“He had this green growth on his langer and so he went to the doctor. The doctor asked him if he’d been out somewhere foreign and he said he’d been to Mongolia and so the doctor said, ‘ah, you have the Green Mongolian Veneral Disease then, you might have to have it amputated’. So, he goes to a Chinese specialist and asks him, ‘Will I have to have it amputated?’ and the Chinese lad says, ‘no,’ to which he breathes a sigh of relief. And then the Chinese doctor continues, ’It will fall off all by itself.’”
Laughter erupts from both myself and my new buddy in a pub in Aughrim in Co Galway. (Photos here) It’s the middle of the day, I’ve never been here before, never met this guy before, and I am not even drunk though I suspect my new friend may be a little bit tipsy. That’s one of the great things about Ireland. You can pretty much walk into any pub in any town in the country at any time of the day or night and dive into full blown, hilarious shite talk within a heartbeat.
“Is there anything interesting in Aughrim?” I ask my new buddy.
“Me,” he says with a hearty laugh.
“I’m lucky the museum is closed so or I’d never have met you,” I say.
I came to Aughrim on this damp autumnal day to visit the local museum which apparently gives a detailed history of one of the most pivotal points in Irish history – the 1691 Battle of Aughrim between the forces of William of Orange and the Jacobites. The outcome of this battle ricocheted throughout Ireland, England, Europe, and indeed the world. It was of such historical significance that it doubtless has played a significant role in shaping the socio—economic structures we have today. Alas, the museum closed for the season on September the 5th. And so, I do what any normal Irish man does when things go wrong – I go to the pub.
“What are you doing here anyway?” asks my new buddy after I put my camera on the bar counter so as to figure out why the focus is not working. Upon close inspection I discover some of the tiny screws in the lens are loose and so I say, “I have a few screws loose”, and he chortles, “Oh I’d say that alright”.
After traveling to Aughrim I realise that not only is the museum closed but also that my camera, or lens, appears to be broken, hence my brief interlude in the pub. Luckily, the barmaid has a suitable screwdriver and so I am shortly hereafter on my way to explore this sleepy little village of gargantuan historical significance.
At the entrance to the village, on the left, just past the ruins of what was once the post office (pictured) is a small park dotted with information signposts detailing the history of the town. I learn from one such signpost that on this location there once stood an orphanage that housed 340 children and opened its doors to its first five occupants on January 1st 1871, in the hardship of the post famine years. The orphanage was built to house the children of those that had lost one or both parents. The home was sponsored by Protestant gentry but apparently only about 50% of occupants were Protestants. The children here, I learn, received a good standard of education and generally enjoyed good health though there was a typhoid outbreak in 1876 which resulted in 11 children getting sick and one 12 year old girl dying. Most of the the occupants emigrated to England, the USA, Canada, and even as far away as Australia and New Zealand. It closed its doors in the 1950’s as Ireland was becoming more prosperous. Reading the sign, one can only see the home as having been an example of human kindness throughout what were doubtless years of extreme deprivation for the multitudes of Irish people of the period.
Around the corner from the pub I had been in, I follow a couple of signs pointing towards Aughrim Castle which was once lived in by the O’Kellys, who were a dominant force in the west of Ireland and whose genealogy can be traced as far back as the 5th century. Such was their power and influence that they ruled over much of Connaught for centuries.
The signs lead me down what appears to be somebody’s driveway right up to a very modern house and for a split second I ponder by what stretch of engineering that a centuries old castle could be refurbished to look like a 21st century house.
Believing the sign for the castle may have been struck by a vehicle to make it point in the wrong direction I head back out of the property to find that the sign appears fully intact and is, in fact, pointing directly through somebody’s private property. Upon walking around the back of this house I discover a cold-to-the-touch grey metal gate with a latch and a little trail through a field full of cow shit which leads me to the ruins.
From a sign beside it I learn that a branch of the O’Kelly family lived here in the 14th century and often welcomed a variety of guests including poets, bards, jesters and learned men. A ruin now, the location of the castle was a key location in the 1691 Battle of Aughrim. It was here that the Jacobites’ cause was lost.
Thought to be the bloodiest battle ever fought on Irish soil, the war was fought for the control of the kingdoms of Ireland and England. 20,000 men fought on each side and 3,000 Jacobites (fighting for the Catholic King James II) and 2,000 Williamites (Fighting for the Protestant Dutch William of Orange) were slaughtered before the retreat of the former. While the war initially looked favourable for the Jacobites, the tide turned when Jacobite forces under the French commander the Marquis De St Ruth had his head struck from his body by a Williamite cannonball.
