The Jacobite Flight from Derry

From Derry and Enniskillen in the Year 1689 by Thomas Witherow

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CHAPTER V...continued

Meanwhile the famished citizens with their gaunt visages and tottering limbs, occupied the walls. From the higher parts of the city every eye was turned in the direction of Culmore; and they looked, with an interest most intense, upon a transaction in which they could take no part, but whose success or failure was to them life or death. Faces blackened with hunger and the smoke of powder, clothes soiled and torn, eyes dimmed with tears, and limbs bearing upon them the scars of many battles, must have been conspicuous in the crowd of officers and men, of women and children, who that long summer evening stood upon the battlements, which their sufferings and heroism have ever since made classic ground. By five o'clock in the afternoon, it was noticed that the ships were very near Culmore, and soon after the sound of the cannon, as the fort and the frigate came to close quarters, could be distinctly heard. Then the besiegers from all parts of the camp were seen to hurry down in swarms, and to line the water's edge, some, no doubt, out of curiosity, and others to take a shot at the ships.

An hour or so later, they were seen approaching that terrible boom—more terrible, after all, in imagination than reality. As the wind died away into a calm, their spirits sank, for they knew well how much that would add to the peril of the enterprise. Then the smoke that enveloped the scene of action for a time hid everything from view, but the sound of the guns told them that a desperate fight was going forward between the vessels and the forts that guarded the boom. The huzzas that followed the grounding of the Mountjoy made them aware of some sad disaster, the nature of which they could not at the time understand, but which made their dark faces grow blacker still. As it drew near sunset, the enemy were observed removing their guns from place to place along the river side nearer to the town, with the view of anticipating the vessels, which, it was now clear, had broken the boom. The sun was setting when the two ships, towed by the Swallow's boats, and without a breath of air to waft them forward, slowly sailed up from Ross's Bay, and drew near the city. There was no further room for doubt; the city was saved. The joy of that hour no tongue can tell, no pen describe. If the measure of human joy is in proportion to the intensity of anxiety and suffering which go before it, some of them must have felt a depth of gladness then which has never been exceeded in this world. The inward feelings showed themselves by signs not to be mistaken; cannon roared from the wall, the bells rang out from the church steeple a merry chime, and bonfires blazed on the streets.[8]

It was ten o'clock on that memorable Sabbath evening, and the shades of night had already fallen on the city, when the Phoenix of Coleraine, which had taken the lead since the boom was passed, and after her the Mountjoy, anchored alongside the little quay that then stretched out into the river at Ship-quay Gate. A shout of frantic joy from the half-starved men and women on the walls hailed their arrival in the harbour. The Phoenix brought eight hundred bolls of meal, sent from Scotland, for the relief of the garrison, The Mountjoy was laden with beef, pease, flour, and biscuits. A rampart of barrels, filled with clay, to be a cover from the guns at the Waterside, was soon thrown up outside Ship-quay Gate, and, protected by this blind, the work of unlading commenced. Distribution was made according to the necessities of each, and in a few hours all fears of death by starvation were removed.[9]

For two days longer—Monday and Tuesday—the enemy continued to fire at the city from their trenches. But they now were well aware that the game was over, and that they had lost. All this time they were secretly preparing for flight. On Wednesday, 31st of July, they set fire to the country houses all round the city; that evening they burned their own houses and tents, and before daylight on the morning of Thursday they were well forward on the way to Lifford and Strabane, in full march for Dublin. Their rear was covered with a strong guard of horse; the city had no horse to pursue, and the gallant defenders were physically too much exhausted to interfere with the retreat. At Strabane the news met them, that Lord Mountcashel had been defeated and captured by the Enniskilleners. So much were they frightened by this intelligence, that, in order to lighten their burden, and thus increase their speed, they burst their large guns, threw the smaller into the river, and pushed forward with redoubled haste, leaving many of their sick behind. They burned Omagh as they passed through, and, by way of Dungannon and Charlemont, marched on towards Dublin. Had Enniskillen only known in time how matters stood, and met them as they fled through the green valleys of Tyrone, very few of them would have gone farther, and the battle of the Boyne, fought the following year, would have been made altogether unnecessary by the men of Newtownbutler.

If we take into account the numbers that perished in the siege of Derry, in the camp as well as in the city, it was one of the most disastrous struggles of modern times. In the town, after making allowance for all who retired before Hamilton sat down in front of it, there were perhaps 20,000 persons, of whom over 7000 were fighting men. Of these, only eighty were killed in battle; but so much were the numbers thinned by wounds, exposure, hunger, and disease, that at the close of the siege the 7000 were reduced to 4300, and one-fourth of the survivors were unfit for any service. The mortality among the non-combatants must have been still greater. On the whole we cannot be far from the truth when we estimate that, in the 105 days during which the siege lasted, there perished in the city ten thousand persons.[10]

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[8] Londerias, iv. 13.

[9] Avaux announced the relief to his master in the following terms:—"At this moment, Sire, when I was going to seal my letter, this Tuesday the 9th of August (30th of July), at eleven o'clock in the evening ... a courier arrived from Derry to tell that two little vessels have brought victuals into the town; and to add to this sad news, Monsieur Rosen is very sick and his life is in danger."

Under the same date (30th of July), Major-General Buchan writes: "I think I can do the King more service in Scotland than here."—Macpherson, i., p. 218.

[10] In a Report of a Committee of the House of Commons, in 1705, it is stated that 12,000 perished in the city during the siege by sword and famine.—Hamill's Danger and Folly, p. 11. The French estimate was 7000. See Life of the Duke of Berwick, p. 38.

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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