The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in Irish Literature

Written Spring 2012, English 251: Irish Literature

The Book of Revelation tells the story of the Last Judgment. It describes Jesus Christ opening four of seven seals releasing the four horsemen of the apocalypse. In the apocalyptic interpretation these riders are harbingers of the Last Judgment. The horses are white, black, red, and pale and their riders symbolize conquest, famine, war, and death respectively. It is telling that these horses are present in Richard Murphy’s poem Battle of Aughrim and J.M. Synge’s play Riders to the Sea. The four horsemen are a metaphor for the horrors that ride across the country: Conquest, Famine, War, and ultimately Death.


The Battle of Aughrim was the decisive battle in the Williamite Wars of Ireland. The Irish forces were fighting for the reinstatement of James II to the throne of England. The Marquis of St. Ruth, a French officer, was the commander-in-chief of the Irish army. The battle was bloodier than that of the Boyne with over 7,000 casualties from both sides. The cavalry office, Colonel Henry Luttrell, hearing of St. Ruth’s death retreated, leaving the Irish almost defenseless against William’s army. This battle marked the official end of the Jacobite resistance in Ireland and established Protestant rule over Ireland.


The first horseman to appear in the bible is the White Rider. He holds a bow and is given a crown as he rides out as a conqueror. He is alternately interpreted as the antichrist and Christ himself, but he is always associated with military conquest. Some theologians cast Jesus as the white rider because he appears later riding a white horse and white is often meant to symbolize righteousness in the bible. These interpretations see Jesus as spreading the word of God like a conquering hero. In Battle of Aughrim by Richard Murphy the White Rider is the Marquis of St. Ruth. St. Ruth is no a Christ-like figure but he is certainly filled with passion. War is eroticized in his poem. St. Ruth is in “rapture” when he hears the terrible sounds of war (Murphy 62). The cannon fire and musket shots are described as the “music of war” (62). Conquering Ireland for an absent king he “trots on a silver mare” (62). Murphy, rather than choosing to view the White Rider as Jesus, imbues St. Ruth with devilish characteristics. He has a “stiletto beard” (63) and “a long forked nose” (63). He is very much at home with the “sulphurous” smell of burning flesh, much like the environment of Hell (63). The Battle of Aughrim is for the conqueror’s pride and glory because he cannot bear the loss of Athlone. St. Ruth decides to risk his entire army by standing at Aughrim in order “to restore his position and redeem his name” (Murphy 42). This rider arrogantly wears no protective equipment and courtiers clothing, much like the crown given to the biblical White Rider. He is not a soldier, merely a conqueror. St. Ruth’s pride is satisfied with the blood of others as long as he can gain some ground.


St. Ruth is also set up as a foil to the Irish officer, Patrick Sarsfield. St. Ruth’s poem immediately precedes the one dedicated to Patrick Sarsfield. He commanded the reserves at the Battle of Aughrim where he was banished to the rear of the army and given no information about the battle. He was very much a helpless patriot dressed in green, white, and gold, the colors of Ireland. “Sarsfield rides a chestnut horse” and he personifies the Red Rider (Murphy 64). “Given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another: and there was given unto him a great sword” (King James Bible. Rev. 6. 4). Often the symbolism is specifically related to civil war as opposed to the war of conquest brought forth by the white horse. As St. Ruth and Sarsfield are contrasted in Battle of Aughrim it is noteworthy that there is a thin distinction between their respective symbols. St. Ruth is not fighting for his country or even his religion, whereas Sarsfield works to protect Ireland and it’s interests. Another aspect of the Red Rider is the representation of mass slaughter. By casting Sarsfield as the Red Rider he makes Sarsfield a patriot fighting for Ireland and perhaps condemns St. Ruth for excluding him from the battle. If the Red Rider, as mass slaughter, had been in the midst of the battle it might have had a different outcome.


Honor, or virtus, is a common theme in Irish literature. Men throughout Irish literature are portrayed sacrificing their love, their homes, and their lives for Ireland. Irish literature seems to stress this classical idea of country over self. Sarsfield seems to be the only officer who possesses it. He is the only character wearing an actual helmet and holding a sword. The Red Rider is the only rider wielding a weapon that can kill at close range, as the White Rider is carrying a bow. In Battle of Aughrim St. Ruth is not even carrying a weapon and Luttrell carries a decorative sabre. He is at the head of his regiment ready and willing to fight for his country. Colonel Henry Luttrell stands “at the rear of his regiment” far from the action (Murphy 65). Conquest is often similar to war but Murphy is clear that Sarsfield is the only true soldier among the officers that day.


