The Foundation of Derry

From Derry and Enniskillen in the Year 1689 by Thomas Witherow

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CHAPTER I....concluded

The plan of the campaign was entirely disarranged, and the hopes of the king destroyed by what occurred under the walls of Derry. What occurred there, it is the design of the present narrative to describe.

The county of Londonderry had been granted by James I. almost entirely to the incorporated guilds and companies of the city of London, and was planted and settled by them; a fact the remembrance of which is perpetuated in its name. The chief town in the county is situated on the river Foyle, some four miles above the point where the river empties itself into the lough, and some twenty miles above the point where the lough empties itself into the Atlantic. Within a bend of the river there is an oblong ridge of ground running for nearly an English mile parallel with the bank, and at its highest point rising about 119 feet above the level of the stream. Surrounded on three sides by water, this ridge presents all the appearance of having been once an island; but throughout the whole historical period the western arm of the river had been dried up, and at the time of the siege a morass or meadow occupied its place. Tradition tells that this island was thickly covered with oak trees, when St. Columbkille founded on it a monastery before going to Iona.[12]

It is certain that it was at an early period the seat of an abbey, and after the diocesan system was introduced and set up in the 12th century, it was the see of a prelate down till the Reformation. The Danes and Normans in their piratical expeditions paid very little respect to bishops, and abbots, and monks, and frequently visited Derry to plunder its monasteries and to burn its churches. It fared little better in the wars which the petty Irish chiefs warred against each other: being an ecclesiastical settlement inhabited by few except monks, and nuns, and clergy, it fell an easy prey to the spoiler, and was repeatedly pillaged and burned down. In 1566, the English, under Colonel Edward Randolph, took possession of the place in their wars with the great Irish chieftain, Shane O'Neill; but the pestilence that broke out among the troops swept them entirely away, and the place was not permanently occupied till 1600, when it was taken by Sir Henry Docwra. It was then used as a sort of fortified camp, from which an English garrison kept the adjacent country in subjection. The first Protestant bishop of Derry was George Montgomery, who occupied the see from 1605-10. In 1608, Sir Cahir O'Dogherty, the chief of Ennishowen, surprised the fortress, slew the governor, and burned the town.[13] It is from this point that the modern history of the city commences.

In 1609, the Honourable the Irish Society was constituted by the Corporation of London, and charged with the duty of planting the county with inhabitants and of rebuilding Derry. Four years after, a considerable number of houses had been erected, and the Society received their charter of incorporation. In 1617, the walls were built, under direction of the Society's surveyor, at an expense of £8357. At a cost of £2300, a dry ditch, eight feet deep and thirty broad, ran outside the wall, from the west side round the south, and down to the water's edge. In 1622, £500 was expended in building a market-house in the central square of the city; and in 1633, £4000 was spent on the erection of the cathedral. Between 1609 and 1629, £14,470 was paid by the Society for the erection of one hundred and eleven houses. The original design of the fortifications was, not to provide against any regular siege by a trained army, which, from their position and nature, they were ill able to do, but to assist the inhabitants in repelling any attack from the surrounding Celtic population, who were supposed to cherish anything but a friendly feeling to their new neighbours. The walls more than served the design of their builders. In 1642, they intimidated Sir Phelim O'Neill, who threatened Derry, but did not venture to attack it. In 1649, they enabled Sir Charles Coote, in the interest of the Commonwealth, to hold the city against the Royalists under Lord Montgomery. And in 1689, they enabled a party of untrained civilians, gentry and clergy, peasants and artisans, to maintain their ground successfully against the whole army of King James.[14]

The town is built on the northern face of the ridge already mentioned, where the hill by an abrupt descent slopes down to the water's edge, and is of an oblong shape, the length being greater than the breadth. From a little square, called the diamond, forming the centre, four streets led off in opposite directions, and where each of these streets cuts the wall a gate was placed, which, if necessary, could be shut against any invader. Ship-quay Gate opened on a small pier, which served as a quay, and through it there could be no egress to the country, except at low water. Ferry-quay-Gate opened upon a path that led down to the river, which is here 1068 feet across and 43 deep, and over which, at the time of the siege, and for many years afterwards, there was no bridge. Citizens travelling towards Strabane or Letterkenny went out by Bishop's Gate. Persons coming to the city from Culmore entered by Butcher's Gate, which overlooked the morass on the western side of the city. For the convenience of the public, various new gates have been opened since; but at the time of the siege these four only were in existence. The walls were built of earth and stone; they were twenty-four feet high,[15] and in the narrowest part from six to twelve feet thick, and in some places considerably more: they were strengthened by nine bastions at the corners and sides, and by two half bastions; and they enclosed an area of about a mile in circumference. On them, eight sakers and twelve demi-culverins, provided at the expense of the London Companies, were planted for the protection of the city; while Butcher's Gate and Ship-quay Gate were guarded by a portcullis, and Bishop's Gate and Ferry-quay Gate were furnished each with a drawbridge.[16]

Notwithstanding these defences, the city, from its position, was open to destruction alike from the river or the land. The site slopes gradually up from the water to the cathedral, which occupies the highest point of the hill, and the houses are in consequence entirely at the mercy of a war-vessel anchored in the river. The highest part of the city is completely overtopped by still higher ground within cannon range, on both sides of the water; so that, however impregnable it proved two centuries ago to the army of King James, the means of attack that modern ingenuity has devised could, with ease, lay the town in ruins in a quarter of an hour. Military men who in our day contemplate its position and surroundings, wonder how men moderately acquainted with the science of war could ever think of defending it, and still more, how men of any military knowledge could fail to take it. The fact, however, is, that there was very little science in the warfare of two centuries ago; weapons both of attack and defence were neither so powerful nor so destructive as those in use at present: and the men on both sides being in general raw levies collected for the occasion, were not trained to use with effect the feeble artillery which they did possess. This, at least, was one reason why the besiegers in a three months' siege never once succeeded in making a practicable breach. That Derry possessed walls and bulwarks with cannon mounted upon them, was the reason why, when the tide of war swept over the province, the Protestant population fled thither from all quarters to seek a shelter which they had no hope of finding elsewhere.

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[12] Adamnan, in his Life of Columbkille, repeatedly designates Derry by the name Roboretum Calgachi—the oak-grove of Calgach; but does not state that the saint founded the monastery.

[13] Ordnance Survey of County Londonderry, pp. 17-97; Froude's History of England, vol. viii., p. 407.

[14] Ordnance Survey; Concise View; Hempton; King's State, p. 116.

[15] Few parts of the wall are now over twelve or fifteen feet high. Captain S. P. Oliver, R.A., has suggested to me that this is owing to the ditch outside the wall being now filled up.

[16] Bennet's True and Impartial Account, p. 28; Ordnance Survey p. 99: Hempton.

William R. Young’s Fighters of Derry has for decades been one of the most overlooked works on the Siege of Derry and as a local genealogical resource. First published in 1932, the book was the product of ten years’ research into identifying participants at the siege which the author undertook when suffering from ill-health in the latter part of his life.

The book is essentially divided into two parts: the first contains 1660 biographical entries relating to the defenders of Derry, tracing, where possible, the family lineage; and the second part includes 352 entries on the Jacobite side. Apart from individual accounts of eminent protagonists in the siege, such as David Cairnes, Rev. George Walker, the Duke of Schomberg, Patrick Sarsfield, etc., there is also background given to many of the most influential families involved in the conflict.