Kirke’s Relief Fleet: Derry I

Major General Kirke’s fleet continued to lie in the lough and the people and garrison of the beleaguered city wondered when the ships would ever make the run upriver to bring relief at last. With little information from inside the city, Kirke faced a dilemma: should he risk his vessels by sailing upriver to the city or wait until he had more information on what was happening there? First of all he sought to obtain more intelligence through reconnaissance. By now HMS Dartmouth had joined the ships in the lough and, on 15 June, Kirke asked Captain John Leake to make a reconnaissance. Leake ‘sailed within a large mile of Culmore’ with his ship grounding for about an hour on its way up Lough Foyle. Discussion in the fleet now turned to such critical matters as pilotage – these were not men who were familiar with the waters of the Foyle – and breaking the boom. Depth soundings were also taken in the lough; at high tide there was only 17.5 feet clearance. Kirke called a council of war, or court martial, on the 19th, which was attended by the army commanders, Colonels Steuart, Sir John Hanmer, Thomas St John and William Wolseley, with Richards and the four French engineers present as well as Majors Henry Rowe, Zachariah Tiffin and William Carville and the ships’ captains, Wolfranc Cornwall, of HMS Swallow, John Leake, of HMS Dartmouth, Thomas Gwillam, of HMS Greyhound, William Sanderson of the Henrietta and Edward Boyce of the Kingfisher. Kirke presided at the court martial. The subsequent report of the proceedings read

That by all we can see or hear it is positively believed that there is a boom cross the river a little above Brookhall at a place called Charles’s Fort, where one end of this boom is fixed, the other extending to the opposite point. The boom is said to consist of a chain and several cables, floated also with timbers, at each end of which are redoubts with heavy cannon. The sides of the river are entrenched and lined with musketeers. Besides this obstacle in the river, several intimations have also been given of boats sunk, stockadoes drove with great iron spikes, but in what manner we could never perfectly learn, but it’s certain that they neither want boats, timbers etc to effect any thing of this kind.

The accident that happened on Saturday the 8th instant to the Greyhound frigate is evident proof that they are in a capacity to bring down cannon anywhere they should be opposed; so that, should anything be attempted in going up this straight channel and miscarry therein by several accidents as may happen, or the shifting of a wind, striking ashore, or damages received by their great guns and there is very little reason or hopes left to think to set off. And if no other opposition should be then the boom, which, if not broke by our attempt the breadth of this river is so narrow as that the ship will certainly run ashore. This loss, though great to his Majesty, would be of much more and of greater consequence in the leaving the enemy possessors of so many great guns with our stores of war and victuals, which, if they had, they would certainly make a more formal attack upon the town of Londonderry, which to this time they have not attempted. We suppose for no other reason, than for want of artillery enough, besides the miscarriage would so dishearten the town and encourage the enemy as to be of extreme consequence. Besides since the Greyhound and the rest of the fleet’s being here, we have never received any intelligence from Londonderry, which gives us great reason and some assurance that they are not extremely pressed by the enemy or want of ammunition or provisions of mouth.

All this being considered it’s the opinion of us now sitting at this council, that it will be more prudent and for his Majesty’s service, to stay here, till a greater force join us so that we may be a sufficient number to make a descent and force the enemy to raise the siege by which means the town should have sent us advice of every particular relating to this affair by which we may safely take other measures.

The names of those in attendance, signed on the original document, include ‘all the Sea-captains whose opinions and advice would have been central to the deliberations, since it was by naval action alone that the relief fleet could overcome the Jacobite defences of the river and reach the city. Cornwall had already been to the Foyle; it was he who had, in Swallow, escorted the original relief force commanded by Cunningham and Richards in April, while we have seen that Gwillam had been there more recently and still bore the wounds to prove it. John Leake had also proved himself an outstanding officer of great bravery, as he had demonstrated at Bantry Bay; he would eventually achieve the rank of admiral. It was the opinion of Edward B Powley, a respected naval historian, that none of these sea captains held ‘so strongly’ the view that the boom could probably be broken ‘as to consider it a matter of professional importance that the opinion, if he held it, should go on record’. The weight of their experience has to be considered when judging Kirke and his apparent procrastination; his decision was based on their professional opinions.

The day after this meeting Kirke went aboard HMS Dartmouth, which was the advance ship of the fleet, and the vessel from which Richards was maintaining continuous observation. Kirke climbed to the maintop with Richards from where

we could easily discern the rippling of the Boom, and sometimes see part of it just heave upon the face of the water; along which were several boats lying stern and stem with the Boom, as if they floated it up.

