The Battle of Aughrim was the final open battle between the followers of the Catholic King James (Jacobites) and the Protestant King William of Orange (Williamites) fought on Irish soil. Though the Battle of the Boyne, which took place just over a year previously, is marked as the most decisive in the Williamite victory, it was the Battle of Aughrim that saw the largest ever loss of life in an Irish battle. Some 7,000 men are thought to have died and unknown others either deserted or were captured.
In 1691 the Jacobite forces had retreated west of the Shannon where they awaited supplies and reinforcements from France. During the months of May and June the Williamite forces, led by Dutch officer Godert de Ginkel, had been gradually pushing westwards, taking control of Athlone and Ballinasloe on their way. The Jacobite army, led by French General Saint Ruth, made their stand in a field just outside the small village of Aughrim on the outskirts of Ballinasloe on the 22nd of July 1691.
The morning of the battle was misty and visibility was poor. As the afternoon sun broke through and dispersed the mist, an onslaught of canon fire was exchanged between the two sides. Having local knowledge of the area, the Jacobite forces held the upper ground and were thereby at a strategic advantage. The battle proper broke out at about 5 or 6 in the evening. The Williamite forces sufffered heavy losses as their men struggled to contend with the damp, heavy bogland. The Jacobites continued to push them downhill into the deep water where many of them drowned. Williamite attempts to salvage the sitiuation with new approaches and refreshed troops were thwarted by the difficult conditions. It seemed as though the day was all but won for the Jacobites as their leader Saint Ruth was heard giving a rallying cry that they would chase their foes back to Dublin. As he paused to direct an attack, he was abruptly decapitated by a canon ball. In the panic that ensued, Saint Ruth's men took his remains and fled westwards to Loughrea where it is rumoured that he is buried in the Carmellite Abbey. Devoid of leadership the Jacobite forces descended into chaos. The battle turned in favour of the Williamites who seized the opportunity to break the Jacobite defences. The Jacobites fled and were pursued until darkness and rain made the hunt impossible. The remaining forces made their last stand at the Siege of Limerick, but their fate was already sealed in a small village in south east Co. Galway.
The Battle of Aughrim saw unprecedented levels of bloodshed. Contemporary reports described the grass as being wet with blood and the bodies strewn across the fields like flocks of sheep. The Williamites, in their haste the pursue their foes, did not have enough time to bury any but their own dead, and so the fallen Jacobites were left exposed to the animals and the elements in the middle of summer. It is difficult to imagine now that the peaceful village of Aughrim was once the site of such horrific calamities some 300 years ago.