Attempt at Communication with Kirke

From Derry and Enniskillen in the Year 1689 by Thomas Witherow

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CHAPTER IV....continued


The increasing scarcity of provisions in the city now made it more necessary than ever to communicate with the ships, which, from the summit of the cathedral, might still be seen lying in the Lough without making the smallest effort to fulfil the mission on which they had been sent, and waiting no doubt for reinforcements from England. Signals of distress were constantly made, but made apparently in vain. At last, on the 25th of June, Captain Roche arrived in the city, bringing tidings from the fleet. He had, at great hazard to himself, made his way through the enemy's lines, and in company with Cromie, a companion, reached a point of the river from which he expected to be able to swim to the city. Here he left Cromie, who could not swim, in concealment, and, stripping off his clothes, reached the city, after a swim, as he affirmed, of three miles. He came to inquire into the circumstances of the garrison, and to report that the ships had brought with them arms and provisions for their relief.

So far well; but all was of no use except the fleet could be informed of the extreme distress in the city, and encouraged to make an immediate attempt for its relief, Roche, after one day's stay in the garrison, attempted to return. With a letter from the Governor to Kirke, enclosed in a bladder, and tied to his hair, he swam to the spot where the night before he had left Cromie and his clothes. His companion had been captured by the enemy, and his clothes were gone.[29] For three miles he passed naked through the wood, but was discovered and pursued by the enemy. Torn by the briars and thorns, he made his way back to the Waterside, but before he could get into the water he was met by a party of dragoons, one of whom broke his jaw with a halbert. He jumped into the stream, and, although fired on by the soldiers and wounded in the arm, breast, and shoulder, succeeded in making his way back to the city again.[30]

Another man, named MacGimpsy, determined to run the same desperate venture, and to swim to the fleet. A letter, signed by Murray, Cairns, and Gladstanes, was inserted, along with two bullets, in a small bladder, and tied around his neck, with the design that, if captured, he could snap the ligament and allow the bladder, with its contents, to sink to the bottom. What became of this man was never known to the garrison: some said that he was taken with cramp and drowned; others, that he was captured by the enemy.[31] But a day or two after a human body was seen suspended on a gallows at the Waterside, and the enemy called across the river to the citizens that this was their messenger.

An account in detail of Cromie and MacGimpsy is given in the following letter, written by Marshal Rosen to King James, dated 27th of June:—

"SIRE,—We have taken yesterday one of two spies who came together from the fleet in order to enter into Derry. The spy who carried the secrets swam across the river, and got into the town. The spy who is our prisoner is a man of good sense, and speaks French perfectly well; he is likewise of a good family, and possesses, it is said, an income of 500 guineas a year in this country. I have charged the Chevalier de Vaudrey to frighten and interrogate him strictly. Your Majesty may see his deposition in the paper enclosed; it is probable he speaks sincerely, and therefore I doubt not but your Majesty will give your orders, and take the proper precautions for diverting this new storm, which cannot be done but by sending an immediate reinforcement to your army. What makes this the more necessary is, that it diminishes daily by want of pay, and that the river has cut off a communication with the division on the other side, which puts it out of our power to sustain the attack of the enemy when they attempt to force the passage.

"We have fished this morning a drowned man, who floated on the river with bladders about his arms. When he was taken up, we discovered that he came out of Derry to swim to the fleet. We found in another bladder fastened to his neck the three letters enclosed; by which your Majesty may see in what state the town is now, and of what consequence it is to hinder the enemy from supplying it. I presume in these circumstances to take the liberty of representing to your Majesty, that you would have been master of the town long ago if my advice had been followed; which was not to grant protections nor receive any person coming from them, by which means they would the sooner consume their provisions and be obliged to surrender themselves with the halter about their necks."[32]

The heart sickens at the recital of the misery which meanwhile prevailed in the city—misery which Kirke might have ended at any time by one vigorous attempt to force the passage, but which he did not make. For more than a month longer, brave men were compelled to starve and to see all they loved on earth famish and die around them, in very sight of a fleet which had been sent to help, and which had the power to deliver, them, but which seemed rather to mock their misery by doing nothing. The Irish were perplexed to understand, as well they might be, what the man meant by coming with his fleet, and moving to and fro in the Lough, without attempting to strike a blow.

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[29] The news extorted by the Irish from Cromie is given in the Macpherson Papers, vol. i., p. 211. It relates mostly to the affairs of Scotland, from which he had come ten days before; that there were two regiments aboard Kirke's fleet, as well as a great quantity of arms, ammunition, and provisions; and that Schomberg was to have the chief command of the English army preparing to come to Ireland.

[30] Harris, App. xxix; Graham's Ireland Preserved, p. 378. This is Roche's own account of the adventure. It must be taken with a little allowance. Men seeking reward from Government sometimes yield to the temptation of exaggerating their perils and their services. Captain Ash gives a much less romantic account of the affair.—Diary, June 25th.

[31] Avaux supplies the true account: "They have found in a vessel, which was hung about the neck of a man, who was drowned in attempting to reach the fleet, three letters from the officers of Derry, informing Kirke that they had provisions for four days only."—Avaux to Louis, July 15/5th, 1689. An abstract of these letters is given in the Macpherson Papers, vol. i., p. 202. They recite facts which we have already mentioned.

[32] Macpherson's Original Papers, vol. i., p. 204.

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.