William M Thackeray enjoys a play, and continues his journey

Week II

‘Aughrim is no more, St Ruth is dead,

And all his guards are from the battle fled,

As he rode down the hill he met his fall,

And died a victim to a cannon ball.’

So cried Lord Lucan, General Patrick Sarsfield, to the audience at Kilroy’s Hotel, Eyre Square, Galway, in 1842, as the tragic drama ‘The battle of Aughrim, or the Fall of Monsieur St Ruth’ accompanied by trumpets and drums, was performed before the after-dinner guests.

Among them sat the author William M Thackeray who, it appears, was totally captivated by the unfolding story. He took notes, and wrote that when, finally, practically everyone on stage was dead, including a fictitious Jemima whose soldier lover dies in her arms, who protests she is unable to live without him, stabs herself in the usual way; ‘the drums and trumpets gave a great peal, the audience huzzas, and the curtain falls on Ginkle, and his friends exclaiming:

‘May all the Gods th’ auspicious evening bless,

Who crowns Great Britain’s arums with success!’

Although we smile at the rhyming couplets today the play’s immense popularity emphasises the impact that Aughrim had on the consciousness of the Irish people more than a hundred years later. While Ginkle ordered the burial of his own dead, the remaining Irish/Jacobite dead (reported to be about 6,000 ), were left unburied, their bones scattered on the battlefield for years after. The surrender of Galway and other Irish towns, and the exodus of the defeated Irish/Jacobite army, were the direct consequence of the battle. Catholics were left at the unprotected mercy of a vengeful Protestant parliament.

The author, Robert Ashton, intended the play to celebrate the Williamite victory, and casts St Ruth in the role of antagonist, but it also portrays Sarsfield and his lieutenants as heroic figures. It even incorporated a lament for Catholic patriotism. Both Catholics and Protestants were attracted to the play for generations.*

Thousands in the streets

The next day must have been fine as Thackeray walks through the streets noting that the waters of Lough Corrib, under the bridges of the town, ‘go rushing and roaring to the sea with a noise and eagerness only known in Galway.

‘Along the banks you see all sorts of strange figures washing all sorts of wonderful rags with red petticoats and redder shanks standing in the stream.’

He notes the number of ‘idlers’ on the bridges, ‘thousands in the streets humming and swarming in and out of dark old ruinous houses ….loitering about warehouses, ruined or not, looking at the washerwomen washing in the river, or at the fish-donkeys, or at the potato-stalls, or at a vessel coming into the quay, or at the boats putting out to sea.’

There was a boat at the quay bound for Arann Mór, while another was taking on passengers to see the Cliffs of Moher on the Clare coast.

He writes that pigs are in every street, ‘the whole town shrieks with them’. He sees a pair of lovers; she has her ‘pet’ on her lap.

Red-coated peasantry

Enough of Galway. Thackeray takes the ‘car’ on the long road to Clifden, and having become ‘acclimatised’ to Ireland after his first month here, sounds more forgiving in describing what he sees. As the ‘car’ approaches Moycullen he sees several large houses and estates, and affably comments that ‘if perhaps there is grass growing on the gravel walk, and the iron gates of the tumble-down old lodges are rather rickety; but for all that, the places look comfortable, hospitable, and spacious; and as for the shabbiness and want of finish here and there, the English eye grows quite accustomed to it in a month; and I find the bad condition of the Galway houses by no means as painful as that of places near Dublin..’

Again he comments on the large numbers of people on the road: ‘troops of red-petticoated peasantry peering from their stone cabins, yelling children following the car, and crying “lash, lash!”

It was a Sunday as Thackeray made his way noting the ‘many white chapels’ on the side of the road, where it appears it was customary for worshippers to leave their heavy cloaks outside: ‘the court-yard of each was blackened by a swarm of cloaks.’ **

The service appeared to Thackeray to continue for most of the day. ‘Troops of people issuing from the chapel, met us at Moycullen, and ten miles further on, at Oughterard, their devotions did not yet seem to be concluded.’

Next Week: ‘Beautiful’ Oughterard, and on through Connemara.

NOTES: *Ashton’s play became one of the most popular works of the 18th century: at least 22 editions and innumerable versions in chap-book form were printed and read and performed by farmers and weavers up to the middle of the 19th century. William Carleton and Charles Gavin Duffy as well as Thackeray were among those who enjoyed it. (Linda Lunney, Dictionary of Irish Biography )

** Thackeray’s constant comments on the numerous population he sees, shows an Ireland heavily populated at the time. Between 1700 and 1840 Ireland experienced a rapid population growth rising from less than three million in 1700 to over eight million in 1841. As the Great Famine 1845 - 1850 was ending the population dropped to 6.5 million.

Today’s quotations are taken from The Irish Sketch Book by William M Thackeray (sometimes he used the name M A Titmarsh ) gleaned on his tour of the country in 1842.


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