Kirke was able to see the city as well as the Jacobite dispositions. The latter were now showing no signs of the concern that the first appearance of the ships had caused. His observations did not change Kirke’s view of the problems presented by the boom, nor did it make him alter his earlier conclusion that the city was not hard pressed by the besiegers; he was also able to check his earlier estimates of Jacobite strength.

Those inside the city’s walls might not have been pleased to learn of Kirke’s council of war and its deliberations, nor of his further conclusions based on the evidence of his own eyes from Dartmouth’s maintop. They would have been even less pleased to learn that Kirke entertained Jacobite officers on board HMS Swallow a few days later on 27 June. This followed a message to Kirke from Lord George Howard who had asked the major-general for a safe passage to visit him. Kirke issued the ‘passport’ and Howard and another gentleman came on board ‘and they were very civilly received by the Major-General’. This appears to have been a most convivial meeting at which the two Jacobite visitors were entertained to a meal that brought forth the comment that ‘they had not such a meal’s meat [since] the Lord knows when’. Kirke and Howard were obviously friends, and the occasion was sufficiently relaxed for the Jacobites to express their exasperation at the French officers in their army, of whose ‘insolencies’ they complained, saying that they ‘were almost weary of being under their command’. From them, Kirke learned that Rosen, rather than Hamilton, was now commanding the Jacobite forces in the area. Howard and his companion returned ashore that evening, having enjoyed their day, been well fed and having supplied Kirke with some useful intelligence on his enemies.

The ships of the fleet did not remain constantly at anchor in the one spot; Richards records that, on 29 June, his vessel ‘watered at Greencastle’ which is some distance away at the mouth of Lough Foyle. While the ship was taking on fresh water, ‘under the cannon of the Antelope’, a yacht arrived from Scotland. This was the Ferret, commanded by Captain Sanders, who brought a letter for Kirke from the Duke of Hamilton, telling the major-general that Edinburgh Castle had surrendered, the Jacobites in Scotland had been routed and their principal leaders taken prisoner.

On 1 July Richards visited Kirke, who showed him a letter he had received the previous morning. This missive told Kirke that ‘nothing of any notice had happened between Londonderry and the Irish camp’ for the past three or four days. However, a postscript included news of an attack on the city by Jacobite troops on Tuesday 25 June. In fact, this was Skelton’s, or Clancarty’s, attack which had occurred on the Friday, 28 June. The writer of the letter lived in a house, described as the parson’s, above Whitecastle, close to where Swallow lay at anchor. The scribe and his wife had devised a code to let Kirke know that they had information for him. When the pair, the lady wearing a white mantle, were seen walking back and forth along the beach before returning to their home, that would be a sign that a letter had been concealed under ‘a certain stone’ and this would be retrieved under cover of darkness by someone from the ship.

Richards includes an interesting note about Lord Dungan sending Kirke ‘a very fine and large salmon’ at 4 o’clock that afternoon (1 July). Dungan was the commanding officer of one of the Jacobite dragoon regiments, and the salmon might well have been a gift in appreciation of the meal given to Howard and his companion four days earlier. Equally, it might simply have been a gift from one soldier to another. However, Kirke’s friendship with Jacobite officers emphasizes an often neglected fact about the conflict in Ireland: that it was a civil war, the type of conflict in which brother can be pitched against brother and friend against friend. In such circumstances it is not surprising that there were some who believed that Kirke was sympathetic to the Jacobite cause and that his apparent prevaricating was quite deliberate. Of those inside the city who wrote accounts of the siege, only the Reverend John Mackenzie is critical of Kirke, suggesting that Kirke and Walker had conspired to create their own version of the siege; it is notable that Mackenzie gives the garrison, inspired by the Almighty, rather than Kirke the credit for relieving the city.

Further accusations against Kirke were made by Sir James Caldwell, one of the defenders of Enniskillen, who listed thirty charges against the general, including ‘corruption, incompetence, irreligion, and a total lack of appreciation or understanding for those who had carried on the struggle for King William in Ireland both before and during the siege’. In two queries against Kirke, Caldwell is quite clear in his allegations of treachery, asking ‘whether several officers of the late King James’s army did not wrong Major General Kirke when they often times declared that they expected no injury from him who they knew to be one of their own friends and that at length he would appear to be so’. In support of his claim, Caldwell states that the witnesses were ‘the whole soldiers of Londonderry’. He also asks if Kirke did not have a pardon from James in July 1689 ‘for not relieving Londonderry and holding other correspondence with the enemy and whether it was not a common discourse among the enemy that the said Major General Kirke was their friend’.

