Kirke’s Relief Fleet: Derry II

The expedition to Inch gave Richards the opportunity to practise his profession. Having landed on Inch strand near Burt castle on 10 July, with an escort of an ensign and twenty men, he soon identified a suitable site for a redoubt facing the mainland. But their intention to begin work on this was interrupted by the appearance of some Jacobite horsemen which prompted Richards to send for reinforcements. These arrived in the form of some men of Kirke’s regiment under Captain Collier, who drove off an attack by the Jacobites, although Richards thought that the latter might have suspected an ambush and did not therefore press any harder on the Williamites.

Earlier, Richards had sent for field pieces as well as men and tools from Colonel Steuart but these had not arrived. He now learned why. The day before some Protestants from the west bank of Lough Swilly had signalled the fleet and a boat had been sent to fetch them. They brought news of a ‘great herd of cattle’ at Tully near Rathmullan and some troops had been sent ashore to round up these animals, about 200 in number, and bring them to Inch. This had meant deploying all the boats in the fleet to ferry the cattle from Rathmullan, and thus none had been available to carry guns, men and equipment to Richards at the site for the redoubt. But Richards was soon in a much happier state, being joined by Colonel St John with about 200 men. The latter had observed what was happening and had marched to support Richards. It had been the sight of this body of men in the distance that had prompted the Jacobite horsemen to retire.

Later that afternoon Steuart arrived in Captain Rooke’s barge, bringing with him tools and four field pieces. Steuart thought that the entrenchment staked out by Richards was too large, a view in which St John concurred; the latter considered himself to be an engineer, according to Richards. Work on the first of two redoubts was begun and continued until midnight when the working party retired to the far side of the island. Richards went back on board Greyhound for the night. Work continued the next day on the second redoubt with four field pieces emplaced to deter the Jacobites, but these were later removed and the working party was taken back to the far side of the island. That evening, at 6 o’clock, the building began again and the soldiers laboured until an hour past midnight. Returning to Greyhound, Richards learned from ‘a man who told us he had been in the Irish camp’ that the Jacobites planned to attack the works with a force of horse and foot at the next morning tide. Today Inch is joined to the mainland by two embankments, whereas, at this time, it was necessary to row across or wait until low tide when the water separating island and mainland was fordable.

Richards became so exasperated with the would-be engineers’ interference, especially when St John had an outwork constructed that was effectively isolated and could provide no support to the rest of the works, that he ‘troubled [him]self no farther with the works, of which I am sure any one that pretends to be an engineer ought to be ashamed’. Eventually, by 14 July, the defensive works were completed and eight guns were emplaced in their batteries; these included six 3-pounders, possibly minions,4 and two 6-pounders, or sakers. These enabled the small garrison of Inch to discourage the Jacobites while the defences were being completed.

And it was also on 14 July that HMS Bonadventure sailed into the Swilly to drop anchor at Inch. Its commander, Captain Thomas Hobson, had taken supplies of powder and ball to the garrison of Enniskillen. Hobson’s destination at that time had been Killybegs in County Donegal, or Killy Bay as he described it in his log, since Enniskillen is an inland town. On his return journey Hobson was accompanied by several men from Enniskillen who had a proposal to put to Kirke, which explains why Hobson returned first to Greencastle on Lough Foyle before sailing into the Swilly. The Enniskilleners promised that they would relieve Derry by taking a force there that would cause the Jacobites to ‘raise their camp’. However, they lacked sufficient arms and so wanted 1,500 guns from Kirke as well as some officers to lead their force. Into the field they could put about 8,000 foot and 1,200 good cavalry while they also had enough small horses to raise a dragoon regiment, although weapons would be needed for these troops. (Kirke would report to London that the Enniskillen garrison had formed twenty-six companies of infantry, seventeen troops of cavalry and two troops of dragoons, all of whom were ready to come under the major-general’s orders.) When he had heard this proposal, Kirke ordered Rooke, who was commanding the squadron, to join him with Portland and Bonadventure. Thus Kirke was expected to arrive at Inch very soon. Even so, when news was received at the camp on Inch that the boom was broken ‘in several pieces’ and that the Jacobites had withdrawn their large guns from the riverbank, a messenger was sent over the neck of Inishowen to take the news to Kirke in Lough Foyle.

