortune was already on the turn. Mackay and Ruvigny, with the English and Huguenot cavalry, had succeeded in passing the bog at a place where two horsemen could scarcely ride abreast. Saint Ruth at first laughed when he saw the Blues, in single file, struggling through the morass under a fire which every moment laid some gallant hat and feather on the earth. "What do they mean?" he asked; and then he swore that it was pity to see such fine fellows rushing to certain destruction. "Let them cross, however;" he said. "The more they are, the more we shall kill." But soon he saw them laying hurdles on the quagmire. A broader and safer path was formed; squadron after squadron reached firm ground: the flank of the Irish army was speedily turned. The French general was hastening to the rescue when a cannon ball carried off his head. Those who were about him thought that it would be dangerous to make his fate known. His corpse was wrapped in a cloak, carried from the field, and laid, with all ecresy, in the sacred ground among the ruins of the ancient monastery of Loughrea. Till the fight was over neither army was aware that he was no more. To conceal his death from the private soldiers might perhaps have been prudent. To conceal it from his lieutenants was madness. The crisis of the battle had arrived; and there was none to give direction. Sarsfield was in command of the reserve. But he had been strictly enjoined by Saint Ruth not to stir without orders; and no orders came. Mackay and Ruvigny with their horse charged the Irish in flank. Talmash and his foot returned to the attack in front with dogged determination. The breastwork was carried. The Irish, still fighting, retreated from inclosure to inclosure. But, as inclosure after inclosure was forced, their efforts became fainter and fainter. At length they broke and fled. Then followed a horrible carnage. The conquerors were in a savage mood. For a report had been spread among them that, during the early part of the battle, some English captives who had been admitted to quarter had been put to the sword. Only four hundred prisoners were taken. The number of the slain was, in proportion to the number engaged, greater than in any other battle of that age. But for the coming on of a moonless night, made darker by a misty rain, scarcely a man would have escaped. The obscurity enabled Sarsfield, with a few squadrons which still remained unbroken, to cover the retreat. Of the conquerors six hundred were killed, and about a thousand wounded.

The English slept that night on the field of battle. On the following day they buried their companions in arms, and then marched westward. The vanquished were left unburied, a strange and ghastly spectacle. Four thousand Irish corpses were counted on the field of battle. A hundred and fifty lay in one small inclosure, a hundred and twenty in another. But the slaughter had not been confined to the field of battle. One who was there tells us that, from the top of the hill on which the Celtic camp had been pitched, he saw the country, to the distance of near four miles, white with the naked bodies of the slain. The plain looked, he said, like an immense pasture covered by flocks of sheep. As usual, different estimates were formed even by eyewitnesses. But it seems probable that the number of the Irish who fell was not less than seven thousand. Soon a multitude of dogs came to feast on the carnage. These beasts became so fierce, and acquired such a taste for human flesh, that it was long dangerous for men to travel this road otherwise than in companies.

The beaten army had now lost all the appearance of an army, and resembled a rabble crowding home from a fair after a faction fight. One great stream of fugitives ran towards Galway, another towards Limerick. The roads to both cities were covered with weapons which had been flung away. Ginkell offered sixpence for every musket. In a short time so many waggon loads were collected that he reduced the price to twopence; and still great numbers of muskets came in.

The conquerors marched first against Galway. D'Usson was there, and had under him seven regiments, thinned by the slaughter of Aghrim and utterly disorganized and disheartened. The last hope of the garrison and of the Roman Catholic inhabitants was that Baldearg O'Donnel, the promised deliverer of their race, would come to the rescue. But Baldearg O'Donnel was not duped by the superstitious veneration of which he was the object. While there remained any doubt about the issue of the conflict between the Englishry and the Irishry, he had stood aloof. On the day of the battle he had remained at a safe distance with his tumultuary army; and, as soon as he had learned that his countrymen had been put to rout, he fled, plundering and burning all the way, to the mountains of Mayo. Thence he sent to Ginkell offers of submission and service. Ginkell gladly seized the opportunity of breaking up a formidable band of marauders, and of turning to good account the influence which the name of a Celtic dynasty still exercised over the Celtic race. The negotiation however was not without difficulties. The wandering adventurer at first demanded nothing less than an earldom. After some haggling he consented to sell the love of a whole people, and his pretensions to regal dignity, for a pension of five hundred pounds a year. Yet the spell which bound his followers to hire was not altogether broken. Some enthusiasts from Ulster were willing to fight under the O'Donnel against their own language and their own religion. With a small body of these devoted adherents, he joined a division of the English army, and on several occasions did useful service to William.