Caldwell’s charges seem never to have been made at an official level but they merit some reflection. Was Kirke guilty of treachery at Derry? There is no doubt that he maintained friends in the Jacobite officer corps, but this can be seen as a legacy of their having served together in the past. The argument can equally be made that such friendships allowed Kirke to garner useful information on the Jacobites’ situation while impressing upon them the strength of his own force. His seemingly lackadaisical approach may also be seen as the product of his believing that the garrison was in no great distress. The lack of communication between relief force and defenders has already been noted and it seems plausible that the signals being made from the cathedral were considered to be signs of rejoicing. However, since Kirke had already changed sides, from James to William, it is reasonable to assume that he might have done so again, had the circumstances been right. He continued to correspond with James in exile, and it seems that Kirke was determined to be a survivor, as he had always been, irrespective of the sufferings of anyone else. A pragmatic individual, Kirke was, at best, a man who looked out for himself and, at worst, a man who would have changed sides again, abandoning Derry and its garrison, had it suited him.

At noon on 2 July a Mr Hagason signed from the northern, or Inishowen, shore that he wished to speak with Captain Withers of the Swallow. Withers went ashore and spent about an hour with Hagason and others, returning with news that there had been another sally by the people of Derry the previous night, during which they had cut off some 300 Jacobites. From this it seems that Hagason might have been a Jacobite officer who seems to have been on familiar terms with Withers. There were also complaints about lack of provisions, and it seemed that Hagason and his friends were tired of the siege ‘for there was nothing but hunger and slaughter in it’. One recent writer on the siege suggests that Hagason was a Williamite and that he was relaying information from the garrison but the description of the sally would suggest otherwise.

Later that day, after dinner, Kirke called a council of war which was attended by all his field officers and the sea captains. This was to discuss sending some 500 or 600 men to Inch, an island in Lough Swilly, to create a diversion. The proposal followed a reconnaissance to Inch carried out by Captain Thomas Hobson in HMS Bonadventure when he learned from Protestants on the island that a Jacobite quartermaster was there to gather provisions for the Irish army. Inch was, and is, a fertile island, and was described as ‘abounding in all sorts of grain’. Hobson sent his lieutenant ashore with one of the Protestant gentlemen who took the sailor to the house where the Jacobite quartermaster was based. The naval officer relieved the quartermaster of his papers and a sum of £5 which he had on his person, presumably to pay for whatever he collected from the island. Having done so, the lieutenant went back to his boat but, having been admonished by the local man for not making the Jacobite officer a prisoner, returned to the house, only to find that the quartermaster had mounted his horse and made off. He was said to have had a considerable sum of money with him. For failing to make the man prisoner, the naval lieutenant was criticized severely, and Richards commented that ‘it is thought he will be dismissed’. Nonetheless, the papers he had taken provided some good intelligence for Kirke.

The papers were letters from the general officers of the Irish camp, pressing the said quarter master to send provisions with what expedition he could, for they and their horses came near starved, with intimations that he should take great care to preserve all sorts of provisions, for their dependence was wholly on that island.

Combined with the information from Howard and his dining companion, that from Hagason and other sources, this indicated that the Jacobite army was in a poor state. Furthermore, since Inch was so valuable to the Jacobites for supplies, it made sense to deprive them of that source of supply by occupying the island. This had the further advantage of providing a rallying point for local Protestants, some of whom asserted that several hundred of their number would ‘fly to us and take up arms’. It would also allow sailors and soldiers to have some liberty from the crowded conditions of their ships and, as had already been suggested to Kirke, the island would provide a location for a hospital. And thus began the Williamite expedition to Inch.

In a direct line, Inch is only a little more than six miles from the walls of Derry. An old road, part of which has been there for centuries, probably since the days when the local centre of power was the Grianan of Aileach overlooking the island, runs almost in a straight line from the city to the island. A body of men would have had to march no more than eight miles to reach the city from the island, although this would have meant marching over high ground; but this rises to less than 500 feet. The direct route would have presented no problems, especially at this time of year. Alternatively, an approach could also have been made via the flat land where once the Foyle and Swilly waters had commingled to cut off Inishowen, the island of Eoghan. Using this route the distance would have been increased but by no more than another mile or two. Thus Williamite soldiers on Inch represented a very real danger to the Jacobites about Derry who now had to be wary of an attack from behind.

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