Myths and Marches History, Class and the Siege of Derry 1689

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 4 (Winter 1997), News, Volume 5

In August this year, as in almost every year for the last two centuries, members of the Apprentice Boys of Derry marched in the city to commemorate the ending of the Siege of Derry of 1689. The deal struck between the Apprentice Boys and the various Residents Groups representing Catholic areas in the city and other parts of the North ensured that the tension surrounding the parade did not lead to wholesale confrontation. Nevertheless, underlying problems over the issue of contentious marches undoubtedly remain.
The symbolic importance of the Siege of Derry has long been in its apparent message of all-Protestant solidarity. In this way the Siege has been presented as a never-changing model for action and a flag of collective allegiance. Constructed as a story of trial and deliverance, sacrifice and salvation, the allegory of the siege fulfils a whole range of ideological and even psychological needs, the most important of which is the representation of a past in which the threat of the Catholic ‘other’ was as dangerous as it was inevitable. It is a myth of collective sectarian division. The story of the Siege is, however, far more complex than the myth.
Late seventeenth-century Irish society was riven with class, as well as ethnic and religious divisions. Certainly a century of conquest, war and wholesale land confiscations had ensured that the separation of settler and native was the fundamental fissure which marked the social order. However, class cleavages created by the system of land ownership and control combined with the inter-Protestant rivalries of the established church and non-conformists to produce a colonial community which was far more complex and fractious than is often assumed. No more so than in the area of the Ulster plantations.
The majority of Protestant settlers in the North were either small tenant farmers or labourers and servants. Whilst their status as fellow colonists produced a dependency upon the paternalism of the new dominant elite of ‘undertaker’ landlords, this was neither complete nor inevitable. In periods of economic depression or political upheaval (both of which were numerous throughout the century) it is clear that such class tensions could produce acrimony and conflict. These tended to find expression in the language of political dissidence and in the creation of popular forms of mobilisation (such as the ‘public bands’) and they ensured that the relationship between land-owning elite and settler farmer was one of social and political negotiation.
This was undoubtedly the case during the Siege of Derry when this popular mobilisation took the form of the ‘crowd’. The ‘crowd’ was a not uncommon feature of pre-modern societies throughout Europe, featuring in anything from folk carnivals to bread riots, and acting as a volatile and amorphous expression of popular beliefs, customs and social discontent. Throughout the Siege the ‘crowd’ is clearly evident as an independent and powerful mechanism of popular protest. Nowhere is this more evident than in the episode taken as the symbolic starting point of the Siege cycle; the shutting of the city gates in the face of part of King James’s army by the original ‘apprentice boys’ on 7 December 1688. One contemporary account describes those who closed the gates as ‘little cabals of the city’s youths’. The civic and religious elite of the town attempted to avert what was, in point of fact, an act of treason and rebellion against the sovereign but ‘the multitude acted without the least public countenance from any of considerable note in the town’. In response a group of ‘prominent citizens’ immediately began negotiations with the Crown’s forces and denounced those who had shut the gates as a ‘rabble’ and ‘some of the meaner sort’.
One can see in these events tensions between the popular mobilisation and a ruling group who were deeply reluctant to oppose the authority of the state. This pattern was to repeat itself throughout the build up to and during the siege. In April the newly appointed governor, Robert Lundy, began a military withdrawal believing Derry to be strategically untenable. The population of the city (swollen by the thousands of small farmers and labourers who had fled there) rioted, overthrowing the governor and his council of war in the process. In the months afterward the leadership of the town were under a constant pressure from below and came in for some torrid times themselves. Despite draconian measures adopted by the Council opposition and large scale rioting were evident on several occasions. In mid-June the ‘rabble…went and took meal [from the stores in the Market House] and whatever they could get without respect of persons’. The next day the crowd pulled down the Market House. As a prelude to this riot the house of Governor Walker (enshrined as the epitome of communal leadership in the Siege myth) was ransacked and a private stock of ‘beer, mum and butter’ was discovered. The crowd subsequently pursued Walker through the streets ‘some threatening to shoot him, others to send him to gaol’. Walker, as overseer of the city’s stores, was accused of hoarding and profiteering, and was only saved by the physical intervention of Baker (his fellow governor). Not unlike food riots throughout pre-modern Europe (though in clearly exceptional circumstances) Walker was the object of an intense popular anger reserved for the hoarders of food. Perhaps most seriously of all a conspiracy of ‘turbulent persons’ intent on parleying with the besieging army was discovered in July, with thirteen people being court-martialed.
The Siege ended after 105 days though not before the death of over 10,000 people within the walls, and an equal number of the besieging army without. Yet in its aftermath tensions between state and people, and between the Protestant ruling class and the (mainly) small tenant farmer Presbyterians did not dissipate and, if anything, intensified. On relieving the city the Williamite military authorities issued a number of proclamations which prevented people from leaving with either weapons or goods. Cattle belonging to the colonists were brought to the city under armed guard to be sold ‘upon the pretence of their belonging to the enemy, and so few could recover their own again, that many families were deprived of the only considerable means of their subsistence’. The colonist militia which had been the mainstay of the defence of the city was largely disbanded, and officers who criticised this move were threatened with execution. Many of the militia were subsequently given no provisions from the city stores ‘whereby they were forced to travel and beg for their bread in the country, which being extremely depopulated, many of them perished for want’. One embittered siege survivor would later write, ‘those of them unfortunate enough to survive the flame, the pestilence and the sword of the enemy have been left by their fellow subjects to drop into their graves one after the other…We have lost our estates, our blood and our friends in the service of our country and have nothing for it these thirty years but royal promises’. Indeed rejected claims of recompense led many siege survivors to debtors’ prison over the next two decades, including Colonel John Mitchelburne, one of the key figures of the siege myth and the instigator of the earliest known siege anniversary celebrations in 1718. Mitchelburne would also write a play, Ireland Preserv’d, which would become one of the most popular folk plays in eighteenth-century Ulster. The play is notable for its populist caricatures of an assortment of church leaders, landed gentry and city burgesses.
Through 1689-91 a fierce polemical pamphlet war ensued between elements of the ascendancy and non-conformists. Disputes arose over the events of the siege and the roles played during it by, on the one hand, dissenter ministers and on the other, George Walker. This public and acrimonious debate over the Siege was a prelude to a flurry of theological pamphlets written by, amongst others, the newly installed Episcopalian Bishop of Derry (William King) and the Presbyterian minister in the city (Robert Craighead). Such arguments over the forms and nature of religious worship were crucially too about the nature and organisation of social and political power. These theological disputations represented a struggle over the position of the ruling class, defined both by its landed status and by its adherence to the established church, and their relationship not only to the Catholic masses but also to tenant colonists.
The emergence of the ascendancy regime in the wake of the Williamite settlement was foreshadowed by such disputes and would lead ultimately to the introduction of the Test Act in 1704, which excluded Presbyterians as well as Catholics from political power. Amongst those who were forced to resign from Derry Corporation as a result of this act were at least one of the original Apprentice Boys, a family relation of another and David Caimes (who was also forced to give up his seat in parliament), a key actor throughout the siege and another of the celebrated figures in the siege myth.
Whilst this brief survey cannot provide a comprehensive overview of the events of the Siege of Derry and its aftermath it is possible to see a more complex story than that which is normally given. The siege was indeed an episode of trial and endurance, of bravery and deceit, but the nature of the social, economic and political relations which produced it are ill served by the imagery of inevitable and all-consuming sectarian division. There is much more to this moment of our collective past and the lessons for the present may be more varied than is often assumed.

Mark McGovern lectures in Irish history and politics at Edge Hill University College, Ormskirk.


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