It is thought that the castle may have already been in ruins at the time of the 1691 battle. However, it was a key strategic location in the battle and, once lost, led to Jacobite retreat and the signing of the Treaty of Limerick.
In my mind I can almost hear the sounds of battle and wonder about how much blood the earth beneath my feet drank on that fateful day on the 12th of July 1691.
Shortly after this battle many of the once mighty O’Kelly’s fled to Europe and the one’s that remained had their once vast holdings reduced to the size of small farms.
The strong of today are often the weak of tomorrow and all empires crumble the same as the sturdiest of castles built on the most solid of foundations, like the one in this picture….and so it goes.
Beside Aughrim Castle, on the site of this historic battle, is a memorial cross which was erected in memory the Lieutenant General Marquis De Saint Ruth. It is fitting that a religious symbol be used since religion is interwoven with the collective psyche of the masses going back thousands of years. Indeed, the war that was fought here over 300 years ago was between two religions which branched off from the same tree (Protestant and Catholic). All religions, though seemingly different, have the same purpose in common. They provide a workable, and logical, structure within which people can live harmoniously, if indeed such a thing is ever possible outside the realms of idealistic fantasy. They have also, as history shows us, served the purpose of uniting men under the banner of a cause and belief system which is an essential aspect of the art of building armies and fighting wars.
Upon leaving the battlefield I cross the road and head towards a ruin I had spotted earlier. The ruin is that of the Augustinian Priory. Built in the age of the Normans, I learn it was built around 1170 by one of the O’Kelly family, with the financial assistance of a member of the Butler family, and was later burned to the ground by another member of the O’Kelly family. And yet another member of the same family, John O’Kelly, was received into the Friary here in 1457. It is unclear whether it was deliberately burned but this is the first conclusion I find myself jumping to. Families fight amongst themselves all the time, when they have armies behind them they start wars. Indeed, the opposing forces in the Battle of Aughrim were related. As already mentioned, the Jacobites were fighting for King James II and the Williamites for William of Orange – what I did not mention is that William was King James’ son in law. Today we have pride in the notion of “Freedom of Speech”, but speech expresses ideas and it is clear from our history that ideas are dangerous. Ideas split families apart. Ideas start wars.
The Priory was replaced in 1860 by St Catherine’s Church. According to legend St Catherine lived from 282 – 305AD and she once visited the Roman Emperor Maxentius to persuade him to stop persecuting Christians. Apparently she converted the Emperor’s wife and 200 of his soldiers. She was subsequently beheaded for her troubles.
The church is quite small and cosy and has all of the usual entrapments including Jesus dying on the cross and his mournful mother gazing up at him. This image often moves me. It is the epitome of suffering. Even if one is not religious it is easy, I think, to be awed by the psychology that led to the building of such places of devotion over centuries, perhaps even millennia. The church is quiet now and after a few moments contemplating the imagery on the stained glass I leave.
Five minutes up the road I visit the Protestant church which is much smaller. This is mildly curious to me since Protestant forces won the Battle of Aughrim. Inside, up at the alter, the Bible is open. And I read the following sentences:
“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”
A God who desires us all to be saved sounds like a positive thing to believe in. After all, who does not want to be saved?
“Ah, it was all about control,” is the common response one gets from most people in Ireland when one brings up religion these days. I received this exact response on this very day from two different people in two different pubs in Aughrim.
While I can see a truth in that I also see that it provided a structural and moral foundation on which to build families, communities, and functional societies. It had its problems, like every organisational structure, but when one looks around them at the world today it’s not difficult to see that there are pretty significant problems without it.
Leaving the Protestant church I happen upon a white cat. He eyes me up and when I hunker down he approaches me expectantly. But I have nothing for him and so he saunters off. With all our beliefs and disbeliefs, wars, arguments, and vain attempts to make sense of a world that often seems to make no sense whatsoever, I recognise the graceful wisdom of the cat’s simple needs. Provide him with what he needs and he will keep you company; don’t and he will seek what he wants elsewhere. The cat is in harmony with its nature, with its needs. Its head is not all confused with the world of ideas that lead men to despair, to drink, to wars.
The cat disappears around the back of a house. I disappear into a bus. And so concludes my One Day In Aughrim.
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