The Siege of Derry

by Michael Sheane

The siege of Derry has gone down in history as one of the greatest sieges in the history of Ireland and Britain. It is a story of Protestants versus Catholics and had its origins in the attempt by the Catholic King James II to fill important posts in Ireland with Catholic nominees to assure his future as King of England, Scotland and Ireland. King James II’s brother King Charles II never married so that upon his death James Stuart came to the throne, much to the opposition of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the two houses of parliament.

The Tories set out an invitation to Prince William of Orange to ascend the throne of England, to which William agreed. Upon hearing of William’s ascent, King James II fled the country and headed for the France of King Louis XIV, a Catholic and close friend. He hoped that Louis would help him regain his throne. James managed to land in Ireland, England’s back door in the event of invasion, and he had the help of the Duke of Tyrconnell, and they started to fill the important posts in Ireland with Roman Catholics. William had landed at Torbay on the south coast of England and marched on London, upon which James had fled to France.

(L-R) King James II & King William III.

William of Orange, a Calvinist, started to fill those important positions with his followers. William was determined to confront James in Ireland, the prelude to the siege of Derry, where thousands had taken refuge from the Catholic King. Derry, or  Doire, was situated on the west bank of the river Foyle, which flowed into a large estuary of that name. Derry was famous for it was the site of Saint Columba’s monastery of the sixth century.

In the middle ages the region was patrolled by English galleys. The English had their headquarters at Larne and were ruling further up Larne Lough as far as recent day Ballycarry and even further up the coast to the great Norman castle of Carrickfergus. These galleys reached as far away as Scotland, sailing across the North Channel to Argyll. From Derry the English also patrolled the scenic glens of Antrim, reaching places as far away as Cushendun and Cushendall.

The important places in Derry are now in the care of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board. Today there are many picture  postcards of Derry and its famous walls and of its environs. There are photos of Saint Columb’s Cathedral in the Derry archives, these photos dating back to the beginning of the 20th century.

Within the Anglican cathedral are emblems of the great siege of 1689. King James II now proceeded to besiege the city that was holding out for the Protestant cause of William III. The Jacobite army encamped before the walls of the city under the command of Tyrconnell. Before this the earl of Antrim, 80 years of age, had led his Catholic troops from Glenarm Castle to also camp before the walls. The Catholic earl summoned the city into surrender, but the cry was “No Surrender”.

Thirteen bold apprentice boys stole the keys of one of the gates, shutting out the earl’s forces. As to the governor of the city, Robert Lundy, he was regarded a traitor for he was in favour of opening the gates to let in the Catholic army. At first Lundy held on to his position, but it was not long until he had to escape from the city because of his “popish” policies. He escaped over the walls of the city in disguise; his destination was that of Scotland.

The Derry Protestants now appointed the Rev. George Walker as governor of Derry, an Anglican minister aged about 45. But there is a school of thought that claimed that he was only one of two or three governors, and that he was merely in charge of the food rationing. After the closing of the gates in December 1689 nothing much happened but at last King James arrived before the city gates, to summon the protestants into surrender. The Catholic King had marched from Dublin with a number of foreign mercenaries, in the expectation that the surrender of Derry would be easy. Under governor Walker’s leadership the city prepared itself for a long siege.

It was rainy weather and James sat on his horse before the walls and looked miserable. He was accompanied by the Duke of Tyrconnell, who advised King James to leave the progress of the siege to him. James now retreated back to Dublin and safety. The first cannon shots were fired after the retreat of King James. In the stormy weather the matchlock guns of the besiegers did not work and many of James’ forces sported only sticks and other rude implements.

Interpreters were called upon to direct the Catholic forces. King James had a force of about 40,000 men and they were confident that there would be a quick surrender. But within the walls folk were dying and now Walker was accused of being a traitor and a drunkard for he had his own supply of rum or beer. He was accused of keeping extra portions for himself but still, he held on to his position.

His deputy was Mackenzie, who like Walter had started to write an account of the siege while it was in progress. Both Anglicans and Presbyterians united in the face of the Catholic threat, and Saint Columb’s Cathedral was used as the city’s headquarters during the siege. But the besiegers conducted an ineffective campaign. Ladders that were placed against the walls were easily repulsed; the cannon made little affect upon the walls. Walker now realised that the citizens would soon run out of food, and the Catholics would now await upon hunger.

Within the city the Catholic cannon had destroyed many of the town’s buildings and streets. However, help was now on its way from England in the person of Percy Kirk to relieve the city. The women played a key role in the siege; they plied their men  with food that was still available. Tyrconnell suffered from the black jaundice and was always in a low, irritable mood. He kept King James informed about the progress of the siege, but James was not impressed by the progress of it so far.

The siege was lifted on 31st July after 105 days of intensive attack by the Catholic followers of King James.

Kirk’s fleet was now anchored in Lough Swilly, and Walker’s men held a lookout for the relief of Derry. Kirk had lots of provisions aboard his ships. An attempt to swim to the fleet was undertaken to inform it of the dire situation in Derry. At this Kirk’s ships started to move. Under the Catholic de Rose a boom and chain was placed across the river Foyle to keep back the English fleet, which now attempted to sail to the city’s quays with the precious food. On the west bank of the river Foyle the Catholics jeered at the ships, one of the ships ran aground but was re-floated at high tide.

The ships hacked at the boom and chain and broke through the obstacle. Derry now knew that help was arriving for they could see Kirk’s fleet. At last the ‘Mountjoy’ reached Derry with its many provisions and Kirk was welcomed into the town.

Derry cried out that God had saved the city from the enemy. The Catholics retreated towards Strabane, burning the countryside as they went. But King James did not give up hope, for he now confronted William at the Battle of The Boyne (1690) and the siege of Limerick(1691) but he failed in these attempts with William being triumphant.

Walker now went on a tour of Scotland and England and was everywhere welcomed. He had now completed his account of the siege. Mackenzie wrote his account from a Presbyterian viewpoint. Derry had to be rebuilt  after the siege, but the English were not too keen on the idea. Moves were made to bring Lundy back to Derry to be placed on trial for his ‘wickedness’ at favouring the Catholics. Walker fought at the Battle of The Boyne a year later, but he was killed by an enemy shot.

So ends the story of the siege of Derry or Londonderry, a great victory for KingWilliam III and his Calvinist beliefs and also for all the Anglicans in the entire country of Ireland.

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