Donal Cam’s defeat of the English at Aughrim

This week in Down Memory Lane we take a look at a fine article by the late Michael Hanley which appeared in the Castletownbere Christmas Newsletter over twenty years ago. “Donal Cam’s Battle of Aughrim.” On December 31, 1602 Donal Cam left Glengarriffe with 1,000 followers. He had at the most – about 430 fighting men, including thirteen horsemen.

His soldiers were mainly gonaghts, gallo-glasses, professional warriors from Connaught under the command of William Burke, and the remnant of his broken clan. On 10th. January, 1603, having survived incredible hardships, his small force was reduced to 280 fighting men.

That morning he formed up his depleted ranks thus: 80 soldiers formed the vanguard, the baggage came next and Donal Cam himself brought up the rear with 200 armed men. They had been harried all the previous day by O’Madden and his followers, but when they reached Aughrim (each dhruim, horse ridge), near the modern town of Ballinasloe, and saw the armament before them, even the stoutest heart quailed for O’Sullivan’s path was barred by the most formidable force that he had yet encountered.

Advancing against him came Captain Henry Malby with five companies of foot and two troops of horse, as well as a large force of warriors from the neighbouring lordships. The chief leaders beside Malby were Sir Thomas Burke, a brother of the Earl of Clanrickarde, and his kinsman, Richard Burke; other Gaelic notables were the chieftains, MacCoghlan and O’Madden, the latter’s son and some of the O’Kellys of Ui Maine.

All authorities, English and Irish, agree that Donal Cam was faced by an overwhelmingly superior force. Clanrickarde’s levies had distinguished themselves at the long siege and battle of Kinsale, and the bloody sallies of the Spaniards: indeed Standish O’Grady in his translation and annotation of “Pacata Hibernia” has no hesitation in claiming that they were the best soldiers on the English side.
The vanguard stared in horror for one long moment at the advancing English Irish host; they heard the shrill whinnying of the war horses, the silver notes of the English trumpets, the wild skirl of the Irish bagpipes; they saw the sun break through the leaden clouds and glint on the scoured armour, gleam on pike and sword and spear-head. For one long horrible moment, they gazed on the splendour of the oncoming army, and then with one accord they took to their heels, deserted the baggage and fled. After all the fatigues and hardships, the incessant attacks, the crossing of the flooded Shannon, it was more than flesh and blood could stand.

Donal Cam, coming up with the rearguard, took in the situation at a glance. A lesser man would have despaired, but it was not in him to acknowledge defeat. Here one man alone, a dark and sombre figure when opposed to the glittering martial array that was coming to meet him, by his invincible courage and determination turned the scales from defeat – indeed, annihilation, into a dazzling victory.
(a) His voice rang out, clear as a trumpet call, arresting the runaways, bringing order out of chaos. One minute more and the whole body would have dissolved in panic, only to be ridden down by the cavalry. Terror was stilled in numb breasts, and with hangdog looks the fleeing vanguard came running back towards him.

He harangued them briefly and Don Philip has given us the gist of that impassioned address. It was part of the aristocratic scheme of things, descending from an older world, from the classical tradition where storm-tossed Ulysses, wandering Aeneas and horse taming Hector heartened their troops with just such words. In crisp, vehement ringing Gaelic Donal Cam made his battle-speech. He told them that they had beaten better men. He reminded them of their sufferings (”O passigraviora”) and their losses: he told them nothing was left now but life and honour: better die fighting than be slaughtered like cattle; the courage and strength of their own right arms was all that could save them now, that and the mercy of God, who had often given the gift of victory to the weak; their enemies were great in numbers, but their spirit could not compare with the valour of his own troops; let them now emulate their illustrious ancestors, who had never shunned the conflict, and Christ in his pity would give them success over heretics and their abettors. When he had done, his eloquence had turned a beaten rabble into a force ready to fight and to die, if needs be.

(b) His strategy seems to have been that the leaders of their opponents must be killed at all costs, even if a nodding plume on a helmet or the bright and wicked gleam of a valuable coat of mail did not mark them out, the Connacht mercenaries would know the chief men.

(c) He had hardly finished his speech when the royalist cavalry came riding full tilt upon his ranks, their long spears ready to pierce the Connachts. To the Queen’s horse it must have appeared something in the wasted column, the haggard bearded faces and the strained agonized eyes, and they came thundering down on O’Sullivan in high fettle. But Donal Cam had no intention of waiting to be spitted on the horsemen’s lanes, and he averted the shock of the cavalry charge by marching his column into boggy ground where the horse could not follow. The troopers leaped down from their chargers and joined their infantry.

(d) Donal Cam’s keen eyes had discerned a grove of small trees and undergrowth not far off, and he determined to make his stand there with the thicket covering one flank.
Both parties now raced across the bog, each striving to reach the coppice first. While the Queen’s pikemen and spearmen were racing for the thicket, the cavalrymen pressed on O’Sullivan’s rear. Donal Cam shouted to William Burke to take 40 shot and hold off the enemy gunman, but the condottiere was driven back on his leader by the enemy’s numbers, having lost 14 men.

(e) At this perilous moment, when the situation was fluid, Donal Cam changed his strategy and made up his mind to turn on his assailants. The royalists at his rear were now within a javellin’s throw, and with all military dispositions in the melting-pot the element of surprise would favour O’Sullivan.
He shouted his commands to his officers, the message speed through the plunging lines of men, then he gave the word to wheel round and charged back against his pursuers. The officers and all the best men swung around as though on a pivot, but the weaker spirits skulked behind, still terrified at the might of the opposition. At this sudden manoeuvre, seeing the swift rush of those haggard and desperate fugitives, some of the royalists quailed, and when their captain tried to order their ranks to meet this unexpected onset some of the soldiers fled to the rear. The best men here too stood their ground.

