A Soldier Playwright
John Michelburne wrote a candid account of the last great siege in the British Isles
Colonel John Michelburne offers, in his 1705 play Ireland Preserv’d or the Siege of Londonderry Together with the Troubles of the North, a carefully observed and highly entertaining account of the Jacobite invasion of Ulster in 1689.
The author is an unusual example of a Protestant colonist and Williamite soldier who not only formed an undying attachment to his adoptive home but also earned near saintly status in Irish folklore.
Narrative diaries and broadsheets abound in military exploits but tell us little about the lives of ordinary people during the last great siege in the history of the British Isles. Only John Michelburne, the blunt, hotheaded soldier who carried the ‘Maiden City’ through the latter phase of its 105 day ordeal, truly brings the event to life in his epic, two part dramatisation. He paints a vast, almost Breugelesque canvas, hiving with human beings.
Initially Derry’s resistance to Jacobite occupation was lionised abroad, but as the dust settled after the relief, those in power realized that if Ulstermen had rebelled against constituted authority they might do so again.
The erstwhile heroes who had sacrificed life and livelihood to ensure the success of the Glorious Revolution – expecting only a soldier’s pay and a show of gratitude – received neither. Worse, they were soon conveniently recast as a ‘rabble’.
John Michelburne’s disarmingly candid 300 page text aims to set matters straight on that account. He wants it on record that it was upright minor officers and solid gentry at the head of respectable tradesmen and farmers who stopped the Jacobites from invading England and helping the French to extend a regime of autocracy and religious persecution throughout Europe. Those ordinary people, he asserts, had been betrayed by a pusillanimous aristocracy and high command that had run away.
Historians have hitherto overlooked the very close personal relationship of the English soldier with Derry, and its people, which dictated this intensely passionate and personal stance.
John Michelburne was born in Horsted Keynes in 1648 of impoverished Sussex gentry. His mother died in childbirth and his father, Abraham, remarried and settled in Wicklow. On Abraham’s death in 1664 the estate went to his widow and soon the disinherited John went soldiering in General Monck’s regiment.
He later joined the British troops fighting on the Continent where he struck up lasting friendships with future Jacobites like Ramsay, Milbourne Barker and the colourful Teague O’Regan. He served in Tangiers under Kirk and Lundy but when the colony was wound up he returned to Ireland in 1684 as Lieutenant of Grenadiers in Mountjoy’s Regiment.
Posted to Derry, if we are to believe an old edition of Burke and much circumstantial evidence, John married the daughter of Alderman Alexander Tomkins and set up a little family, but as Tyrconnel squeezed Protestant officers out of their commissions and William of Orange landed in England, Michelburne deserted the Irish establishment and joined Masserene’s newly raised Antrim regiment.
Retreating to Derry under the surprise Irish offensive of spring 1689, Michelburne and other officers ousted vacillating Derry governor Lundy and faced down King James with the shout of ‘No surrender’. Tomkins raised troops and agreed with the policy of resistance, but in the horror that followed he lost his wife. John lost both his wife and children.
After the siege, Michelburne dedicated himself entirely to the city and the cause of his men. He became an alderman, repeatedly petitioned parliament for the Derry garrison’s pay and, in 1704, was committed to London’s Fleet prison for debt.
It is unlikely that Ireland Preserv’d was entirely written in prison since the first edition was with the printers in October 1704. Michelburne had already set down his memoirs in dramatic form in a Siege of Londonderry manuscript written in Ireland a few years earlier.
In his prison years, however, Michelburne realized how inflammatory his home truths were. When he dedicated a copy of the play to government minister Robert Harley in December 1707 he stated that he did not intend to distribute the work in his own lifetime, since ‘such a subject cannot be writ without touching on some mens mismanagem[en]t’.
Michelburne’s manuscript aims at capturing the reality of the siege, but it already contains concessions to poetic licence and colourful characterization. In Ireland Preserv’d the retired colonel transforms his faithful account into a full blown purple melodrama in which all the defenders acquire pseudonyms: he is the heroic Granade, Adam Murray becomes Monrath, Walker is Evangelist and Henry Baker, Antony.
Part I of the ‘Tragi-Comedy’ opens at summer camp in Kildare where lethargic Protestant officers grumble that a fellow can no longer live quietly on his estate on the profits of false muster rolls. Granade upbraids them and observes with preoccupation the successful rise of an efficient Catholic army.
Meanwhile the smallholder Dermot complains that a trooper billeted on him has stolen his eggs and thrown his wife down the stairs, calling her a ‘feisting, farting, stinking shaad’. He vows to lock her in the priest’s chamber for safety. His cousin Teigue blithely observes he too has a trooper – who keeps his wife warm when he is out and tends to the sheep, pig and hog when necessary. His ‘Trooper be worth an hundred of the Priest’.
In Dublin Granade’s ladylove Lucretia – Lady Tyrconnel’s companion – informs him that he is in danger of arrest. He also has a premonitory nightmare of dread days to come. Disguised as a Scottish Jacobite, he flees north with a cynical English grenadier, Frank, and takes service with Lord Masserene.
As the Irish arrive his lordship carelessly forgets his wife in Antrim and our hero gallops off in a riding habit to save her.
‘T’would have been a damn’d Reproach to have been knock’d on the Head at the Arse of a Coach’ grumbles Granade of his chivalrous mission, as his Lordship unheroically takes ship, abandoning his men.
In Part II, as Granade rises to the governorship of the beleaguered city, we meet bilingual spies, gutting, raping raparees, frightened Scots countrywomen and their brawny husbands, lily-livered aldermen with brave, sensible wives and a host of refugees of all social classes, engaged in such daily struggles as staying alive on horses’ blood and starch pancakes and fornicating on an empty belly. The author uses language to great effect with large sections of dialogue in brogue and Ulster-Scots.
As relief seems deceptively close, Granade, Evangelist and the Women Warriors break into a song and dance routine to ‘Swaggering Roaring Wolley’ and as death and hunger subvert normality, Granade, with surreal gallantry, invites the ladies to a dainty meal of an old horse’s head while his own mastiff, Lyons, risks becoming a soldier’s lunch.
Of course Michelburne enjoys a poke at Irish peasants aspiring to be ‘shentlemen’, but blowhard covenanting preachers, hoarders and turncoats are equally the butt of his humour. He associates England and Protestantism with constitutional government and freedom from inquisitorial systems, but he is no bigot.
When Jacobite brigadier Ramsay is killed in the siege he buries him with honours and bears his pall for ‘I have respect for my deceased Friend, notwithstanding he was my enemy when alive’.
John Michelburne never repudiated his Catholic friends and, long after his death, the local Irish population placed votive offerings at his well, convinced that the pious old soldier would speed their prayers.