That messenger returned early next morning to say that the fleet had weighed anchor, left Lough Foyle and was at sea. But there was other news: the Duke of Berwick had left Derry to deal with the defenders of Enniskillen, and a fleet had been seen off Carrickfergus. This latter story came from the Irish camp where it was believed to be a French fleet coming with 20,000 men and ‘a vast sum of money’. Cash was a vital necessity for King James who had issued a debased coinage, known as brass money. Richards comments that a ‘small piece of copper not the value of half a farthing goes for sixpence’. These pieces of intelligence were as yet rumours with no firm evidence to substantiate them. On the other hand, there was no doubting the fact that the Williamite force at Inch had been strengthened by some 500 to 600 ‘good lusty men able to bear arms’. These new recruits had been formed into companies under local commanders but attached to the regular regiments, each of which now had eighteen companies and a grenadier company in its order of battle. Nor was there a shortage of fresh meat for the garrison at Inch since hundreds of cattle had been sent over from Rathmullan in the past week.

No serious threat to Inch was posed by the Jacobites although there was a further rumour concerning Berwick: having been trounced on the road to Enniskillen he was now going to return to Derry whence he would march on Rathmullan. In fact, a Jacobite force of about 1,500 horse and foot did march on Rathmullan, which was held by no more than 120 Williamites under Captains Echlin and Cunningham. A Williamite account puts the strength of Berwick’s force at 2,000 horse and dragoons. When the Jacobites made their first foray against Rathmullan, a small ketch anchored offshore ‘fired among the horse and killed a cornet and 3 troopers with its first shot’. This caused the cavalry to draw off with the foot soldiers following. The same account claims that forty Jacobites were killed together with ten of their horses while a colonel was wounded desperately. Since the Williamite officers had had barricades raised, the Jacobites failed to get into Rathmullan in spite of a determined attack. The retreating Jacobites left their dead; Williamite casualties were said to be no more than one officer – Captain Cunningham6 – and two or three soldiers dead. However, it was obvious that the Jacobites would attack again and that they had the advantage of numbers, and so Echlin was ordered to evacuate Rathmullan. This was completed that night although about a hundred cattle had to be left behind since there was not enough time to get them away. At least some Jacobites would feast on fresh meat over the next day or so. A deserter from the Irish army later confirmed that Berwick had led the attack on Rathmullan and claimed to have killed about 200 men.

Kirke arrived off Inch late on the 19th and, early the following morning, came ashore, having ordered the disembarkation of all his command. He inspected the defence works, with which he seemed satisfied, and brought some news for the Inch garrison: more troops were being assembled to sail for Ireland through Chester, Liverpool and Whitehaven but three French warships had captured the James of Derry, a small ship that Kirke had sent to Scotland to buy wine and other supplies for the fleet. A Royal Navy squadron, commanded by Rooke in HMS Deptford, had sailed in pursuit of the French; Rooke’s other ships were Bonadventure, Portland and Dartmouth under Captains Hobson, Leigh and Leake. When his men had disembarked, and ammunition and provisions had been stored in the magazine that Richards had had built, Kirke ordered two vessels to sail for Enniskillen with 500 fusils7 and some officers to take command of the Enniskillen garrison; the latter included Wolseley, who was to command a regiment of horse, and Major Tiffin, who was to take command of an infantry regiment.

Later that afternoon, about 5 o’clock, Kirke received a letter from Walker in Derry. According to the latter, the boom had been broken and the guns covering it had been ‘drawn away’. This brought about a flurry of activity with Kirke ordering that three ships be loaded with provisions and each manned by forty musketeers. The loading operation was carried out as surreptitiously as possible so as not to attract the attention of the Jacobites and, later that night, Kirke went back aboard the Swallow and sailed with the other three ships for ‘Derry Lough, with resolution to relieve that place or lie by it’. This report, albeit from Walker on this occasion, seems to have been the second time that the same rumour had reached Inch. Although there was no truth in it, this rumour was to have a profound effect on events: it set in train the actions that would lead to the raising of the siege and the relief of Derry.