Another example of Sarsfield’s virtus is his choice at the end of the battle. William gives the remaining Irish troops options for their surrender. They can either go home, fight in his army, or be exiled. Sarsfield chooses exile and leads his men to France to continue the fight for King James II there. In total he leads about 10,000 troops to France. This is traditionally referred to as the Flight of the Wild Geese. In addition to the 4,000 or so men lost in battle many Irish soldiers banished themselves to France to fight for King James’ army.


One of the great tragedies of the Battle of Aughrim is the treachery of the cavalry officer Colonel Henry Luttrell. After hearing of St. Ruth’s decapitation he leads the cavalry off the battlefield, thus ensuring Irish defeat. He leaves Sarsfield to handle the fallout and deal with the dead. Luttrell, representing famine, sits on “a black charger” (Murphy 65). The Black Rider holds scales and is accompanied by a vocal pronunciation of grain prices: “A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny; and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine” (Rev. 6. 6). Fittingly Murphy places Luttrell in a beanfield as he observes the battle. Luttrell also retreats to dinner. Luttrell is surrounded by food as he trots off the field.  The fact that the Black Rider specifies the oil and wine is not to be touched has led to many theories. One idea is that luxury goods, such as oil and wine were being produced over staple goods to the detriment of the poor By casting Luttrell as the Black Rider Murphy is alluding to the Potato Famine. Luttrell’s actions guaranteed English rule for the next 200 years and the English exacerbated conditions in Ireland during the Famine. Ireland kept up the same amount of food exportation throughout the famine, even though those within its borders were dying with empty stomachs. England would not aid its feudal claim and Luttrell is to blame. It is interesting that Luttrell is the Black Rider rather than the Pale Rider with the amount of lives he cost. Murphy however might not have wanted to give Luttrell too much power. He had merely “sold his country to preserve his class” (Murphy 70). Luttrell’s actions are not malicious they are selfish and cowardly.


The fourth horse is conspicuously absent in Murphy’s Battle of Aughrim. The Pale, or sometimes the Green Horse, is death itself. This is the only rider that is specifically named. “His name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him” (Rev. 6. 8). Amidst so much death the pale rider does not make an appearance. “There have died, I say, in this sad kingdom. By the famine, and disease, at least one hundred thousand young and old” (Murphy 68). Peculiarly none have specifically died from Death’s hands. Also famine and disease are mentioned, but not war. In more modern interpretations the White Rider has been associated with pestilence and disease. The White Rider’s change in roles may be a reference to the exploration of the new world, which brought not only conquest but also infectious disease to the native populations. Although in a poem and a country that has been so fraught with violence and war it is odd that those lost to it would not be numbered with the victims of famine and diseases. War’s victims may not be counted because its Rider was lost to the battlefields of France. However, the Red horse does appear again in Riders to the Sea and the Pale Rider makes his debut.


            Riders to the Sea is a one-act tragedy written by J.M. Synge. The play focuses on an Irish woman named Maurya and her family. Maurya has lost most of the men in her family to the sea in some way. At the beginning of the play Maurya is in suspense as to the fate of one of her sons, Michael, whose body has not been found yet. Her one surviving son, Bartley, is planning on traveling to Connemara to sell a horse. Maurya begs him not to go and predicts that he will be lost to the sea by nightfall if he persists; for this reason she refuses to give him the traditional blessing. Her daughters convince her that this is a cruel thing to do so she goes after him to rectify this mistake. She goes to the well to meet him and bless him on his journey. When she tries to give him the blessing she sees her dead son Michael riding fast behind Bartley on the grey pony. “The grey pony knocked him into the sea” (Synge 14). Once again the horsemen of the apocalypse show up in Irish Literature. This time however Death does make an appearance. Bartley rides the war horse and his brother is death. “I looked up then, and I crying, at the gray pony, and there was Michael upon it–with fine clothes on him, and new shoes on his feet” (Synge 12). Death follows his brother and pushes him into the sea. Bartley joins the many Irish men who have lost their lives. It is ironic when Maurya says, “They’re all together this time, and the end is come,” since the horsemen are said to be the first sign of the apocalypse (Synge 15).


The four horsemen represent all that ails Ireland. Conquest has been riding through Ireland from the time of the Viking invasions. The White Rider ultimately delivers Ireland to England. War has been an ever-present shadow over the country. The Irish have been fighting each other since the beginning and they continue to fight each other.  Famine struck hard in the 1740s and it drove over a million away from the country. Death lends a hand wherever he is needed. Irish literature is aware of these shadows over the country and their authors reflect the horsemen’s presence in their works.



Works Cited

Murphy, Richard. The Battle of Aughrim. New York: Knopf, 1971. Print.

Revelation. 6:1-8. Web. 11 Dec. 2012.        <>.

Synge, J. M. Riders to the Sea. Project Gutenberg Literary           Archive Foundation, 3 Aug. 2008. Web. 11 Dec. 2012.             <>.