The Siege of Derry (1688-1689)

Patrick Weston Joyce

625. Tirconnell took immediate measures to secure Ireland for King James. He raised and armed an army of Catholics, and disarmed the Protestants. He took possession of most of the important places through the country; but the people of Enniskillen refused to admit his garrison. Then began the War of the Revolution.

626. Lord Antrim marched to take possession of Derry; but while the aldermen and magistrates were hesitating, a few of the bolder young apprentices seizing the keys, locked the town gates on the 7th of December 1688, and shut out Antrim and his Jacobite forces.

627. In February 1689. lieutenant-general Richard Hamilton was sent north by Tirconnell to reduce Ulster, where the Protestants were now making preparations for defence; and having captured some places and been repulsed in others, he arrived near Derry.

628. Meantime king James sailed for Ireland from Brest with 100 French officers, 1,200 Irish refugees, arms and ammunition for 10,000 men, and a supply of money. Among the French officers were De Rosen and the French ambassador count d'Avaux. Among the Irish were Patrick Sarsfield, the two Hamiltons, and the two Luttrells. James landed at Kinsale on the 12th March 1689, and passing through Cork, proceeded to Dublin.

629. Having visited Derry in April, where he found his army engaged in the siege, he returned to Dublin and summoned a parliament. During the short sitting of this parliament, from the 7th May to the 20th of July, the following measures, among others, were passed:—Poynings'Law (308) was repealed. There was to be full freedom of worship.

The Act of settlement (609) was repealed, whereby the new settlers would have to restore the lands to the old owners. A number of persons—2,445 in all—were attainted, and their lands declared confiscated, for having joined the prince of Orange. But all this active legislation came to nothing; for before there was time to enforce it, king James and his government were superseded.

630. To meet current expenses a tax was levied on estates. But as this was not enough, the king seized some coming machines, and issued base coins, each representing £5, which all persons were obliged to take in exchange for goods, though their actual value was only about four pence. This unwise measure did great mischief and ruined hundreds of traders.

631. Meantime the siege of Derry which had been commenced on the 18th of April 1689, was carried on in good earnest by Hamilton, who was afterwards joined by De Rosen. It has been related how the gates had been shut by a few young apprentices. But there were many among the authorities who did not approve of this action; and colonel Lundy the governor had from the beginning made himself intensely unpopular by recommending surrender, so that he had at last to make his escape over the wall by night in disguise.

632. The command then devolved on major Baker and captain Murray. The feeble-hearted town council were still for surrender; when the humbler citizens—those of the class who at first had shut the gates—with Murray at their head, took the matter into their own hands and resolved on resistance. The besiegers began their work vigorously the walls and town were battered by their cannon; many houses took fire; and people were struck down everywhere in the streets. But the greater the danger and distress the higher seemed to rise the spirits of the defenders. They were encouraged by the clergy, among the most active of whom was the Rev. George Walker, who kept constantly exhorting the people from both pulpit and rampart.

633. During May and June the fighting went on daily; there were sallies by the besieged, and attempts to storm by the besiegers, with desperate conflicts and great loss of life. Such was the spirit of the defenders that the women sometimes assisted, handing ammunition and refreshments to the men; and armed with stones and all sorts of first-to-hand missiles, they mixed in the fights as boldly as their sons, brothers, and husbands.

634. But soon provisions began to run short; and there was no way of procuring a supply; for the town was quite surrounded except on the river side; and here the besiegers had cut off communication by a great boom composed of strong cables and logs of timber bound together, stretched tightly from bank to bank.

635. Every day watchmen took station on the church tower, anxiously looking out to sea for relief; and at length in the middle of June they shouted down the joyous news that thirty ships were sailing up Lough Foyle. But the hopes of the citizens were short-lived; for major-general Kirke the commander of the fleet, hearing of the boom and of the armed enemies and forts lining the river banks all the way up to the town, refused to proceed farther.

636. For forty-six days he lay idle in the lough, while the townspeople were famishing, driven to eat horseflesh, dogs, grease, and garbage of every kind. The garrison fared no better. Yet these brave young fellows—ragged and starving—stood resolutely to their posts, and had never a thought of yielding.

The fighting at last ceased, and it now became a question of starving the defenders into surrender.

637. On the evening of the 30th of July, when silence, gloom, and despair had settled down on the town, the watchers were startled by a bright flash down the river, followed by the roar of artillery; and a hungry multitude, rushing eagerly to the battlements, saw relief approaching. For Kirke had at last taken heart and sent three ships with provisions. In spite of the destructive fire from both sides, the ships approached full sail, crashed through the boom, and relieved the town. Next day Hamilton marched away. Thus ended, on the 31st of July 1689, a siege of 105 days, one of the most famous in Irish or British history.

638. The ancient walls of Derry are still perfect, though the town has extended far beyond them; and on the site of one of the bastions, rises a lofty pillar surmounted by a statue of the Rev. George Walker.

639. Enniskillen, the other Williamite garrison, was threatened by the approach of an Irish army; but the Enniskilleners, marching forth on the very day of the relief of Derry, intercepted and utterly defeated them at Newtownbutler. Sarsfield, who commanded a detachment at Sligo, on hearing of these disasters, retired to Athlone; and now Ulster was nearly all in the hands of the Williamites.