Why the Beseigers failed at Derry

From Derry and Enniskillen in the Year 1689 by Thomas Witherow

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The study of the incidents related in the preceding pages suggests various reflections.

1. The first is a devout feeling of gratitude to Almighty God that the scourge of war has not visited the country in our time. We speak of the courage, the endurance, the triumph, the reward; but what are these compared with the danger, the toil, the misery, the poverty, the waste of life, the cruelty, the desolation by which it is attended! When involved in a conflict which he did not provoke, and which he could not avoid, it only remains for a man to acquit himself as best he can in the circumstances; but grievous indeed must be the evils which justify his having recourse to a remedy in every way so calamitous. The man who wantonly takes a step which makes blood inevitable, is an enemy of the human race.

2. Apart altogether from the cause of quarrel, on which men, according as they are Roman Catholics or Protestants, will probably differ in opinion till the end of time, all will agree that the defence of Derry and Enniskillen, in the circumstances described, was in itself a feat of endurance and courage which has had few parallels in the history of nations, Enniskillen, occupied by a few men, untrained to arms, enrolled for the emergency, and ill supplied with ammunition, always went out to meet its foes, repeatedly defeated in the open field a superior force of disciplined soldiery, and itself unprotected by walls, never suffered an enemy during that long struggle to set foot upon its streets. If we consider the situation of Derry, which, though upon a hill, is nevertheless commanded on both sides by still higher hills within cannon-shot; if we remember that professional soldiers who had given attention to military science pronounced it untenable, and that they and most of the gentry deserted it, advising the crowd of people who had collected there for refuge to make with the enemy the best terms they could; that they who remained behind were simply a promiscuous multitude, very few of whom were either trained to arms, or in any way habituated to war; that, when deserted by their natural leaders, they had to form themselves into regiments, and choose officers of their own; that among them there was no engineer skilled in defence, and no gunner trained to handle artillery in scientific fashion; and that, notwithstanding all those disadvantages, seven thousand extemporised soldiers succeeded in holding the city for 105 days, against a superior force of at least 10,000 men, commanded by experienced French and English officers, well supplied with provisions, and constantly reinforced with fresh men to make up for the inevitable loss of sickness and battle—if all this is taken into account, even a candid adversary will admit that the history of these kingdoms contains no record of heroic or illustrious action which surpasses the defence of Derry. The pluck, the courage, the stern determination manifested by its defenders, are the qualities that make soldiers; and it is men who possess such qualities whom great generals love to command.

3. It is at the same time clear that if relief had not come at the time it did, the city could not have held out for another week. On the day before it was relieved, Captain Ash, one of its defenders, entered in his Diary:—"Now there is not one week's provisions in the garrison; of course we must surrender the city, and make the best terms we can for ourselves." Had the ships from England and Scotland not broken the boom that Sabbath afternoon, the city must have surrendered before that week had run its course, or else amid a garrison of gaunt skeletons, unable to draw a sword or present a musket, Hamilton and Galmoy would have entered at Bishop's Gate in triumph and the flag of King James would have waved from the battlements. In that case, the defence of the city would have been no less gallant, but it would have lacked the one element essential in our day to secure, even for the most heroic effort, popular applause. Had the defence proved a failure, many who now applaud would have blamed the besieged for undertaking, in disregard of military advice, to maintain an untenable position, and condemned them for a useless expenditure of life. Through the mercy of an overruling Providence, it was so allowed that at the critical moment there came from without that very relief, wanting which the siege would have ended in disaster, and without which the wisdom and valour of the garrison would have been for ever under an eclipse.

4. Though the Jacobite forces were superior in number, and commanded by officers of skill and experience, it must be remembered that they laboured under some very serious disadvantages in attacking the city. The majority of their soldiers were but raw recruits, levied within the last few months, and who had never seen service; the number of their cannon was very limited, not amounting to more than eight or nine; their gunners were not trained to use them with effect. "Those of their present army," says the author of Ireland's Lamentation, "both officers and soldiers, are mostly the very scum of the country, cow-boys, and such trash, as tremble at the firing a musket."[1] Had there been a train of siege artillery, well handled by a trained brigade, the city walls could not have stood the cannonade for four-and-twenty hours. The bombs were indeed the most formidable missiles which the besiegers had at their command, and all the more formidable because the garrison had no means of shelling their assailants in return; but even they frightened more than they hurt: and the fact that, in a siege of 105 days, eighty persons only, out of a garrison of 7500, were actually killed either in the city or without the walls, of itself tells a tale that the besiegers were either deficient in the means of assault, or very unskilled in the use of them. Notwithstanding all the shot and bombs which were discharged against the fortress, a practicable breach was never once made in the walls, and a storming party, owing to this fact alone, never had a chance. The guns made a noise rather than inflicted damage; and the Jacobites, fighting for an English king, showed no such pluck and daring in their attack, as the garrison, fighting for life and all that made life desirable, showed in the defence. No man can doubt the courage and valour of Irishmen, proved often before and since on many a field of death; but the very bravest men ill-armed can do little against stone walls well manned and well protected with cannon, more particularly when they themselves are wanting alike in discipline and enthusiasm. Nor is the failure to be attributed to Irishmen only. In the army of King James there were English, Scottish, and French officers of high rank; but, in the circumstances, this did not alter the case. They themselves had to admit that, had the walls of Derry been made of canvas instead of stone, they were not fit to take them.[2] Hunger and disease were the two weapons which did most execution within the city.

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[1] Ireland's Lament, p. 31.

[2] It is a mistake to suppose that King James's army at Derry was officered entirely by Irishmen. Hamilton and Ramsay were English; Lieutenant-Colonel Wauhope and the Earl of Buchan were Scottish; Rosen, Pusignan, Maumont, were French. I believe also that there were many other foreign officers. Indeed, it was a common complaint among the Irish at the time that so many posts in their country were entrusted to foreigners.—See letter of Avaux to Louvois, 30/20th Aug. 1689.

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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