Ireland’s Wars: The 1689 Siege Of Londonderry

For an event with all of the historical power that this siege has, it is a remarkably unexceptional affair in military terms. The reasons for that are worth going into.

Richard Hamilton, outside the walls and now in firm command because of the departure of King James back to his soon to be assembled Dublin Parliament, controlled a decent number of men, but his actual advantages were slim. He had a severe paucity of arms: many of his soldiers were armed with little more than sharpened sticks, and some regiments reported having only a handful of guns to go around between all of their men. The vast majority were militia-level only, having only been raised up a few months before, lacking even the most rudimentary training for the kind of operation they were expected to carry out. There was a scarcity of good officers. And, perhaps most critically, there was a lack of artillery. The Jacobites had a few cannon and a few mortars with which to attack Londonderry, but nothing more. The chances of creating a “workable” breach in the town’s fairly substantial walls were thus unlikely: and even if it was, Hamilton would not have trusted in the ability of his men to storm it. The defenders had plenty of cannon of their own, placed at gates and important bastions, though they lacked the range to cause any serious harm to the besiegers unless they dared to come close to the walls.

Thus, Hamilton was stuck, superior in number but lacking much else. To that end, he realised quickly that the only way he would be able to force Londonderry into a submission would be by starving the garrison out, as opposed to direct military action.

Before we move on, it is important to note a few details about the size of Londonderry. The city today and the city then (I use the word “town” frequently, but it doesn’t really matter) are of vastly different proportions: this simple image from serves to illustrate the point. In 1689, Londonderry consisted of just that small yellow space. The Jacobites were besieging a relatively small position, though its strategic significance outweighed its size significantly. The size of Londonderry allowed the Jacobites to surround and cut it off easily enough. From there, for very long stretches, it became a waiting game. For the garrison, everything depended on the likelihood of reinforcements and supplies being able to get to the town via the sea and Lough Foyle.

The new leadership of the town determined not to be as idle as they had been under Robert Lundy. On the day that the Jacobites first started firing shells in earnest – the 21st of April – Adam Murray led a sally that set the tone for much of what would follow: the rounding up of a couple of hundred volunteers to launch a quick, mobile attack on the besiegers, before a withdrawal. The first consisted nearly entirely of cavalry, aiming an attack on modern day suburb of Pennyburn, then to the north of the walls. It was a confusing indecisive action where both sides took light casualties before the cavalry returned to the walls. The Williamites perhaps were a little better off, and the fact that they simply weren’t beaten back was enough to encourage the morale of the garrison. Only a few days later a similar action occurred in the same area, this time with the Williamites being thrown back, though again, losses on both sides were negligible.

In truth, Hamilton was more preoccupied with things happening further north. Even as the Jacobites began to focus artillery around the area of the Ship-quay gate, that nearest the Foyle, their forces were trying to close the noose around Londonderry by neutralising the possibility of relief. Hamilton was no fool, and understood that if Londonderry found a means of resupply than the entire operation would be hopeless.

As such, Hamilton sent a strong force of men and negotiators a few miles north to Culmore, a castle that had already seen its fair share of action since its construction, in wars and rebellions. Culmore was a substantial enough position, located right at the bottleneck where the River Foyle branches out into Lough Foyle. Overlooking the river and armed with artillery, it was thus a key point with which one could blockade the seaward route to Londonderry. The few hundred defenders of Culmore, facing an enemy numerous times their size and offered their lives and liberty by Hamilton, surrendered quickly and marched away. It was a bad blow for Londonderry, and Hamilton set to work on making it even worse, ordering the construction of a boom across this bottleneck point to completely block any boat that might attempt a passage.

At the beginning of May, the besiegers decided to try and take the initiative more. To the south of the town was a rise dubbed “Windmill Hill”, which would offer a great point for firing down at the walls and beyond if taken. Up to this point the Jacobite ring around Londonderry was, perhaps, further away than it had to be out of fear of the garrison’s guns. On the 6th of May, a force led by a General Ramsay took the hill, driving away the small party of defenders who had been guarding it. He and his men quickly set to building a basic earthen defence to protect their prize.

They were right to, because the garrison immediately organised a counter-attack, recognising the threat. It was made in an anarchic fashion, due to the necessity for speed, and dispute remains over who exactly led it. But it was successful. Ramsay and his men were driven back from the defences they had just thrown up, with Ramsay killed in the process. The Williamite sources claim a couple of hundred Jacobites fell in this action, but this is probably an exaggeration. The garrison leaders resolved to do greater work at holding the Windmill Hill. However, at the same time, Hamilton continued with his effort to close the ring, and Jacobites established camps nearer to Londonderry in every side, with up 16 small forts constructed at various positions to aid in the effort. An attempt to attack one of these, to the south-west at Creggan, resulted in a small loss to the Williamites, who limited their sallies afterwards. Artillery on both sides continued to fire at each other, but to little effect.

So far, military action had killed few on either side, but the common siege dangers of disease and starvation were starting to affect everyone. Provisions in the town became strained, and exposure – because of the poorly constructed camps on the Jacobite side and because of artillery damage to homes on the Williamite side – became an increasingly large issue. The garrison command also had its problems: Reverend Walker was briefly subjected to what was, essentially, a court-martial over claims that he was performing incompetently in command and planning to surrender the town. He was spared, but part of the outcome involved a more broad command body, a council of fourteen men with Baker at its head, being convened to govern the town and the defence.

