The Boat Fight during the Siege of Derry

From Derry and Enniskillen in the Year 1689 by Thomas Witherow

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CHAPTER IV....continued

THE BOAT-FIGHT.—Tuesday, 18th June.

When the officers and gentlemen deserted Derry at the commencement of the siege, they took with them all the boats in the harbour to convey them to the ships lying down the river, so that the city was deprived of every boat except one, which was subsequently seized and treacherously detained by the enemy. There was no means therefore left of sending any communication by water to Kirke and to his ships, even had the passage of the river been free. This seems to have suggested to the citizens the construction of a boat, by which means a venture might be made to inform their friends outside of their extreme distress. When the vessel was finished, some attempted therewith to pass down the stream at night, but they were beaten back by the shot of the enemy, who lined both banks.

It was then suggested that perhaps a message might be sent to their friends at Enniskillen. A little boy undertook to carry it, provided he could get safely out of town, and it was thought that by means of the boat he might be conveyed four miles up the river, and landed at Dunnalong Wood, outside the enemy's lines. The design was kept a strict secret, so much so that it was currently believed the object of the manoeuvre was merely to rob a fish-house at some distance above the town. Colonel Murray, Captain Noble, and above twenty others, started on this expedition, the hazard of which consisted in the fact that both shores of the river were lined by the Jacobites, and they could not hope to go and return without being discovered. When it grew dark, the boat left the city, but did not go far till it was seen, and a cannon shot from Evan's Wood nearly sank it.

The party aboard were fired at from both shores, yet they ran the gauntlet, and arrived at Dunnalong in safety. By the time, however, that they reached their destination, the little boy, who was to carry the message to Enniskillen, was so frightened by the cannonade, that he would not venture so much as to set his foot on shore. Their labour was therefore lost; the danger was incurred for no end; when success crowned their effort, something that nobody foresaw made the adventure fruitless. The return journey was now the difficulty, and the more so that the enemy had sent off two large boats laden with dragoons, which came up between them and the city, with the view of cutting off their retreat. The engagement that ensued was sharp, and lasted till the ammunition on both sides was exhausted. One of the boats then drew near as if to board the city boat, but some of the assailants were killed, others thrown into the water, and others called for quarter. Thirteen of them were made prisoners. The crew of the other boat, seeing how hotly their friends had been received, shirked off and escaped. Day was breaking when the city boat with its prize reached the quay. The strange thing in this bootless and foolhardy adventure was, that, notwithstanding that an incessant fire from both shores was directed against them both in going and returning, there was not a man aboard wounded, or even hurt, except Colonel Murray, whose helmet was so battered with bullets that for some days after he was unfit for service.

Encouraged by their escape, and having now two boats at their command, so soon as they had landed their prisoners, they took some fresh men aboard, sailed across the River to Strong's Orchard, and made an attack upon the enemy, who were at the time engaged in drawing off one of their guns. The men about the gun left it and fled, and were to some distance pursued by their assailants; but when the latter saw that a strong party of the enemy was marching so as to get between them and their boats, they were obliged to return in haste, and to leave the gun unspiked behind them. Farther than by firing cannon shot across the river, this was the only assault that the garrison was able to make on the detachment stationed at the Waterside throughout the siege.

The adventure of this day was one that none but brave men would undertake; but, after all, it was so full of hazard and so scant of hope, that it was a despair little short of madness which risked in it two lives so precious to the city as those of Murray and Noble.[26]

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[26] Mack., June 18th; Walker, June 18th; Londerias, iv. 4.

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.