Londonderry, Lundy and the significance of the famous siege

LondonderryI GREW up on the edge of the Redhall estate in Ballycarry, whose first owners were the Edmonstone family of Duntreath in Stirlingshire.

Several members of the family settled from 1609 and they brought with them other tenants and families from Stirlingshire.

The neighbours of the Edmonstones were the Dobbs and Dalway families, who were to the south west nearer Carrickfergus.

I had them in my mind as I prepared for a unique talk at the end of November in the Siege Museum in Londonderry.

Having presented four series to date of The Long and the Short of It with comedian Tim McGarry on BBC Radio Ulster, we were invited to bring our thoughts on the significance of the Siege of Derry to an audience in the city.

The format of coming at history from our different perspectives has earned much positive comment from radio listeners in the past, and the talk was also a successful venture for the Siege Museum.

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Billy Moore of the Apprentice Boys shows Tim McGarry and I the effigy of Lundy, which is burned each December in the city

It was good to see and hear from members of the Protestant Apprentice Boys as well as nationalist visitors from Creggan and Donegal who all said they had greatly enjoyed the evening. There were laughs as well as the more serious history, and our audience numbered over 150 people, which was fantastic.

My thoughts on the journey to the north-west included those on Archibald Edmonstone, who also made the journey from Ballycarry to Londonderry, but in very different circumstances.

In 1688, when Protestants raised militia against James, Archibald Edmonstone was in charge of a regiment of 300 foot from among his tenants, later augmented by men from Adair’s Regiment from Ballymena.

Following the Break of Dromore in March 1689, Edmonstone like many others moved towards the north-west of the province, and saw action at Portglenone in trying to prevent the Jacobites crossing the River Bann.

Family history states that he had fought in a muddy trench in water up to his knees and caught a very bad cold as a consequence.

Moving westward, he tried to enter Londonderry, only to find that the garrison had closed the gates and refused admittance to any newcomers who would have added to the pressure on supplies and living conditions.

Edmonstone and his men went to the fort at Culmore, where he died as a result not of the fighting but of his exertions at the Bann. He was 51 years of age.

One of his neighbours at Redhall, Richard Dobbs, had also been part of the Antrim Association which opposed James II and he too fought in the Williamite forces.

His son Arthur was born at Girvan in Scotland, where his mother had been sent for refuge, like many other women and children of the east Ulster settlements.

Sir Arthur Dobbs would later become famous as a writer and botanist as well as being Royal Governor of North Carolina.

To men such as these, the events of the Siege of Derry would have been of more than academic interest.

And at the time those who fought around the city or were within its walls would have had little doubt of how high the personal and religious stakes were.

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St. Columb’s Cathedral in Londonderry

The Siege started because of concerns about allowing a Jacobite garrison into the city. News of the famous Comber Letter, which foretold plans for a 1641-type massacre of Protestants in Ireland, had arrived in the city a few days before.

The letter has remained anonymous throughout history but whatever its provenance and whether or not it was an elaborate hoax, the impact of it was that the gates of the city were closed on Lord Antrim’s Redshanks in December 1688, signalling Williamite resistance to James II and his right to rule.

The Siege is the stuff of legend, the material of which blockbuster movies are made.

It has all the elements of drama.

The initial deliberations on whether to allow the Redshanks into the city, culminating in a last minute rush by young apprentices to close the gates in the face of the military being among them.

Then there is the question of Robert Lundy, the Governor accused of being prepared to sell the city. Was Lundy really a traitor? His effigy continues to be burned in this surety, but there are serious questions surrounding his competence and whether he had always intended the handover of the city in as orderly a fashion as possible.

There is the drama of the relief ships appearing off the Foyle, but their commander being informed that the city was about to surrender and no purpose could be served by bringing men and supplies ashore.

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Orange Lodge banner depicting the relief ships breaking the boom. This banner is on display at Limavady Orange Heritage Centre, Co. Londonderry

There is the sense of suffering inside the walled city, with over 7,000 soldiers and the civilians who had flocked there for safety. Many thousands died of starvation and disease – entire families wiped out – and the famous shopping list of prices for horse meat, dog meat and even rats and mice testifying to the courage and tenacity of those inside the walls.

