How Matters Stood in Ireland in 1688

From Derry and Enniskillen in the Year 1689 by Thomas Witherow

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The ruler that is bad for his own age, is often best for the ages after. Prerogative wisely used, confirms power and prolongs serfdom; prerogative overstrained, not only supplies the opportunity, but communicates the impulse, which inactive humanity requires to induce it to resist despotism and stand up for freedom. Our great national illustration of this truth is presented in the kings of the House of Stuart. Had they acted with more judgment and discretion, we might to-day, notwithstanding all our civilization and culture, have been living under the rule of a monarch as irresponsible as the Czar; but it so happened that their ill-timed and incautious assertion of their rights administered a series of provocations to the nation, which stimulated it to seize and to secure the prize of religious and civil liberty. Of their tyranny, our fathers, over whom they ruled, were either the instruments or the victims; but of their folly and madness, posterity is now reaping the rich reward. Divine Providence is thus ever employing the most unlikely means to work out great ends.

Life springs from the ashes; oppression gives birth to freedom; and evil is the mother of good.

The natural reluctance to resist authority, so characteristic of the British people, none of the Stuarts did so much to destroy as James II., who ascended the throne on the 6th of February, 1685. He entered on possession of power by making very fair professions; but they were scarcely made till, with the faithlessness of his race, he set himself deliberately to break them. Untaught by the sad history of his own father, and assuming, in his folly, that bishops and clergy who preached the Divine right of kings, and that people who submitted to be taught the duty of passive obedience, would all alike sit quietly under any amount of provocation and injustice, he took frequent opportunity to show that he was independent of Parliament, and that in these kingdoms his will was law. Not only so, but he wantonly and deliberately stirred an element of discord which the unfortunate prince, his father, had not ventured in his greatest infatuation to touch, at least in England. He himself was a Roman Catholic,—not of the genial and liberal, but of the most bigoted and intolerant type; and, at a time when the public mind was entirely unprepared for such a thorough religious revolution, he determined to subvert the Protestant establishment, and to restore the Romish Church to the position of power and grandeur which it enjoyed in England before the Reformation.

It is not impossible that a king of such decided principles might have succeeded in the two great objects at which he aimed, had he possessed ability and discretion. But James ran too fast—so fast that his subjects, and even his own friends, could not keep up with his headstrong and giddy pace. He could not be content to sow seed, and then wait with patience till the fruit would grow. He took, with unparalleled rashness, the boldest and most offensive steps, and thought it strange that the results which he desired were not immediately attained. In the exercise of his own prerogative, he virtually annulled the penal laws, issued a declaration in favour of universal liberty of conscience, and declared every subject, irrespective of religion, eligible to any office of emolument or honour under the Crown; measures which, had he carried in a constitutional way for the general good, and not for ulterior private objects of his own, would have deservedly won for him the approbation of after ages. But even a right thing is not to be done in a wrong way; and the cause of true toleration was retarded for many a year, mainly in consequence of this unwise attempt to bestow it by royal prerogative, in avowed defiance of the law. Had the nation been ignorant of the motive that actuated the king in granting a toleration which he himself would probably have been the first to revoke, as soon as his designs were served, it could not have remained ignorant very long, when it saw that Roman Catholics, although then but a mere handful of the English population, were thrust into the corporations of towns, and nominated to the highest posts in the universities, by the mere exercise of the royal will, and in defiance of the disabilities imposed by Parliament. To make himself an absolute ruler, and to restore the Romish religion to its old supremacy, in defiance alike of Parliament and people, were the well-understood objects at which the monarch aimed.

The rashness and rapidity of the means that he took in order to effect his designs, alarmed even the Pope. In open disregard of the law, which forbade diplomatic intercourse between England and Rome, the Earl of Castlemaine was sent as ambassador from James, with instructions "to reconcile the kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland to the Holy See, from which they had for more than an age fallen off by heresy." Innocent XI. knew human nature very much better than the King of England; he knew that the ecclesiastical movements commenced by James were driven forward with a rapidity which is seldom a sign of what is permanent and enduring, and he was aware that even his success would strengthen the influence of Louis of France; an influence which it would have pleased His Holiness better to see humbled than promoted. The English ambassador, therefore, was received at the Vatican with cold civility; and, although he succeeded in obtaining several audiences, and was treated with all the consideration that good manners required, no sooner did he commence to introduce the business of his embassage than the Pope was always attacked with a fit of coughing, which continued so long that the ambassador felt it necessary to rise and take his leave. Several times he was admitted to an audience, but as often as he began to speak of business, most unaccountably the fit of coughing returned to His Holiness. At last some one told Innocent that the English ambassador was threatening to go home, seeing that he had failed to secure the object of his visit. "Well, let him go," said the Pontiff, with all the cool indifference of conscious superiority both to him and his master; "and tell him, it were fit he rise in the cool of the morning, that he may-rest himself at noon; for in this country it is dangerous to travel in the heat of the day."[1] If James, therefore, brought himself into trouble on account of his efforts in regard to the Romish religion, it cannot be justly said that it was owing to any influence or urgency brought to bear upon him by the Pope.[2]

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[1] Harris, Life of William III., book iv., p. 73.

[2] The Pope, it is certain, gave no encouragement to the attempt of James to regain his throne; thus Louis XIV. writes to Avaux on the 13/3 April, 1689 :—"I wish that the letters which he (James) has written to all the princes of Europe to inform them of his arrival in Ireland, would procure for him the supplies of money that he asks from them; but the Pope sets so bad an example to all the other Catholic princes that we can scarcely hope that they, any more than he, will do what might displease the enemies of the said King " (James). Again, under date the 27th of the same month, the King writes :—"The Pope has taken the resolution of not giving any help to the King of England" (James), and he thinks that the further sojourn of James's ambassador at the Papal Court "will serve but to harden His Holiness in the ill-will (la mauvaise volonte) that he shows." Again, M. de Croissy, one of Louis' Ministers, writes to Avaux, under date May 18/8th, 1689, that "there is nothing to hope from the obstinacy of the Pope in favour of the enemies of France." On the same subject, see the statement of Prince Vaudemont in Macpherson's Original Papers, vol. i., pp. 301-2.

William R. Young’s Fighters of Derry has for decades been one of the most overlooked works on the Siege of Derry and as a local genealogical resource. First published in 1932, the book was the product of ten years’ research into identifying participants at the siege which the author undertook when suffering from ill-health in the latter part of his life.

The book is essentially divided into two parts: the first contains 1660 biographical entries relating to the defenders of Derry, tracing, where possible, the family lineage; and the second part includes 352 entries on the Jacobite side. Apart from individual accounts of eminent protagonists in the siege, such as David Cairnes, Rev. George Walker, the Duke of Schomberg, Patrick Sarsfield, etc., there is also background given to many of the most influential families involved in the conflict.