The Siege of Derry 1688-1689

The Siege of Derry/Londonderry

The walls of Derry were completed by 1619, eight metres high and nine metres wide and 1.5 km in circumference. By the time of the siege the population inside the walls was estimated as 2500. Four gates allowed access to traffic going in and out of the city. The river Foyle came up close to the walls on the waterside an effective barrier from attack.

he Siege of Derry was the first major event of the Williamite Wars in Ireland. The Gates of Derry were initially closed in December 1688 by 13 apprentice boys who seized the keys and locked the gates upon the approach of the Earl of Antrim's forces. The real action did not begin until April 1869 when the Jacobite forces arrived in substantial numbers. It is estimated that during the siege the population inside the walls swelled to over 30,000 people. Over 7000 of these were troops and the rest civilians who had fled to the safety of the walled city.

The Jacobite force was estimated at some 15,000 and were confident of success so were not expecting a siege. On 18th April King James and his forces rode to within 300 yards of Bishop's Gate and demanded the surrender of the city. He was rebuffed with shouts of 'No Surrender' and some of the city's defenders fired at him. James returned to Dublin and left his forces under the command of Richard Hamilton. The siege of Derry had begun.

The siege lasted for 105 days (18 April - 28 July 1689).

The Jacobite forces erected a boom (consisting of cable and logs bound together) across the river Foyle to prevent food supplies from getting into the city. As a result conditions within the walls deteriorated very quickly hence the desire of the governor Lundy to negotiate favourable terms of surrender. His increasing unpopularity within the walls led to him fleeing to Scotland and ignominy. The 1641 rebellion had a huge impact on the protestant settler psyche and mythology. The defenders of 1689 feared that if they surrendered that massacre would ensue as in the previous generation.

Derry was of strategic importance in the Williamite Wars. Ireland had fallen and only Enniskillen and Derry stood firm. The Jacobite forces at Derry were poorly trained, poorly led and equipped primarily with muskets and pikes. Armed with only light cannon with shot of 10lbs-12lbs and a range of 600 yards their artillery was incapable of breaching Derry's walls. The cannon located at Strong's Orchard could reach beyond the walls and terrified the inhabitants of the city landing on buildings and setting them on fire. One soldier was killed walking up Shipquay Street by a stray shell. According to Governor Walker some 600 mortar bombs fell on the city during the siege. One cannot overestimate the psychological impact that artillery fire had upon the people within the walls.

The defenders were equipped with about twenty artillery pieces, which had been supplied by the London Companies, including one called 'Roaring Meg' which was a gift from the Fishmongers of London. The defenders also resorted to occasional attacks and skirmishes such as at Pennysburn to discourage the Jacobites. Lead from the spire of St Columb's cathedral was used to make bullets. The erection of a boom proved to be a success in cutting off supplies to the city. The Jacobites almost succeeded in starving the Derry garrison into surrender but the spirit and resolve of the protestant defenders was quite extraordinary. The conditions that they endured within the walls during the 105 days were horrendous. It must also be remembered that the Jacobite forces often went hungry too and many died of disease. They had inadequate shelter from very wet conditions.

The erection of the boom at the end of May prevented Kirk'e fleet from providing relief to the city in mid-June but provided a physiological boost to the defenders as the ships were visible from the higher parts of the city even though some 12 miles distance. At such distance communication between the garrison and the fleet was virtually impossible although a man named Roach attempted to swim up the Foyle to reach the fleet but was shot by a Jacobite soldier. Remarkably, he survived and was rescued. Another heroic attempt was made by a man only know as McGimpsey. Carrying three letters from Walker wrapped in a pig's bladder tied around his neck he swam up the Foyle on the night of 26th June but drowned during the night. His body was recovered by the Jacobites who strung up his body on gallows in front of Derry walls. The letters revealed that the Derry garrison had only enough supplies to last another week.

Encouraged by this the Jacobites resorted to psychological warfare. At the start of July, Marshall de Rosen rounded up protestants from the surrounding countryside, stripped them naked and hungry and brought them to Butcher's Gate and demanded that they be let into the city or they would be killed. The garrison held firm and threatened to kill Jacobite prisoners behind the walls unless the non-combatants were allowed to return home. Hamilton objected to Rosen's tactics and the orders were countermanded.

Governor Walker kept a diary that gives some insight into the the suffering of those within the walls. Conditions were cramped and there was little comfort. Lack of food and lack of water remained a constant threat as supplies ran short. Lanes and streets ran with human waste and urine leading to the spread of disease such as typhus. On the 100th day of the siege (Sunday 28 July) Walker revealed that 435 soldiers had died in just two days. No record of the civilian death rate was recorded but it was reported that graveyards, gardens and backyards were packed with bodies. Conditions were so horrendous towards the end of July some of the garrison wanted to surrender and this was a cause of in-fighting behind the walls.

The pale emaciated victims of hunger were every day seen collecting wild vegetable and weeds and all kinds of sea wreck which they devoured greedily to the total ruin of their health.

Market prices from Walker's diary
Horse flesh per pound was one shilling and eight pence
A quarter of a dog fattened by eating the dead bodies of Irish soldiers five shillings and six pence
A dog's head two shillings and six pence
A cat four shillings and six pence
A rat fattened by eating human flesh one shilling
A mouse six pence

A small flook (flounder) taken from the river could not be bought for money but only in exchange for meal

A pound of greaves 1sh
A pound of tallow 4sh
A pound of salted hides 1sh
A quarter of horse blood 1sh
A horse-pudding 6d
A handful of sea wreck 2d
A handful of Chick-weed 1d
A quart of meal when found 1sh

Walker wrote in his diary that supplies had run so low that they had little left but to perhaps eat human flesh. He records that a certain fat gentleman conceived himself to be in the greatest of danger and believing that several of the garrison looked upon him with greedy eyes hid himself away for three days. Water was the only drink but was scarce and expensive - it was mixed with ginger and aniseed of which there was a plentiful supply in the hope it would ward off disease.

Relief came on the 28th of July - in the evening four ships of the fleet, including HMS Dartmouth, the merchant ships Mountjoy,  Dartmouth, Phoenix and Jerusalem with HMS Swallow's longboat made their way to Culmore Point. The Mountjoy sailed up the Foyle and struck the boom but it simply rebounded and its Captain Michia Browning was killed by Jacobite fire - the sailors in longboat managed to cut though the cables and chains of the boom and later that night supplies were landed at Ship Quay thus ending the siege. The Jacobite forces retreated on the 1st of August.

The main cause of death during the siege was starvation and disease. The overall losses are hard to ascertain but over three thousand soldiers died within the walls and many thousands of civilians (perhaps as many as seven thousand). The Jacobite losses numbered as many as five thousand thus making the siege of Derry the bloodiest in Irish military history. This is ironic given that one contemporary source claims that only 80 people died as a result of enemy action within the walls!


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