Hardships of the Garrison at Derry

From Derry and Enniskillen in the Year 1689 by Thomas Witherow

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CHAPTER IV...continued


Badly off as King James's troops were for ammunition and equipments, the difficulties under which the garrison laboured at the same time were very much greater. Famine and disease were not the only, though perhaps the greatest, hardships which they had to suffer. They had to grind their own corn, as well as to make their own balls; suspicions of treachery were entertained about some of the officers; insubordination broke out occasionally among the men; and desertions from the city were not unfrequent. The treachery of Lundy seems to have produced a bad impression, and distrust was felt in succession with regard to Mitchelburn, Walker, and others. Insubordination manifested itself in a variety of ways; soldiers, tempted by the enemy, would sometimes rush out of the gates to fight, without waiting for the command of the officers; others, without authority, would go and hold parley with the enemy; when Walker proposed to accept £500 for the release of Colonel Talbot,[48] some threatened to shoot the Governor or send him to jail; and some unruly spirits were detected in plotting a scheme for giving up the city to the enemy.[49] To such a height did this spirit of anarchy rise, that in the last week of the siege a court-martial sat daily, in order to punish misdemeanours and regulate the internal affairs of the garrison. Besides, the numerous deserters from the city to the camp kept the besiegers constantly informed of the state of matters within the walls. Thus we read that on the 7th of May two captains deserted; on the 10th of May, one Brisbane, a curate; on the 23rd of June, Captain Stringer; early in July, Captain Beatty; and Captain Charleton on the morning of the day in which the city was relieved. One of these deserters, Andrew Robinson,[50] fared worse than some of the others. Some imprudent expression of his in the camp gave offence to his new friends, whereupon they stripped him of his clothes and sent him back to the city; which must have been, to a man of any spirit, a punishment worse than death.

But hunger, and the diseases produced by hunger and privation, were the most formidable enemies of the garrison. Famine slew more than the cannon of the enemy; even the bombs discharged from the camp killed but few, compared with the multitudes that perished from sickness. On the 8th of July, the garrison from these causes was reduced to 5520 men, and on that day there was distributed to each man from the provision stores, a pound of meal, a pound of tallow, and two pounds of aniseeds. The meal was mixed with the tallow, and to the mixture was added ginger, pepper, or aniseeds; and the whole was made into pancakes, which proved no despicable fare, especially when no better could be obtained. Later in the month, victuals of a much more nauseous kind were anxiously sought for, and sometimes bought at a high price. A peck of meal would easily bring six shillings; butter, six-and-fourpence a pound; a dog, six shillings; and the blood of a horse, twopence per quart. A good cat would draw four-and-sixpence; a rat a shilling; and a mouse a sixpence, in the last week of the siege. Walker tells of a corpulent gentleman, who, conceiving that some of the garrison in the extremity of their hunger looked at him with rather a longing eye, hid himself for three days, till the cannibal desire might have time to subside. Ash tells of one poor fellow who had caught a dog and was dressing it for his dinner. At that moment there came in a man to whom he owed some money, and who demanded that then and there he must give him his money or the dog. The borrower is servant to the lender; the poor man was obliged to hand over the dog to his creditor, and to go dinnerless himself.

Bad food, and little food of any kind, produced their natural effects, and every week the mortality of the garrison rose to a higher figure. Children, old men, women, and hardy soldiers, sickened with this and the other complaint, and perished. So great was the mortality, that it helped to prolong the siege, by making the provisions last longer than they otherwise would have done. No man who survived that fearful trial ever forgot his experience at Derry.

"I could not," says John Hunter, of Maghera, who served as a common soldier throughout the siege, "I could not get a drink of clean water, and suffered heavily from thirst, and was so distressed by hunger that I could have eaten any vermin, but could not get it. Yea, there was nothing that was any kind of flesh or food that I would not have eaten, if I had it. May the good Lord, if it be His pleasure, never let poor woman's son meet with such hardships as I met with at that great siege, for I cannot mention them as I ought. Oh! none will believe, but those who have found it by experience, what some poor creatures suffered in that siege. There were many who had been very curious respecting what they put into their mouths before they came to the siege of Londonderry, who before that siege was ended would have eaten what a dog would not eat—for they would have eaten a dead dog, and be very glad to eat it; and one dog will hardly eat another. I speak from woeful experience, for I myself would have eaten the poorest cat or dog I ever saw with my eyes. The famine was so great that many a man, woman, and child died from want of food. I myself was so weak from hunger, that I fell under my musket one morning as I was going to the walls; yet God gave me strength to continue all night at my post there, and enabled me to act the part of a soldier as if I had been as strong as ever I was; yet my face was blackened with hunger. I was so hard put to it, by reason of the want of food, that I had hardly any heart to speak or walk; and yet when the enemy was coming, as many a time they did, to storm the walls, then I found as if my former strength returned to me. I am sure it was the Lord kept the city, and none else; for there were many of us that could hardly stand on our feet before the enemy attacked the walls, who, when they were assaulting the out-trenches, ran out against them most nimbly and with great courage. Indeed, it was never the poor, starved men that were in Derry that kept it out, but the mighty God of Jacob, to whom be praise for ever and ever."[51]

The simple words of this unlettered soldier picture the sufferings of the garrison with more distinctness and force than the choicest language of the most brilliant of English historians.

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[48] Londerias, iii. 15. He was known by the nickname "Wicked Will."

[49] "The rabble of our garrison took a vagary and put Lord Netterville, Garret Aylmore, Mr. Buchanan, Brian M'Laughlin, etc., all, except Lieut. Talbot, who were prisoners, into Newgate; afterwards went and took meal and whatever they could get, without respect of persons or property. In the evening they released Sir Garret and Mr. Newcomen, and the others the next day."—Ash's Diary, June 17th.

[50] For the honour of the cloth it is to be hoped that this was not the Episcopal clergyman of Derryloran. The latter was of the same name, and was in the city during the siege.

[51] Graham's Ireland Preserved, p. 365. The writer of the above served as a soldier in King William's army at the Boyne, at Aghrim, and at the siege of Limerick in 1691. Mr. Graham copied the above extract from his MS. Diary and Journal, which about 1840 was in possession of the old soldier's great-grandson, Rev. Jas. Hunter, of the Third Presbyterian Church, Coleraine. Since the first edition went to press, I have heard that a relative of the family, who emigrated to Australia some years ago, took this manuscript with him. See also Londerias, iv. 6; Ash, July 9th.

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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