The Last Fight near Pennyburn Mill

From Derry and Enniskillen in the Year 1689 by Thomas Witherow

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CHAPTER IV...concluded

THE LAST FIGHT.—Thursday, 25th July.

There were several small skirmishes on the 16th and 17th of July. On the latter of these days, Colonel Murray, who had gone along with Captain Noble to repel an attack upon the earthworks outside Butcher's Gate, was shot through both his thighs, and so thoroughly disabled that he was not fully recovered till the November following. This accounts for the fact that his name is not mentioned in connection with the important transactions which soon afterwards took place.

The last conflict between the two parties was the fight for the cows, which came off in the open space between the city and Pennyburn Mill. The enemy had cattle grazing behind their lines, at no great distance from the town, which afforded a very tempting prize to men who were dying of hunger. Five hundred men assembled at Ship-quay Gate, with the view of making a sortie, and seizing the cattle. They divided into three bands: one of which went out at Ship-quay Gate, another at Butcher's Gate, and the third at Bishop's Gate. They fell on Sir John Fitzgerald's regiment with great fury, beating them out of their trenches, killing as many as sixty, and wounding as many more. Fitzgerald himself was among the slain. So soon as the enemy, on the hill above, saw their men fleeing from the trenches, they poured down to their assistance in such great numbers that the attacking party had to retreat to the city without effecting their object—the capture of the cattle. Indeed, so soon as the fight commenced, the camp lads, easily divining the purpose of the sortie, drove the cattle out of sight away over the hill. Men weak for want of nourishment were not able to fight as they once did: so the prey escaped, and the assailants had to content themselves with returning to the city, with two officers and two privates as their prisoners.

That evening General Hamilton reported to the King the events of the day:—

"That the Mareschal de Rosen would neither meddle with the blockade or raising the siege, saying he always declared against the besieging of the town, and that his advice had been slighted; that in a sally the besieged made that morning nine of theirs were left behind, besides near thirty killed; their pockets found with starch in them, as a sign of their great wants; and that a dying man of their number declared that he had fed on nothing else for five days; that they expected provisions every moment; that seven ships were come into the Lough, whereof three near Culmore are resolved to sink or get to the town by the first fair wind; that the Mareschal de Rosen was resolved to march to Charlemont, and in his way to ruin all behind him, and to make an attempt on Donegal, Ballyshannon, and Enniskillen, which he would do by reinforcing the Duke of Berwick's party; that His Majesty will find a recruit of officers will be as useful as that of soldiers; that when the sally was made at eight that morning, Fitzgerald and Dick Butler's regiments were in the trenches; that Fitzgerald's regiment were beat out; that Butler's kept their post, until the Lieut-General's brother came up with what men he could get ready, and so beat back the enemy; that the town's men cannot stand before the King's men in the field."[60]

Next day the garrison made an experiment of another kind. They took one of their last cows outside the gate, smeared her with tar, covered the tar with tow, and set the tow on fire. This cruelty was not without an object. Its design was that when the cattle of the enemy would hear the poor animal roar in her agony, instinct would prompt them to run to her relief, and thus bring them within the possibility of capture. But the result did not reward the ingenuity of the contrivers. It did not gain them a cow from the enemy; it almost lost them their own. When she felt the pain of the fire, the poor animal plunged madly and broke her bonds, escaped from her tormentors, and, like another deserter, would have gone over to the enemy, had not a shot from the walls ended at once her sufferings and her life.

Saturday, the 27th of July, had come, and as yet no relief from any quarter for the starving city. The last of their cows was killed; the last available horse was slaughtered; all the dogs had been already devoured. Captain Ash wrote that day in his diary, "Next Wednesday is our last, if relief does not arrive before it." But God is mighty and good. In that moment of despair, relief was nearer than they had supposed. The darkest hour of the night is the hour before the dawn.

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[60] Macpherson Papers, vol. i., p. 218.

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.