During the afternoon and evening of Sunday July 12 1691 the people of Galway could hear the distant thud of cannons as two armies in the Cogadh na Dá Rí (war of the two kings ) was nearing its climax. The Irish army, led by the inept French general, Charles Chalmont, Marquis de Saint-Ruhe, known as Saint Ruth, and the heroic Earl of Lucan, Patrick Sarsfield, had taken a stand on Kilcommodon Hill, below which lay the village of Aughrim, some 5km from Ballinasloe, Co Galway.
Catholic Ireland had become embroiled in the struggle of King James fighting to regain his throne from the usurper King William and his wife Mary. James was the last Stuart and the last Catholic monarch of Britain and Ireland. He had antagonised his Protestant parliament when it refused to repeal some anti-Catholic laws. Parliament insisted on its primacy over the crown, and had reasonable evidence to believe that the king would turn the country back into a Catholic state. The row led to pro Stuart (Jacobian ) revolts in Scotland and Ireland, and became a side-show to the religious wars in Europe. The French king, Louis XIV, would have liked a Catholic England at his side, and sent weapons and generals to help the revolt in Ireland where James had fled, where he hoped to use it as a stepping stone to regain his crown.
The Williamite army was commanded by Dutchman Godard de Ginkel, an experienced and battle hardened general, who distinguished himself at the Battle of the Boyne. He had witnessed King James’ humiliating scramble from the field, totally defeated. In his determination to get to Galway where ships could replenish his army with fresh supplies, de Ginkel followed up this victory by smashing his way through Saint Ruth’s defences at Athlone. His army was an unstoppable force.
Saint Ruth, although advised not to face Ginkel in a head-on battle, was confident that his position at Aughrim was unassailable. The Irish fought well beating back the enemy several times. The moment came when a well directed cavalry charge could have been decisive. Just as Saint Ruth paused on his horse to give orders to an artillery battery he was suddenly decapitated by a cannon ball. The shock of Saint Ruth’s spectacular death, brought confusion among his officers, and the advantage was lost.
De Ginkel’s men pushed relentlessly forward: ‘The Irish soldiers who survived the killing fields of Aughrim did so either because of fading light, or rain helped them to slip away; or because they used the bogs to escape…’ Sarsfield set out for Limerick with what was left of the Irish army leaving at least 4,000 (figures vary but as many as 7,000 is quoted ) Irish dead on the field.*
The awful news
I often imagined the state of apprehension the people of Galway were in, knowing that a decisive battle was happening only miles away, and that its outcome, one way or the other, would impact on them forever. I am sure rumours of defeat or victory circulated like a wild fire. Shakespeare actually has a character Rumour: ‘Open your ears; for which of you will stop
The vent of hearing when loud Rumour speaks?
…Stuffing the ears of men with false reports.’
Historian James Hardiman takes up the story. In his famous history, he tells us that the ‘awful news was known that night in the town, whither several of the fugitives fled for shelter. The alarm of the inhabitants may be easily conceived to have been extreme, and every preparation was made for defence. Many, however, were so panic-struck, that they would have compromised for their safety by immediately surrendering, almost on any terms.’**
De Ginkel laid siege to the town. This was the second time in its history that Galway was besieged. Forty years earlier Cromwell’s army surrounded the town, and waited until disease and hunger broke the citizens’ resolve before it entered like mad men, and destroyed the town’s commerce and many of its fine buildings. Now, just a week after Aughrim, de Ginkel arrived with his army. But instead of a long drawn-out siege, de Ginkel offered good terms, including allowing the Irish soldiers free passage to join Sarsfield and his army at Limerick, keeping their arms and colours. The town accepted the offer, the gate was opened, and de Ginkel entered the town.
The big difference this time was that as a result of the war, the animosity between Catholic and Protestant was verging on hysteria. The war, which had cost an estimated 100,000 Irish lives, had been a disaster for Catholic Ireland. Many of the traditional chieftains now lost whatever properties they had managed to cling on to after Cromwell’s greed. Following the surrender of Limerick, all Irish Catholics endured harsh laws aimed at keeping them emasculated and weak. The ablest and most enterprising were later to be found in mainland Europe as churchmen, and businessmen, as soldiers in the armies of France and Spain and throughout the Hapsburg empire. It was an exodus we romanticise today as the flight of the Wild Geese.
For the Protestants, however, their support for William and Mary reaped great rewards. Throughout the 18th century they monopolised parliament, government, the public services, the army, the law and landownership.
Aware of the lamentable future in store for Catholics in Galway and elsewhere, when the catholic Warden John Bodkin, regarded as a saintly man, was compelled to hand over the keys of St Nicholas’ Collegiate church, he prayed aloud: ‘My God, that my right hand may not decay until the key of this church be restored to the proper owners’.***
Incredibly and bizarrely, when in March 1838, 147 years after Warden Bodkin made this vow, workmen restoring his tomb noted that his body was ‘in a state of preservation’ his skin was perfectly preserved, ‘even the nails and fingers were not discoloured…the face perfect, the ears and top of the nose, all the teeth were perfectly white…his skin felt quite elastic…’
Leaving the tomb ready for work the following day, the contractor was woken at 6am by the foreman/carpenter John McMahon to say, with some alarm, that the right hand of Warden Bodkin had been cut off.
Next week: Uproar in the town, and a desperate search for Bodkin’s hand.
NOTES: *The Battle of Aughrim was the bloodiest battle fought on Irish soil with an extraordinary high casualty list. Four to seven thousand Irish killed compared to 1,000 Williamites. At the Boyne, fought one year before, 500 Williamites were killed compared to 1,000 Jacobites, a remarkable low number for a large battle.
** Henry IV part II, Prologue.
*** Despite Warden Bodkin’s plea, and the wretched suffering of the townsfolk which was soon to follow, the office of the Wardenship of St Nicholas’ continued. It is surprising that it does so considering the change of ‘ownership’ of the church, and the vengeful behaviour of Williamite rule; but the Reformation in Galway town was really a Reformation-lite. Yes monasteries and Catholic churches were closed following Henry VIII’s break with Rome, but the wardenship, shared between Catholic and Protestant, was so prized by its stakeholders, that somehow it managed to continue, and would do so until the mid 19th century.