Hereditary Merit and Demerit from the Siege of Derry

From Derry and Enniskillen in the Year 1689 by Thomas Witherow

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CHAPTER X...continued

10. There is a strange tendency in men to take credit to themselves for the great and noble acts which their ancestors performed, and to leave these same ancestors to bear alone the whole burden of anything discreditable in their words or conduct. But we treat our neighbours in a way the very opposite of this: whatever was base in the actions of their ancestors, we lay without scruple at our neighbours' door, and we stoutly refuse to give them credit for any little virtues which, perhaps in face of some temptation, their predecessors may have exhibited. Now this is scarcely fair. If we persist in making the man on the other side of the way responsible for all the crimes of his great-grandfather, we are bound to give them credit for any little virtues that the old gentleman must have possessed in his time; and if we plume ourselves in no small degree on the merits and services of our own greatgrandfather, we should remember that we cannot in fair play shake ourselves free of the faults and follies of which it is whispered he was guilty. But the truth is that no man has a right to tax his neighbour with the sins of his progenitors, and to credit himself with nothing but the virtues of his own.

No living man has a better right to take honour to himself for the siege of Derry, than he has for the battle of Marathon or of Cressy. None of the present generation was there; and if we had been, there is no saying how we would have acted. Though our ancestors behaved as true men and soldiers should, it is not exactly clear that we in their circumstances would have shown equal gallantry and courage. We may denounce the ferocity of Rosen and the perfidy of Galmoy; but we have no right to attribute the same ferocity and perfidy to others who are members of the same political or religious party, but who, it may be, condemn their cruel and treacherous conduct as warmly as we do ourselves. Some of us may think that the Lauds and Bramhalls, the Leslies and Kings, of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, dealt rather harshly with our kith and kin: but they were after all more their own enemies than ours; their intolerance undermined the very fabric which they sought so unscrupulously to support; and whether it was so or not, it would be most absurd in us now to treat the Episcopalians whom we are meeting every day as in any way accountable for bigotry and harshness which they do not approve, or to suppose that every Irish prelate till the end of time is of necessity a Bramhall or a King.

The spirit of Churches is improving as the ages roll, and even humanity, it is to be hoped, is not growing worse. Still, each generation has sins enough of its own to burden and to vex it. Human life would at last become intolerable, if every new generation were to be held accountable for the accumulated sins of its party in all past ages. History indeed will not permit us to forget how men and Churches acted on great public occasions; but surely nothing could be more absurd than to credit ourselves with all the good and none of the evil that our ancestors have done, and to fasten on our neighbours all the evil and none of the good which were achieved by theirs. If we pride ourselves on our own doings only, there will be little to praise; if we blame our neighbours for nothing except their own demerits, there will be little to blame. But all party commemorations proceed on the principle of hereditary merit and demerit. They are based on the absurd principle that the present generation is entitled to take glory for battles which it never fought, and for virtues which it never displayed; and that others are to be put to shame for the defeats in which they had no part, and for disasters for which they are no more accountable than a Frenchman, to be born two centuries hence, could be rationally held accountable for Sedan.

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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.