The Comber Letter

From Derry and Enniskillen in the Year 1689 by Thomas Witherow

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CHAPTER II....continued

Early in December 1688, the popular ferment reached its climax in Derry and throughout Ulster in consequence of a small and very trivial incident. On Monday, the 3rd December, a letter was found on the streets of Comber, County Down, addressed to Lord Mount-Alexander, a Protestant nobleman of that neighbourhood, whose title has long since become extinct; professing to be written by a friend, informing him of the intended massacre, and cautioning him to guard against the danger:—

" December 3rd, 1688.


"I have written to you to let you know that all our Irishmen through Ireland is sworn: that on the ninth day of this month they are all to fall on to kill and murder man, wife, and child; and I desire your lordship to take care of yourself, and all others that are judged by our men to be heads, for whosoever of them can kill any of you, they are to have a captain's place; so my desire to your honour is, to look to yourself, and give other noblemen warning, and go not out either night or day without a good guard with you, and let no Irishman come near you, whatsoever he be; so this is all from him who was your father's friend, and is your friend, and will be, though I dare not be known, as yet, for fear of my life."[7]

To this letter no name was attached. It seemed to be the production of some illiterate person, actuated by friendly feeling to his lordship, but who, from motives of prudence, did not wish his name to be known.[8] It was in reality a vile hoax, the authorship of which was never known; but the matter it contained gave such expression to the Protestant feeling of the time that few, if any, who heard it, suspected it then to be a base invention. Copies of it spread over the whole kingdom with wonderful celerity in a very few days. It was sent by express to Dublin,[9] and to Derry, and even to smaller towns. It reached Derry on the morning of Friday, December 7th. No one there suspected it to be a hoax; its authenticity was believed by all. Every one thought it providential that the warning arrived in time, and that they had two clear days still left them to put themselves in a posture of defence. Great events often spring from very insignificant causes. The wretch who wrote that silly letter, without intending it or foreseeing what was to happen, set in motion a train of events which resulted in the siege of Derry, and in the loss of Ireland to King James.

For a few days before this letter was written, Derry was without a garrison. Some time previously, Lord Mountjoy's regiment had been quartered in the town, to the great satisfaction of the citizens;for his was one of the few regiments now remaining which still contained a considerable number of Protestants, and, moreover, Mountjoy himself was not only a Protestant, but the grandson of Sir William Stewart of Ramelton, who, at the head of his Laganeers, had protected the city from Sir Phelim Roe, in 1642. But on the 23rd November, Mountjoy's regiment, by order of Tyrconnel, left for Dublin, in order to supply the place of the soldiers who had been sent to England to assist the King. For a fortnight afterwards the new levies were not ready to come to Derry to fill the vacant quarters. The mistake made by the Lord-Deputy, in thus leaving the town for fourteen days without a garrison, he was never able afterwards to retrieve. The French ambassador did not scruple to say afterwards that "the man who would have served the King of France, his master, as Tyrconnel served James in taking away Mountjoy's regiment, would have lost his head."[10]

The troops intended to supply the place thus left vacant were enlisted a few weeks previously by a Roman Catholic nobleman, Alexander MacDonnell, Earl of Antrim. They were all Roman Catholics; some of them Highlanders, some of them Irish—the very scum of the population. They had not acquired the discipline and self-restraint of regular soldiery; they had as yet obtained no regimentals, and, instead of the usual weapons furnished to the King's troops, they carried the clubs and skeins that were usually borne by Rapparees.[11] On the 6th December, this armed mob, for it could scarcely be called a regiment, reached Newtownlimavady on its way to the city. Now it so happened that on the very morning, Friday, the 7th December, when an express from George Canning, Esq., of Garvagh,[12] reached Derry, conveying to Mr. Alderman Tomkins a copy of the anonymous letter addressed to Lord Mount-Alexander, another despatch came from George Philips, Esq., of Newtownlimavady, to say that Lord Antrim's Redshanks had arrived there yesterday, and might some time that day be expected at the Waterside. Before this message was generally known, there came another from Mr. Philips, apprizing the citizens of their danger and urging them to take immediate steps to provide for their safety; and the messenger added, that he had passed some of the soldiery only two miles outside of the town. The tidings contained in these different despatches were compared and discussed. The facts in the letter from Newtownlimavady were supposed to confirm the information in the letter from County Down. The inference drawn by the people was that the Redshanks were coming to carry out the grand design of the 9th December, and were about to occupy the city in order to murder the citizens.[13]