Inch was a hubbub of activity over the next few days as accommodation in the form of huts was built for the soldiers. There was also news that the Jacobites intended to attack the island. Richards wrote that attacks were expected from three points and then detailed two of those: by Captain Tristram Sweetman’s and by Burt Castle, ‘at which two places it is very narrow but not fordable’. At both locations the guard was strengthened (which seems to confirm that Richards ‘Burt Castle’ was in fact the castle on Inch) and a ship was also posted to deter any attackers. None came, although some firing was heard at midnight from the north-west of the island; this was thought to come from a group led by Lieutenant Hart, who had been sent out into Inishowen with a foraging party of thirty men. Later it was thought to be the advanced guard at Captain Sweetman’s but it turned out to be fire from one of the ships which had spotted light from Rathmullan as the Jacobites tried to fire the village; several rounds were fired by the ship to deter them.

There is no clear indication from Richards as to the third possible direction of attack but it is more than likely that this was across the neck of water between the island and the mainland which, on the 23rd, was dry from side to side. Certainly Richards notes that on that day ‘we draw all our forces to our fortifications on the strand, to be ready to receive our enemies that have so often threatened us’. Lieutenant Hart returned with some provisions from his wife’s relations in Inishowen but without the horses, cattle and corn he had been sent for, so Captain Echlin was sent with fifty men to complete the task. He arrived too late. Jacobite dragoons had that morning escorted about a hundred horse-loads of corn from the area and Echlin was left with what remained, about a hundred bushels.

Fires from villages on Inishowen that evening suggested that the Jacobites were retreating from the peninsula while there was further rumour that Berwick was on the move towards Enniskillen again. Next morning, 24 July, Jacobite troops, both cavalry and infantry, appeared on the hills facing Inch and looked to be preparing to attack. The strand was dry and the Williamites made ready to meet an attack but it seemed that the Jacobites feared a possible attack from Inch since they withdrew as soon as the tide came in and the strand was no longer fordable, suggesting that their deployment had been defensive rather than offensive. There were also reports that Kirke’s ships had got into Derry but Richards thought this improbable due to the winds having been contrary over recent days.

While Kirke had not reached Derry he had made contact with the James, the ship that had been taken by the French. This vessel had been recovered and had sailed into Lough Swilly to drop anchor off Inch on the morning of the 25th. Its captain brought a letter from Kirke to Colonel Steuart which the latter showed to Richards to seek his opinion. Richards’ view was that if Kirke’s orders, as expressed in the letter, were followed, it would lead to disaster for the Williamites on the island since it would ‘ruin our interest here, expose some thousands of souls to the mercy of a cruel enemy, and unavoidably lose the island’. It was a view with which Steuart agreed and he called a council of war of all the field officers and captains of the regiments present to solicit their opinions.

What had Kirke suggested? He had expressed concern that the island would not be tenable if the Jacobites deployed artillery against it, and proposed to recall all his regular soldiers to the ships, there not being enough cover for them on Inch, leaving the local men to provide the garrison. He reasoned that the shipborne men would be able to move quickly to defend any part of the island that was threatened. Dispositions for a detachment to be left on Inch were also detailed, while the letter had contained the news that Rooke had retaken the ships captured by the French but that adverse winds had prevented Kirke’s ships entering Lough Foyle; however, he hoped to enter the lough on the next tide.

Steuart’s council of war decided to maintain their positions on Inch, and Richards was asked to draft a reply to Kirke. In his letter Richards pointed out that the Jacobites could not bring heavy cannon into action against Inch as these ‘cannot well be brought over the strand’ while artillery on the opposite shore would present no danger due to the distance. Furthermore, all the troops were now under cover on the island and withdrawing them to the ships would make it almost impossible to oppose any assault by the enemy. He added that Jacobite intelligence about Inch was good and that a move such as that proposed by Kirke would be known to them very quickly and would probably lead to an attack. The Jacobites would have every opportunity to ‘possess themselves of this Island, into which there is, since our arrival here, fled about 12,000 souls, who can expect no mercy at so cruel an enemy’s hands’. He related how the Jacobites had burned Rathmullan and murdered the few Protestants left there and how they had done the same on Inishowen ‘over against Capt. [Tristram] Sweetman’s house, as far as over against the Fisher ketch, which is nigh two miles that the Irish have put in flames’. Berwick was later to gain notoriety for employing the scorched-earth tactic but it appears that he may have begun using it in Donegal. Richards argued that the refugees on Inch would be safe as long as the garrison remained and that the Jacobites would not attack while Derry held out since they had already ‘neglected so many fair opportunities when our numbers were much less’.

