The ‘Siege of Derry’ ran from 1688 - 1689 and was part of the wider Williamite War waged between the Protestant William of Orange and the Catholic King James II.
It has often been argued, on the basis of military technicalities, that the ‘Siege of Derry’ was not in fact a siege.
No real attempt was made to storm the city walls although there were a few hand-to-hand skirmishes. The ‘besiegers’, positioned on the hills all around the city, were badly armed and equipped. For the most part they relied on their blockade to starve those inside the city into surrender. Most of those who died during the siege did so from hunger and disease, although the besiegers did fire mortar bombs high into the air which fell onto the roofs of houses, injuring and killing some of the occupants.
James had given orders for humanitarian conduct during the campaign, but at the beginning of June a Lithuanian named Conrad de Rosen, who was a Marshal General in the French army, arrived in support of James and began to operate a much tougher policy. According to the Reverend George Walker, who at the time was a governor inside the city, de Rosen: swore by the belly of God, he would demolish our town and bury us in its ashes putting all to the sword, without consideration of age or sex and would study the most exquisite torments to lengthen the misery and pain of all he found obstinate, or active in opposing his commands and pleasure.
Shortly before Rosen’s arrival the French Chief of Artillery, Jean-Bernard Desjeans, Sieur de Pointis, had constructed a ‘boom’ or floating barricade across the River Foyle (just to the north of the location of the present Foyle Bridge), to prevent any relief ships reaching Derry.
Some ships did arrive from England in the second week of June but they did not attempt to get past the boom. Instead they withdrew and sailed around the coast into nearby Lough Swilly where communications were established with those inside the beleaguered city.
Inside the city conditions were atrocious but by all accounts they were not much better for the besiegers outside the walls. Towards the end of July the relief ships in Lough Swilly were ordered to return to Lough Foyle to try to break through the boom.
On the evening of 28 July an attempt was launched. Amid gunfire from the shore those on board a small boat, the Swallow, which preceded the ships, attacked the boom with axes to weaken it. The Mountjoy, a local Derry ship, followed, crashing into the boom. After a number of mishaps the barrier was breached and the relief ships sailed upriver to the stricken city.
There were tremendous celebrations despite the fact that the besieging Jacobites kept firing at the city. However, after 105 days the siege had effectively been ended. Three days later the besieging troops conceded defeat and moved away from Derry.
Within weeks of the ‘relief of Derry’ George Walker had published his famous account of the siege. This version was subsequently challenged by the presbyterian minister, the Reverend John Mackenzie and a lively pamphlet debate continued for some time.
In 1788-9, one hundred years after the momentous events, the prevailing atmosphere of the Enlightenment allowed a popular and ecumenical civic celebration to take place. In 1814, the Apprentice Boys of Derry Club was formed. This organisation has continued to grow and spread since then, often becoming involved in the controversies associated with the annual celebrations of ‘the shutting of the gates’ in December and the ‘relief of Derry’ in August.
A key element of the December march is the burning of an effigy of Colonel Robert Lundy, universally known as ‘Lundy’. Lundy was the Governor of Derry immediately prior to the Siege, before Walker took over the post. As tension spread through the Protestant population of Ireland and the Siege began to appear inevitable Lundy appeared to advocate a surrender of the Walled City and capitulation to the Jacobite forces. The citizens of Derry would not countenance such a move and Lundy was smuggled out of the City in disguise with ‘a load of match on his back’.
The legend of Lundy lives on today and he has been held up through time as an example of the folly of doubting the Protestant cause. He is burned in effigy today as a reminder to all of the result of betrayal.
In modern times these commemorations have been confined to one section of the population. Over three hundred years later, it is surely time to absorb the Siege of Derry into a common history.