So soon as the state of matters became known, the town was in a ferment. The people met in knots in the street, discussing the situation. All alike were conscious of the danger; they regarded themselves and their families as doomed to slaughter, and these Redshanks as the men commissioned to execute the deed of blood. The natural remedy for such a state of affairs would have been to communicate with Government; but Government was at a distance, and before help could possibly come, it would be too late. They were even then within forty-eight hours of the dreaded day. Alderman Tomkins could not decide what step to take; he was afraid to act, and he was equally afraid not to act. He consulted James Gordon, the Presbyterian minister of Glendermot, who did not scruple to advise the bold step of shutting the gates and refusing admittance to the king's troops. Next he consulted Dr. Hopkins, the Protestant Bishop; but his lordship believed in the Divine right of kings, held it to be the duty of subjects, under all circumstances, to obey their Sovereign, and thought it a very serious thing to commit an act of barefaced rebellion. This staggered the worthy Alderman, who cherished the best intentions, but naturally hesitated to incur grave responsibility, and to take on himself the very serious step of resisting the Crown and the constituted authorities of the nation.

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[7] Mackenzie's Nar., ch. i.; King's State, App. No. 12.

[8] The author of the pamphlet quoted in the succeeding note, thinks it was a contrivance devised to engage the Earl of Mount-Alexander in the Association formed in the north-east against King James's Government. But the fact is, that Association was not formed for a month or two after the present date.

[9] Its effect in Dublin may be judged by a pamphlet of the time entitled "A Faithful History of the Northern Affairs of Ireland," etc., quoted by Leslie in his Answer to King, p. 78:—"It so alarmed the city, that above 5000 Protestants appeared in arms that same night, and many hundred families embarked from all parts in such confusion, that they left everything but their lives behind them."

[10] A True Account, etc., p. 8.

[11] King, p. 115.

[12] The Cannings were originally a Warwickshire family. George Canning came to Ireland as agent of the Worshipful Company of Ironmongers in 1614. His son, William, was killed in the Irish rebellion of 1641. His grandson, George, is named in the text. No less than three peerages have been conferred on his descendants for their services to the nation. He is the ancestor in common of Lord Canning, Lord Garvagh, and Lord Stratford de Redcliffe.—Hist. of Ironmongers' Co., p. 545.

[13] Mackenzie, Nar., ch. i.

Derry and Enniskillen in the Year 1689

Thomas Witherow's thoroughly researched and well-annotated work is a classic account of the Siege of Derry, from the shutting of the gates against the Jacobite forces by the thirteen apprentice boys to the relief of the city by Major-General Kirke's fleet in July 1689. The defence of Enniskillen and the counteroffensive actions of the Enniskilleners is also ably documented.

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Fighters of Derry

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.

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The Actions of the Enniskillen-men

While the epic siege of Derry is usually accorded its proper place in history, the contemporaneous exploits of the Enniskillen men are often overlooked. This is manifestly unjust because the Enniskilleners demonstrated bravery and heroism in battle at least equal to that of the defenders of Londonderry. Some, of course, rate the actions of the Enniskillen men more highly. As far as Revd Andrew Hamilton, the Rector of Kilskeery and author of A True Relation of the Actions of the Inniskilling Men (1690), was concerned ‘The Derry men saved a city but the Enniskilleners saved a kingdom.’

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