Before O’Sullivan charged home, 20 of his men who had been on the flanks of his van fired one volley and accounted for 11 of the enemy. Then both forces met in deadly grapple, and the front rank of the Queen’s soldiers reeled before the shock of sword, pike and battleaxe.
Maurice O’Sullivan Beare sought out Richard Burke but Burke, who was standing on firm ground, knocked him down with a blow on the breast. Beyond having the breath knocked out of his body, Maurice was unhurt for his coat of mail had saved him. Burke was just about to administer the coup-de-grace to his fallen enemy, when Donough O’Hingerduel slashed off the hand that held the pike with a blow of his sword. Maurice wasted no time in scrambling to his feet and, as Burke recoiled in agony, he transfixed him with his spear, Richard Burke toppled over and another swordsman, Hugh O’Flynn, finished him off as he lay on the ground.

The Four Masters would lead one to believe that Donal Cam slew Henry Malby, for they say O’Sullivan sought out the English, owing to the great hate he bore them, and “O’Sullivan quickly and dexterously beheaded that noble Englishman, the son of Captain Malby.”

However, Don Philip’s version is to be preferred, and he tells us that Malby was slain by the Beara men Dermot O’Houlihan and Conor O’Morrogh. The men of Beare played a leading part in that conflict, for besides Donal Cam, his uncle, Dermot of Dursey (a man of nearly 70), Maurice O’Sullivan, O’Hingerduel (Harrington), O’Houlihan and O’Morrogh (Murphy) were all natives of O’Sullivan’s kingdom. It would appear that Donal Cam went into battle with a lifeguard of Beara men at his side.
Incidentally, Malby, though commanding English troops in the Queen’s pay, was only half English. His father, Sir Nicholas, had been military governor of Connacht in his day, and a ruthless and implacable soldier. He had hunted Clanrickarde’s wild sons, Ulick and Sean of the Shamrocks, high and low, had butchered the churls and hanged another rebellious son of the Earl, yet so strange was the broken convulsed Ireland of this time that afterwards, when the Earl’s sons were pardoned, he married one of their sisters. Thus his son, Henry and Sir Thomas Burke were first cousins. Ulick and Sean of the Shamrocks, after a wild youth, fell out, later peace was made and Sean was given the barony of Leitrim in South Galway.

Later still, they went to war again, Sean was slain, and Ulick, now Earl of Clanrickarde, was a model royalist from then on. When Sean’s eldest son, Redmond, came of age, he accompanied by his younger brothers, went to their uncle, Ulick, to see what he would do for them. Ulick was a hard acquisitive man, and he told Redmond he would not give them as much land as his cloak would cover. The sons of Sean became mercenaries and saw much fighting in Tipperary. After Kinsale, Redmond accompanied Red Hugh to Spain, where he was known as Baron of Leitrim, and his next brothers, William, took service with Donal Cam and had been in his employment for over a year. So that William Burke and his brothers were also first cousins, and deadly enemies, of Sir Thomas and Henry Malby.
The battle had now become general, but the forces of O’Sullivan fought like demons and the royalists were dismayed at the loss of two of their three principal commanders. More and more of them took to shameful flight and Sir Thomas Burke, seeing his kinsmen’s gashed bodies, feared that O’Sullivan intended the same fate for him.

Burdened by the weight of his armour, he was lifted up on his charger by his attendants and he rode off, followed speedily by the remaining soldiers who fled for the protection of the fort. The victorious Irish fleetly pursued them, cutting and slashing at the runaways, and Don Philip wryly remarks that none was so hot in this work as the men who had lagged behind when O’Sullivan made that starting volte-face and charged.However, the routed army was not pursued very far, for Donal Cam sounded the recall, having seen reinforcements coming up under Captain John Bostock. The butcher of Dursey Island (during the siege of Dunboy) made no effort to come to close quarters, and retired to the shelter of the fort with the rest. His days were already numbered, for shortly afterwards he fell in battle against O’Rourke in Breifni. During the combat some of Malby’s gunman and the wretched rabble of the locality, that had been hurling javelins and firing muskets at O’Sullivan’s column all that day, were profitably occupied in plundering the Irish baggage, and now Donal Cam drove off this disgusting crew.
The Royalists left over 100 men on that field, and would have lost far more were it not that Bostock had come to their rescue; the Irish had only 14 men killed, William Burke’s musketeer’s, although they must have had many wounded in that desperate struggle before the royalists broke. O’Sullivan collected the enemy’s scattered weapons and marched on from Aughrim through O’Kelly’s country. To delay now would be fatal, for the Royalists, smarting under their defeat, would rouse the whole country, so he kept on through the night, intending to put as great a distance as possible between Aughrim and himself.

One of the refugees who had distinguished himself at Aughrim was a North Kerry chieftain, Sean O’Connor Kerry, who was brother-in-law of Donal Cam. They were married to two sisters of Owen O’Sullivan Mor, Lord of Dunkerron. O’Connor eventually got back to Carrigafoyle, and the family held it until Cromwell’s day, when they lost everything.

In 1691 on the same battleground the Irish fought a desperate and bloody encounter, a much fiercer battle than that of the Boyne. Strategy is the art of generals, and Donal Cam had displayed shrewd leadership, showing a keen eye for terrain and what advantages could be gained from the study of the ground. Compared to 1691 it was hardly more than a skirmish, but Donal Cam showed how victory against great odds could be snatched from the jaws of defeat, and indomitable courage and resolve could overcome all obstacles.

Courtesy of the Southern Star