On the 4th of June the Jacobites made another effort at Windmill Hill, this one possibly involving up to thousands of men. They needed the numbers, because the defenders had built several redoubts and trenches to protect the position. The attack was pressed hard and made some small headway, but the defenders, now with greater experience and training behind them, managed to force a halt, and then sent the Jacobites reeling backwards. One of the men who helped do so was a Colonel Henry Munro, a nephew of the Robert Monro who had led the Scottish Covenanters during the Irish Confederate Wars. The defeat was a bad one for the Jacobites, with several hundred casualties, and soon their offensive manoeuvres were again limited to artillery.

The shelling of Londonderry had been largely ineffective, but got better starting in early June, after the arrival of a French artillery officer named Pointis, who improved the aiming of the guns and the correct construction of fuses for the shells. These cannon balls, infused with varying amounts of gunpowder, were designed so that they could be fired over the walls with a mortar, at which point the fuse, correctly cut, would burn out and detonate the charge. The resulting concussive force, as well as the shrapnel of the cannon ball coming apart, could kill any nearby and cause immense property damage.

Starting with Pointis’ arrival, the amount of shelling and the destruction it inflicted increased. Numerous homes and buildings inside Londonderry were wrecked or set ablaze, and there were constant fears that a lucky shot might destroy the powder magazine, concealed first inside the cathedral of the town, then later in a couple of dry wells. In order to escape the shelling, civilians would take cover next to the walls or even outside of them, but within the larger siege lines. This increased the dangers of exposure, and combined with disease, dozens of Londonderry inhabitants were dying daily, reaching a peak at around 40 a day by the end of the siege. The firing was mostly coming from over the River, at a point called St Columb’s Park today, so was beyond the range of both garrison guns and garrison sallies.

By now, England was responding to the situation. A Major-General Percy Kirke, a veteran of several European wars who had helped to put down the Monmouth rebellion for James before switching his allegiance to William, was appointed as the commander of a relief effort. Eventually commanding five armed ships- the Dartmouth, the Antelopes, the Deptford, the Greyhound and the flagship Swallow – Kirke carried men and a significant amount of foodstuffs and powder.

He had arrived into Lough Foyle by mid-June, but then waited. He had been forewarned about the Jacobite control of Culmore and the boom, and was wary of attempting an assault on this position. He and his fellow officers decided to wait for more men to arrive from the direction of Scotland, after which they would attempt a land based relief of the town. The fleet was left with a frustrating lack of communication with Londonderry, when the situation was becoming ever more desperate – they also failed to recognise that the boom had not been completed when they arrived, and a determined push at that time would probably have broken through. The garrison’s attempts to reach the larger fleet with a few smaller boats failed.

On the 20th of June, General Conrad de Rosen arrived from Dublin to take command of the siege effort. James clearly had a preference for the French officers that had been lent to him by Louis XIV, but it is fair to say that Hamilton was been uninspiring as a commander, and might well have been readying to quit the siege altogether, in despair at the state of his own army and the enormousness of the task before him. Rosen, a soldier of fortune known for his aggressiveness, immediately had things moving faster, changing the position of the guns firing inside the city to a more advantageous one, ordering the construction of trenches to cut the town’s access to the Windmill Hill, and setting his soldiers to preparing a tunnel to try and undermine the walls. But, for all this, de Rosen was disgusted by the scarcity of supplies he encountered on his own side. The defenders were soon digging their own trenches and tunnels to oppose him, and constructing cannonballs made of brick when other materials ran out.

On the 30th of June, Baker died from a fever, one of many to do so in Londonderry. His successor was another of the “Council of Fourteen”, Colonel John Mitchelburn, who had taken part in the aborted attempt to capture Carrickfergus earlier in the conflict. That same month, the Jacobites captured a couple of messengers trying to pass communications between the fleet at Lough Foyle and Londonderry. Letters found on them gave de Rosen a better idea of what was happening inside the city, and he pressed James for a more brutal approach. Aside from a failed attempt by Donagh McCarthy, the Earl of Clancarty, to breach the Butchers gate on the 28th of June, few ground based offensive moves were permitted. Clancarty got closer to the walls than anyone had up to that point, but the Jacobites still lacked to strength to force an entrance.

De Rosen had other, crueller, ideas. He had as many non-combatant Protestants for miles around the area of fighting as he could find rounded up by his troops, women, children and elderly, and had them driven towards the town. His thinking was brutally simple: the garrison would be forced to take them in, stretching the supply crisis to the breaking point by having to feed them.

The defenders, perfectly aware of de Rosen’s intention, regretfully kept these people outside the walls, between the lines. In response, Mitchelburn ordered the construction of a gallows on the walls where the Jacobite camp could easily see it, and threatened to hang every Jacobite prisoner he had thus far captured. A brief and bitter standoff ensured, before de Rosen was convinced to let the civilians go back to their homes. The gallows was deconstructed.

James was annoyed by the action when he heard about it, and sent a reprimand to de Rosen. James was right: de Rosen achieved nothing but to further inflame the spirit of Protestant resistance within the town against the “barbarous” enemy outside. The besiegers continued to suffer, with de Rosen increasingly disgusted with how poorly armed and supported they were.

It was worse inside Londonderry though. Horses, dogs, cats, rats and mice were now killed for food, the reserves of meal and seeds getting to desperately low levels. The bombardment had made getting access to clean water troublesome, exacerbating the outbreaks of fever and dysentery. Thousands had died, and more were near it. And still, the fleet of Kirke made no move, even though they could be seen from the top of St Columb’s Cathedral. Things in Londonderry were reaching a decisive moment.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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7 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The 1689 Siege Of Londonderry

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