Busting the Historical Myths – The Siege of Derry…

As Coronavirus dominates the airwaves I thought it may be interesting to explore a few historical myths as a means to divert our attention from the pandemic sweeping the Word. In Northern Ireland there is a tendency for Unionists and Nationalists to view certain historical events in a partisan and inaccurate way often driven by erroneous historical interpretations which have become main-stream, but which are based primarily on propaganda. As every historian knows the complexity and nuances of human nature and history in general are often conspicuously absent from such interpretations. I thought for interest I would go through a few of the most high profile historical events which fall foul to misinterpretation and myth. I will start with the earliest in what I hope is a series of maybe four articles covering these different events. I will start with The Siege of Derry:

The Siege is often painted as a story of salvation and deliverance for the Protestant people. Figures such as Governor Walker and John Michelburne are treated with an admiration and deity for their actions whilst Robert Lundy is still viewed as the archetypal traitor whose name lives on as an example of those who would betray the Protestant cause. Of course the history of the Siege itself and the subsequent events certainly paint very different pictures to the simplistic one many have become accustomed too.

Class and intra- religious conflict were at the forefront of a fractious, bitter and complex relationship within the Protestant colonial community. This tension between what became a popular mobilisation (primarily Presbyterian and Dissenter) and the ruling class (Anglican) deeply uneasy about opposing the state’s authority was no more apparent than after the shutting of the gates by 13 Apprentice Boys on 7th December 1688. This act was taken when the ‘Redshanks’ (The Earl of Antrim’s Regiment) had appeared across the river throwing the city completely into panic. Despite this the Apprentice Boys were described as the ‘little cabals of the city’s youths’.

This shutting of the gates is celebrated to this day in the annual Apprentice Boy’s Lundy’s Day Parade although the Apprentice Boy’s actions that day were an act of treason against the Sovereign. Prominent citizens immediately denounced the act and set up a group to begin negotiations with the Crown’s forces. This resulted in the Articles of Agreement being signed on 21st December 1688 almost ten days after Lord Mountjoy was initially refused entry to the city. The articles saw Mountjoy promise to publish a pardon within fifteen days; two companies of men commanded by Lt-Colonel Robert Lundy admitted to the city, half of the companies’ men were to be Protestant and no soldiers of the Earl of Antrim’s regiment were to be quartered in the town.

Although today we view the Siege almost as a continuous event it would be almost four months before the Siege would begin after the events in December. Robert Lundy began a military withdrawal from Derry in April believing defence of the city to be strategically untenable after a series of Jacobite victories in Ulster in the early months of 1689. The inhabitants of the city overthrew the Governor and Council of War with Henry Baker appointed as Governor of the city. He had agreed only on the basis that George Walker be appointed his Deputy to oversee the city stores. A large scale riot would ensue in June after food shortages and Walker’s house was ransacked. Inside was found a private stock of ‘beer, mum and butter’. Walker was pursued through the streets by an angry mob, some threatening to shoot him for hoarding food as the overseer of the city’s stores. He was only saved by the personal intervention of Governor Baker himself.

Negotiations for surrender began on July 13th 1689. The inhabitants of Derry had suffered horrendously and even as negotiations were sought a 14lb cannonball flung through Bishop’s Gate killing a man standing in the street. After 10,000 or so deaths within the walls the negotiators offer to surrender on 26th July if a series of proposals are met by the Jacobite side. Eventually all but three are agreed to and this is conveyed to the Council of War in the city. Walker who had been implacably opposed to any surrender did an about turn and advocated signing. Walker and his colleagues eventually decided to surrender but they held firm on two points, the city could not fall until 26th July and the Jacobite Hostages must remain on Kirke’s boat. This led to negotiations falling apart. The city would eventually be relieved on 28th July.

The aftermath certainly did not represent salvation for those who had suffered during the Siege and did not even represent salvation to Presbyterian’s in general. On relieving the city the Williamite Military authorities issued a number of proclamations which prevented people from leaving with either weapons or goods. The Colonist Militia which had been the mainstay of the defence of the city was largely disbanded and officers who criticised this were threatened with execution. One Militia Man remembered, “We have lost our blood, our estates and our friends in the service of our country and have nothing to show for it but Royal Promises”.

Indeed there were many rejected claims of recompense which saw many Siege survivors to debtors’ prison. One of those was John Mitchelburne- the key instigator of the Siege myth. He had been appointed by Governor Baker from his death bed. Michelburne had actually been very suspect to the people trapped in the town and had in fact spent a few weeks under house arrest before Baker appointed him as successor. Michelburne would be a key proponent of the Siege myth and would even write a play which would become one of the most popular of the 18th century. ‘Ireland Preserved’.

The Test Act of 1704 excluded Presbyterians as well as Catholics from Political power. One of those forced to resign from the Derry Corporation was one of the original Apprentice Boys and David Cairnes. In the end the Siege did not lead to the salvation many celebrate today and in fact at the time there was huge resentment against what emerged. It seems the Siege and its aftermath had a much more social dynamic than many care to admit. That is something the Unionist community is still grappling with to this day.

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