Saturday, August 14, 2010

Derry Day and the Battle of Newtownbutler

This morning hundreds and thousands of Apprentice Boys will be making their way to the Maiden City, Derry - Londonderry - Legenderry for the Apprentice Boys of Derry annual commemoration of the breaking of the siege and the Relief of Derry. The parade comes at the end of the weeklong Maiden City Festival in the city. Yet there aren't too many Apprentice Boys from County Fermanagh. Instead, at the same time as the Apprentice Boys parade, the Royal Black Institution in Fermanagh will be having its annual parade. Why is that?

While Londonderry gets all the headlines (as well as some for all the wrong reasons like the riots and contentious feeder parades), the Fermanagh Sir Knights are barely noticed by the wider world. It was exactly the same during the Williamite Wars! Much is made of the siege of Derry, when the Apprentice Boys closed the gates to keep the advancing Earl of Antrim's soldiers out of the city. Much is known of how the Mountjoy broke the boom and freed the city from the besiegers. Less is known about the critical role of the town and people of Enniskillen during the siege of Derry.

King James' army was advancing northwards in the spring of 1689, defeating the Ulster Protestants at the Break of Dromore, which caused widespread panic (indeed, greater panic than had already occurred when the 'Comber Letter' had been found in December 1688). Many fled to Scotland and England, while the rest of those able took refuge in Londonderry and Enniskillen. In many ways, it was the men of Enniskillen who saved Londonderry, by engaging and distracting a good proportion of James' army - had Enniskillen fallen, Londonderry would have faced much tougher opposition. Indeed, so strong were the Inniskilling Regiment (as they would be known afterwards), that they were able to send raiding parties against the Jacobite posts at Trillick and Augher in April 1689, as well as Ballyshannon, Leitrim, even getting as far as County Meath, just 25 miles from James' headquarters in Dublin.

Just as the Mountjoy was breaking the boom on the Foyle on 28th July 1689 (Old Style) and the siege was officially lifted on 1st August (OS i.e. 12th August in our calendar), the Enniskillen men were fighting their own major battle, the Battle of Newtownbutler. This victory against the superior forces of Lord Mountcashel brought freedom to Enniskillen, and held Western Ulster for the Williamite cause.

Thus, while the Apprentice Boys celebrate the relief of Derry, the County Fermanagh Royal Blackmen are commemorating their own local history, and the decisive victory of the Battle of Newtownbutler. Which was more important? Both were highly significant, in that had one town fallen, the other would soon have perished as well, but with both continuing and winning, the Williamite cause could continue in Ireland, paving the way for the Battle of the Boyne the following year.

This blog post was based on a chapter from my book, Journeying Through Irish History: Exloding Myths, which is available from me for £10, all proceeds supporting the work of West Tyrone Voice victims' group

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