The Relief of Derry

From Derry and Enniskillen in the Year 1689 by Thomas Witherow

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On Sabbath forenoon, 28th of July, the sufferings within the walls had reached their climax. That morning eight shots were fired from the flat roof of the cathedral, and a flag was lowered, to intimate once more to the fleet, which had again returned to Lough Foyle, the extreme distress of the city. For the first time, the fleet gave signs of understanding the signals: it fired six great guns in answer, as if to say that at last something was about to be done.

That day orders were issued by Kirke from aboard the Swallow, that three small vessels laden with provisions, under protection of the Dartmouth man-of-war frigate, should attempt the passage of the river. The Dartmouth, commanded by Captain Leake, had been ordered round from Carrickfergus for this service; the victuallers were the Mountjoy, of Derry, Capt. Micaiah Browning, a native of the city; the Phoenix, of Coleraine, Captain Andrew Douglas; and the Jerusalem, Captain Reynell. The Dartmouth was to engage the fort at Culmore; the Mountjoy and Phoenix to attempt the boom; and the Jerusalem was not to sail until it was certain that the boom was passed by one or other of the companion ships. There can be no doubt that this was a very hazardous enterprise. The provision ships were very small: the Mountjoy was only 135 tons burden, and the Phoenix and Jerusalem still less. They had to sail for four miles up a river, where, for a great part of the way, the passage is made more than usually narrow by shelving banks; and where, throughout the whole way, both banks were in exclusive possession of the enemy. They had to pass under the guns of the castle at Culmore, and to encounter the two forts which covered the boom. If the enemy had known how to handle their guns, and had had guns enough to handle, the attempt to pass must have proved a disastrous failure.[1]

What determined Kirke at last to make the effort, which six weeks before might have been made with less risk and with equal success, is not now exactly known. It was to relieve the city that the fleet had been sent from England; but for seven weeks it went backwards and forwards between Lough Foyle and Lough Swilly, and made no endeavour to achieve the grand object for which it came. There can be no doubt that in this interval James Gordon, minister of Glendermot, the man who at the outset of the troubles had counselled the apprentices of Derry to shut the gates in face of King James's troops, got aboard the fleet, had an interview with Kirke, and pointed out how the matter could be done.[2] But an officer of Kirke's character was not so likely to be roused to action by the opinion of a man who was only a minister, not a soldier, as by the positive orders of General Schomberg, recently appointed commander-in-chief of all the English forces in Ireland, that the attempt must be made.[3] This view of the case was that entertained at the time.[4]

The wind, which in the morning blew from the north-west, veered round in the afternoon towards the north; and, taking advantage of the wind and rising tide, the three ships set sail up the stream. The first obstacle which they had to encounter was the fort and castle of Culmore, planted at the neck of the river, where it attains its narrowest point before it opens out into the Lough. So soon as the Dartmouth came within range, the guns from the fort opened upon her immediately. "Captain Leake," says the London Gazette of that time, "behaved himself very bravely and prudently in this action, neither firing great not small shot, though he was plied very hard with both, till he came on the wind of the castle, and there beginning to batter, that the victuallers might pass under shelter of his guns, he lay between the castle and them within musket-shot, and came to an anchor."[5] Under cover of the Dartmouth, the two provision ships succeeded in making their way past this formidable defence, and when they were safely through, the frigate, having done its work, sailed into the little estuary of the river above the fort, where it took in its sails and cast anchor.

The two provision ships, accompanied by the longboat of the Swallow, "well barricadoed and armed with seamen to cut the boome," were now left to themselves. The tide was in their favour, but the wind, which was very gentle before, now as evening approached sank into a dead calm. The enemy on both sides the river lined the shores and made their guns, great and small, play at them without ceasing. Though the balls flew about like hail, the ships held right on, the gallant men aboard being fully determined to succeed or perish. The Mountjoy, being the larger of the two little vessels, occupied the post of honour; it advanced through the lines of fire from both sides the river, and with all its force struck the boom. Rebounding from the obstruction, the vessel ran aground, and wild huzzas from the enemy announced their triumph at this disaster. To make all sure, they fired all their guns at the stranded vessel, and began to prepare for boarding.[6] But it was not come to that as yet. Meanwhile, the crew of the long-boat, under command of the boatswain's mate, were with hatchets and cutlasses hewing and hacking away at the boom. The tide was still rising. The stranded vessel discharged all her guns on the land side, and the rebound caused by this broadside thrust her out into deep water again. The second time she ran against the boom with all her force; this time the barrier was broken, and with its broken fragments the hopes of the Jacobites floated down the stream.[7] That moment decided the victory, and both sides knew it. King James's men knew well that Derry and Ireland alike were lost to their master when they saw the two gallant little ships sailing up slowly through Ross's Bay.

Only five persons aboard the ships were actually killed. Of these the most distinguished was Micaiah Browning, captain of the Mountjoy. He was standing on the deck, with sword in hand, giving his orders and encouraging his men, when, at the moment the boom was broken, he was struck by a gun-shot on the head. He died the death of a true soldier, in the arms of victory, leaving behind him a name that well deserves to be for ever remembered in the city that he saved.

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[1] Reid, vol. ii., chap. xix.

[2] That Gordon rendered this service there is no reason to doubt, for we have it on testimony which must have been derived from himself; but what really influenced the action of Kirke it was not in Gordon's power to testify. We can only conjecture.

[3] Wodrow's Analecta; Macaulay's History; Reid, vol. ii., p. 387. A copy of these orders, dated July 3rd, 1689, existed in the "Nairne Papers," Macpherson, vol. ii., p. 667.

[4] "For Couns, Cairnes arrived immediately, And brought an express from His Majesty, Commanding Kirke for to relieve the town."

Londerias, iv. 12.

[5] Reid, ch. xix., p. 386.

[6] The following is the account of this transaction in the Journal from London:—"It seems the ship, as the horse came up within a pike's length of her side, then shot three cannons at them loaded with partridge shot, which laid several of them on the ground, and the others fled away. The French General was very angry with them for retiring, and used all means to make them attack the ship again, but they did not undertake it. In the meantime, they spared the ship no great shot from their battery. When she got clear, and was almost as high as Pennyburn Mill, the Derry people came out in boats and helped to tow the ships in, the wind not blowing as fresh as when they first set sail."

[7] "The boom was so badly constructed," says Avaux, writing to Louis on the 14/4th of August, "that it could not resist the longboats which towed the two little vessels which carried the victuals, and we knew already more than once that this boom was broken often by the force of the wind and tide alone."

The following is the rumour of this action, which according to the Journal from London was carried to Inch: "Some say there went first a boat with a house upon it (which we suppose is the Swallow's long-boat) and came to the Boom, when it stopped; and of a sudden a man (a witch they say) struck three strokes with a hatchet upon the boom, and cut it asunder, and so passed on; and then the ships followed." This is no bad example of the readiness with which ignorance and superstition turn fact into fiction.

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.