Ireland’s Wars: The Relief Of Londonderry

As NFB has been away on a short holiday, this weeks’ Ireland’s Wars is a little shorter than normal, but is plenty important all the same.

In mid-July of 1689, with Londonderry on the verge of starving, negotiations were opened back up between the opposing forces, talks led by Richard Hamilton on the Jacobite side. The spirit of resistance popularly associated with the defenders of Londonderry does not suffer a hammer blow with this fact, it was simply a reality that the garrison had to face up to: there was no point fighting to the death and having everyone inside the town starve if an agreed settlement could be reached. And, the negotiations could also be used as a tool to draw out the conflict long enough for that long awaited relief to come.

However, long before the envoys could come to an agreement, Kirke was finally able to get a messenger to Londonderry, a young boy who slipped through the lines in darkness from the north-west side. Kirke’s message told the commanders of the town that he was ready to resupply and was just waiting on the imminent arrival of more men from Britain, and had troops already sent around to Lough Swilly which would be used in the attempt (on operation that ended up floundering without impact). The town leaders decided to, essentially, back down from the talks with Hamilton, at least for another couple of weeks if they could, while they waited to see if Kirke would finally make good on his relief effort.

At the same time, a council of war in the Jacobite camp firmly asserted that they could only hope to take Londonderry by means of starvation, their own army having been reduced to maybe 3’000 effectives. Hamilton and de Rosen were powerless to do anything about the disease rampant among their men. James gave them orders to prepare to raise the siege because of the desperate state of affairs, but still held out some hope that Londonderry might submit before a withdrawal was enacted.

Around the 25th of July the last of the combat between defender and besieger took place, as a Williamite sally tried to capture a herd of cattle from the Jacobites in the area of Pennyburn, without success. On the 28th, the town gave another in a series of numerous signals to the fleet in Lough Foyle, lowering and raising a flag on the cathedral while firing cannon, signals of distress. This time, Kirke was going to answer. The affair in Inch had ground to a halt, but the general was determined to get through to Londonderry on his side now.

Having waited so long, Kirke’s plan was surprisingly simple. One of his frigates, the Dartmouth, would escort three smaller vessels – the Mountjoy, the Phoenix and the Jerusalem, recently arrived from another part of Ulster – that had been packed with supplies. They would be joined by the Swallow’s long-boat as well, packed with men. Together, they would brave the cannons of Culmore and a few other forts that had been thrown up on either side of the river, and try and smash through the boom by sheer force. It was a hazardous operation, that could easily end in disaster. The Dartmouth was not some Napoleonic multi-deck battleship, and its few guns could not hope to completely silence Culmore. The other vessels had few guns to speak of at all, and once they lost the protection of the Dartmouth, could prove easy pickings for the Jacobites that were entrenched on either bank of the Foyle.

Why Kirke picked this moment in particular to attempt the relief is unknown, but might have had something to do with the recent appointment of Frederick Armand, the Duke of Schomburg, as commander of all Williamite forces in Ireland, with whom Kirke was in communication. Schomburg would be arriving with his own army in Ireland soon, and may have pressed Kirke to be more-pro-active in his mission of relieving Londonderry.

Captain John Leake, commanding the Dartmouth, led the effort, sailing his small fleet against the wind towards the bottleneck. The Dartmouth, a fifth rate ship with somewhere in the region of 22 guns, had already had a life of service exceeding three decades, but was still up for the task. Leake’s ship engaged the cannons of Culmore, screening the Mountjoy and the Phoenix long enough so they could get past, with the Jerusalem waiting behind as a reserve. The firing went back and forth between ship and castle, with little affect to either. But the Dartmouth was able to draw enough firepower to protect its two smaller charges for as long as it could, before retreating to a safer point and dropping anchor.