Having despatched the letter to Kirke, Richards and Steuart continued to improve the defences of Inch. They had refused to obey an order from their commander, a serious offence in military law, but they had provided sufficient justification for their decisions, so that no action was taken against them. As the events at Derry played out to their conclusion, the two men would be vindicated in their decision. Over the next few days there would be more rumours reaching the garrison at Inch and it would be difficult to separate fact from fancy. Berwick crops up again in those reports, staving off the threat from Enniskillen; it seems that the Jacobites at Derry were now in constant worry about an attack from Enniskillen. By the end of the month the Jacobite army was being estimated at not much more than 4,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry before Derry, while Berwick at Castlefinn had about 2,000 cavalry and dragoons.

The Williamite force at Inch now threatened the Jacobites investing Derry since it could deploy within a few hours to strike the rear of the Jacobite lines. By now in London it was learned that the presence of Kirke’s men on Inch had caused the Duke of Berwick to be called back from a planned attack on Enniskillen. With Schomberg at Chester taking command of ‘his Majesty’s forces for the relief of Ireland’, the situation appeared much more positive than hitherto.

It seemed that Kirke was awaiting reinforcements from England before making his attempt to relieve Londonderry. In a despatch from Lough Foyle he reported that:

The enemy are well entrenched on both sides of the river and have batteries of 24-pounders on the narrowest part of it, which is not a pistol shot over. But if that were all, we could pass them with a leading gale, but they have secured the river with a boom cross it, made of cables, chains and timber, and have besides sunk great boats laden with stones in the middle of the channel so that being by a council of war not thought advisable to attempt the relieving the town by the river we are waiting for some more forces in order to land and force our way through the enemy’s camp.

The dangers of trying to run upriver were thus many in the minds of Kirke, his army officers and the Royal Navy captains. Believing that boats had been sunk in the channel meant that the naval officers would have been concerned about the safety of their ships as they tried to navigate the narrows. Most of the warships drew too much draught to risk them in such an enterprise, and this fact alone would have made the seamen counsel Kirke against a waterborne assault. (The frigate HMS Dartmouth was one of the few with a draught shallow enough to operate in the Foyle river, and it was this vessel that eventually escorted the relief ships.)

Kirke also reported that the besieged were holding out ‘very bravely and have placed two guns upon the church steeple, which do great execution’. Although the Irish army had made several attempts on the city, they had been beaten off each time ‘with great loss’. He reported on the two attacks on the Windmill Hill positions and noted the friction that existed between the Irish and the French officers, especially the French general. These, he recorded, had a ‘cold reception in the camp, tho’ a very warm one from the town’. As for his own men, they were ‘very hearty and in good health’ and their presence on Lough Foyle was, he believed, a great encouragement to the besieged. Finally, he noted that a messenger had succeeded in swimming from the fleet to the town as signals made from there had indicated his arrival.

Other reports coming back to London emphasized the morale and courage of the besieged. HMS Antelope had left the Foyle on 5 July and arrived at Highlake (Hoylake) two days later with a report that the ‘besieged continue to defend themselves with a bravery and resolve that exceeds all the account that can be put on it’. On 24 July a report reached Whitehall from Kirke stating that ‘Londonderry held out with the greatest bravery that can be imagined, and continued to repulse the enemy in all their attempts’. And there was also intelligence on the overall state of the Jacobite army from ‘persons in Dublin’ who claimed that the main body of that army was before Derry and ‘not above two or three regiments’ were at Dublin and that many of the soldiers of these units ‘wanted clothes and arms’. The Dublin informants also advised that ‘the town of Derry, upon the best enquiry they could make, was not yet reduced to any great distress and that the Irish soldiers deserted in great numbers’.

Thus it seemed to Kirke and to his masters that there was no great urgency in relieving the city since the defenders were in a good state and holding out so well that they were inflicting heavy losses on the Jacobites. In addition, the dangers presented by the boom and the boats that were believed to have been sunk in the narrows, never mind the Jacobite batteries along the river, militated against moving upriver towards the city. With the knowledge that further troops would soon be landing in Ireland, Kirke must have felt that his best course of action was to wait for those men to arrive before advancing overland. Those inside the city would not have agreed with him, and their frustration mounted as they looked at the masts and sails of the ships in the lough.

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