When it was known that no succour was to be expected from the hero whose advent had been foretold by so many seers, the Irish who were shut up in Galway lost all heart. D'Usson had returned a stout answer to the first summons of the besiegers; but he soon saw that resistance was impossible, and made haste to capitulate. The garrison was suffered to retire to Limerick with the honours of war. A full amnesty for past offences was granted to the citizens; and it was stipulated that, within the walls, the Roman Catholic priests should be allowed to perform in private the rites of their religion. On these terms the gates were thrown open. Ginkell was received with profound respect by the Mayor and Aldermen, and was complimented in a set speech by the Recorder. D'Usson, with about two thousand three hundred men, marched unmolested to Limerick.

At Limerick, the last asylum of the vanquished race, the authority of Tyrconnel was supreme. There was now no general who could pretend that his commission made him independent of the Lord Lieutenant; nor was the Lord Lieutenant now so unpopular as he had been a fortnight earlier. Since the battle there had been a reflux of public feeling. No part of that great disaster could be imputed to the Viceroy. His opinion indeed had been against trying the chances of a pitched field, and he could with some plausibility assert that the neglect of his counsels had caused the ruin of Ireland.

He made some preparations for defending Limerick, repaired the fortifications, and sent out parties to bring in provisions. The country, many miles round, was swept bare by these detachments, and a considerable quantity of cattle and fodder was collected within the walls. There was also a large stock of biscuit imported from France. The infantry assembled at Limerick were about fifteen thousand men. The Irish horse and dragoons, three or four thousand in number, were encamped on the Clare side of the Shannon. The communication between their camp and the city was maintained by means of a bridge called the Thomond Bridge, which was protected by a fort. These means of defence were not contemptible. But the fall of Athlone and the slaughter of Aghrim had broken the spirit of the army. A small party, at the head of which were Sarsfield and a brave Scotch officer named Wauchop, cherished a hope that the triumphant progress of Ginkell might be stopped by those walls from which William had, in the preceding year, been forced to retreat. But many of the Irish chiefs loudly declared that it was time to think of capitulating. Henry Luttrell, always fond of dark and crooked politics, opened a secret negotiation with the English. One of his letters was intercepted; and he was put under arrest; but many who blamed his perfidy agreed with him in thinking that it was idle to prolong the contest. Tyrconnel himself was convinced that all was lost. His only hope was that he might be able to prolong the struggle till he could receive from Saint Germains permission to treat. He wrote to request that permission, and prevailed, with some difficulty, on his desponding countrymen to bind themselves by an oath not to capitulate till an answer from James should arrive.

A few days after the oath had been administered, Tyrconnel was no more. On the eleventh of August he dined with D'Usson. The party was gay. The Lord Lieutenant seemed to have thrown off the load which had bowed down his body and mind; he drank; he jested; he was again the Dick Talbot who had diced and revelled with Grammont. Soon after he had risen from table, an apoplectic stroke deprived him of speech and sensation. On the fourteenth he breathed his last. The wasted remains of that form which had once been a model for statuaries were laid under the pavement of the Cathedral; but no inscription, no tradition, preserves the memory of the spot.

As soon as the Lord Lieutenant was no more, Plowden, who had superintended the Irish finances while there were any Irish finances to superintend, produced a commission under the great seal of James. This commission appointed Plowden himself, Fitton and Nagle, Lords justices in the event of Tyrconnel's death. There was much murmuring when the names were made known. For both Plowden and Fitton were Saxons. The commission, however, proved to be a mere nullity. For it was accompanied by instructions which forbade the Lords justices to interfere in the conduct of the war; and, within the narrow space to which the dominions of James were now reduced, war was the only business. The government was, therefore, really in the hands of D'Usson and Sarsfield.

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