It was all down to the Mountjoy for the moment, with she and the Phoenix heavily engaged by musket and cannon fire from both banks of the Foyle as they approached the boom. It was constructed of fir wood segments linked by metal chain, replacing an earlier version that had broken apart and sunk. The Mountjoy, slightly bigger, was given the job of smashing the boom, but whether it was the lack of wind or the strength of the obstacle, when the ship hit the boom it rebounded backward.

It was a critical moment. The failure to break the boom could have meant successive levels of disaster for the Williamites: the ships could have been now left stranded and captured by the nearby Jacobite soldiery, the relief effort would have to be totally abandoned and Londonderry would presumably have to surrender due to lack of realistic options for rescue.

The long-boat from the Swallow had been added to the attacking group of ships at a late enough moment. Full of men armed with axes and swords, its party now rowed alongside the boom and stated hacking for all they were worth. After a further exchange of fire with the shore, the Mountjoy righted itself from a temporary state of having run aground after the rebound, allegedly using the force of what guns it had to do so. A second attempt was made by the ship at breaking the boom: perhaps now with the help of the longboat, it succeeded. The force of the impact broke the boom into pieces, which scattered downstream, opening the way to Londonderry. Only a handful of sailors were killed in the process: one was the Captain of the Mountjoy, Micaiah Browning, a Londonderry native shot in the head, who may have been the last person to die in the overall siege operation.

The Phoenix took the lead now, and both ships were anchored at the quay near the Ship-quay gate before the end of the day. They disgorged a large cargo of meal, beef, flour and biscuits. The Jacobite besiegers did not have the numbers or the strength to intervene with the unloading. The population of Londonderry were saved from starvation.

The siege had lasted 105 days from its beginning to the moment that the Mountjoy and the Phoenix had arrived. A few days after the relief, the besiegers packed up, burned their camp, and marched away south, in the general direction of Dublin. There was simply no way that they could conceivably take Londonderry now, and so they were forced to face into the first really important Jacobite defeat of the war.

The overall losses are difficult to ascertain. Somewhere in the region of 8’000 people, 2’500 of them soldiers, probably perished in the defence of Londonderry, out of a pre-siege population of 20’000, largely from disease and starvation (one source claims only 80 people died as a result of enemy action). The Jacobite losses are harder to estimate as no reliable indicator of their total size remains to us, but was probably also in the region of 8’000 to 9’000 men. These combined casualties make the Siege of Londonderry the bloodiest in Irish military history, though we must measure that with the dimension of time when we compare to events like, say, the Siege of Clonmel in the previous war.

The effects of the result were felt for a very long time. In the short-term, James’ aims in the north of Ireland took a serious blow that they never really recovered from. The Jacobite King had grand plans of launching invasions into sympathetic territory in Scotland, with the help of loyal Highlander clans, an invasion that could have been based out of north Ulster. These grand aims now had to be postponed indefinitely. The Williamite movement in Ulster was saved from a premature destruction, and gained a measure of breathing room that it would need to go on the offensive.

The Protestant Williamites, now moving away from various regiments of quickly raised militia into a more organised army under Schomberg, had won a decisive victory over the Jacobites. The morale boost the result was responsible for cannot be underestimated, and it is easy to see why, even today, the siege is a celebrated and hallowed moment for Ulster Unionists. The military and civilians of Londonderry held their ground against increasingly difficult odds, though the frailty of the attackers needs to be noted. The Jacobites outside the wall were poorly trained, supplied and led: they could never have taken Londonderry by force, and even if the town had surrendered in late July before the relief came, Hamilton and de Rosen’s force would have been left gutted by the effort, and liable to have to withdraw soon enough anyway. De Rosen had instituted a better manner of siege, but even he could not overcome the sheer lack of arms and food that his army suffered under.

Before we move on to the rest of the war, we must not make a quick skip backwards in time. While Londonderry was engaged in its epic battle for survival, another part of Ulster, to the south, was having an impact as well.

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

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9 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The Relief Of Londonderry

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