There are stories of spies, emissaries, deserters, and approaches to encourage the surrender of the city and rumours of duplicity.

All of these are events which surrounded the 105 day siege, the longest in British military history.

And in terms of the significance of this event, the failure to capture the city meant that James’ plan to embark for Scotland to raise the Highland Clans did not happen.

Patrick McCrory (The Siege of Derry, Oxford, 1980)  noted that “The result of the successful defence of Derry, as stated by King James’s friends, was that he was not able to send an army into Scotland to reinforce Dundee, who was to raise the Highland clans in his favour, and still less to carry the war into England. The immediate effect was that Scotland and England were protected from invasion, and what remained of the struggle between the two kings was localised in Ireland. The fall of Derry was waited for during the summer months of 1689 by the King at Dublin with great impatience, for he knew well the interests at stake; and it seems the long delay did not raise his Irish and French soldiers in his estimation.”

The last attempt by the Stuarts to regain the throne was by Bonnie Prince Charlie, James’ grandson. He crossed the Tweed and marched on London, reaching Derby, while there was a panic in the south of England, planned evacuation of the King and a run on the banks.

Had James II succeeded in marching south from Scotland at the head of a Highland army, the whole course of history may have been changed.

But the siege also helped to undermine James in another way. His decision to go to the city was one which divided opinion among his advisors.

On one side, he would have been closer to Scotland and able to get across quicker if the area was open to his troops to sail across.

But what happened was an embarrassing situation where he appeared outside the walls to find his rebellious subjects prepared to fire on him and to hear the first shout of the battle cry “No Surrender”.

Having to leave the city and go south again was a bad signal for his prospects in regaining the throne and it was undermining.

At the time there had been wide rumours that he was still actually in France, and he said he wanted to go to the city “to disabuse those unhappy rebels of the obstinate belief which they had entertained.”

If he had expected his appearance to stun those inside into opening the gates, he was to be sadly mistaken – although at that point the city authorities had been close to seeking terms of surrender.

When a group was selected to meet with the enemy and discuss terms, it was what were called “the common people” who intervened, threatening anyone who would attempt to leave for such a purpose.

Thus, while desertions did occur, the city remained a symbol of resistance and this sense of a beleaguered garrison standing firm against the odds implanted itself in the Protestant population of Ulster.

Even in 1912 it was summoned by Bonar Law, the Conservative Leader, when he was supporting unionist opposition to the Third Home Rule bill. Speaking directly to unionists, he said “You are a besieged city. The timid have left you; your Lundys have betrayed you; but you have closed your gates.”

The short-term implications of the failure by the Jacobites to subdue Londonderry included a major psychological boost being given to the Williamite forces in Ireland; at Enniskillen there had been solid resistance to James, which would have been strengthened had Lundy not ordered garrisons removed in Sligo and Cavan. However the relief of the city came at the same time as the Williamite victory at Newtownbutler, which was another grievous blow to James II.

The way was clear, not for James to go to Scotland and thence south to try and claim his throne back, but for his adversary to come to Ireland and seek him out instead.

That all ended badly for James at the Boyne, although his generals would continue the struggle for another year.

The departure of James from Kinsale, however, would signal the flow of the historical tide. The Stuarts would not give up hope to reclaiming the throne, but it was at best a forlorn one and it ended on the battlefield of Culloden with defeat for Charles Edward Stuart and his Highlanders.

The victory of Londonderry was not, however, without long-term implications in another way.

The iconography of the siege and being besieged has remained with Ulster Protestants.

So too has the memory of Lundy. Whether a traitor, an incompetent, an opportunist or a realist, the impact of Lundy continues even to the present.

During the siege, author Thomas Witherow notes, “one of the difficulties of the garrison was that they did not rely with sufficient confidence on the wisdom and loyalty of some of their leaders. The experience which they had of Lundy made them, perhaps, over suspicious”

At one point they even suspected that George Walker was about to sell them out, and as much material exists for this prospect as does for Lundy almost.

The figure of Lundy may be burned each year as ‘the end to all traitors’ but just around the corner, unionists always seem to be awaiting the arrival of another…

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