“The Shutting of the Gates of Derry”


The singer recalls "how, in olden time, ... a band of boys closed the gates and "Antrim's 'Red-shank'd' crew retreats." In beseiged Derry "pestillence held awful sway - Gaunt famine reigned... till brave Downing" saved the city.

Long description

The singer recalls "how, in olden time, Boys gave fame to Derry" "This famed date in Fifty-eight, Foemen crossed the Ferry, O! And with yells of fiendish hate, Sought to enter Derry, O!" But a band of boys closed the gates and "Antrim's 'Red-shank'd' crew retreats." "James, their craven king" sent instructions to "his Popish Parliament" in Dublin to "raze the walls of Derry" In Derry "pestillence held awful sway - Gaunt famine reigned ... till brave Downing" saved the city. "Brave Thirteen, who closed the Gate In December hoary, O. In the Keep of Eighty-Eight Hallowed with your glory O"


Broadside Bodleian Harding B 26(603) is the basis for the description. The erroneous reference to [16]58 in the second verse is corrected to [16]88 in the last. - BS

The Siege of Londonderry was one of those defining moments in Irish history, though it didn't seem like a particularly big deal at the time. It was defining for the way it was remembered.

The context is the Glorious Revolution of 1688 (for which see, e.g., "What's the Rhyme to Porringer?" and "The Vicar of Bray"). The Catholic James II had been driven off the English throne, replaced by his Protestant daughter Mary and her Protestant husband (and first cousin) William III of Orange. But this was just a small part of the war between France and most of the rest of Europe; the French were supporting James.

And James decided to take advantage of his support in Ireland, still mostly Catholic. He would not himself arrive until March 1689, but his followers were active. According to Peter and Fiona Somerset Fry, _A History of Ireland_ (Barnes & Nble, 1988, 1993), pp. 159-160, "Londonderry had shown its Protestant colours as early as September 1688, when the apprentices, the working lads of the city, had closed the gates against the Catholic earl of Antrim and his men; later, when Tyrconnell [James's Lord Deputy of Ireland, for whom see "Lilliburlero"] had most unwisely withdrawn whole regiments from the north, the Protestant gentry ha raised levies in support of William. Tyrconnell had defeated them in a confused engagement known as the 'break of Dromore,' whereupon those who could not get sea passage away from the country had crowded as refugees into the garrison town of Enniskillen, in Fermanagh, and into Londonderry. James, beneath tje city walls, called repeatedly upon the citizens to surrender, promising them a free pardon for their rebellion.

Terry Golway, _For the Cause of Liberty_, (Simon & Schuster, 2000), pp. 30-31: "The city's thirty thouand civiliians were reduced to eating rats, but when the city's commander, Robert Lundy, seemed ready to surrender, the populace turned on him. The cry of the besieged city was 'No Surrender!' It would become a Protestant motto."

Fry/Fry, p. 160: "The besiegers had no chance of taking the city by assault. James'[s] troops were untried and ill-equipped; they had no spades and shovels for mining the city walls, and no guns heavy enough to breach them. They could only wait until the defenders were starved into submission. Refugees had swelled the population to 30,000 and food supplies soon began to run out; people were dying of starvation and the garrison was too weak to fight.... Then, in the middle of June, six weeks after the siege had begun, an English fleet arrived in Lough Foyle to relieve the city."

The lough, however, had been blocked by James's troops, so it was six weeks before the ships were able to reach the city. Once they did, though, that was the end of the fifteen-week siege (see Martin Wallace, _A Short History of Ireland_, Barnes & Noble, 1973, 1986, p. 56); with food now available, the Catholic army saw no point in continuing the siege. While this was going on, the rest of Ireland started to split into Catholic and Protestant segments, and finally William III showed up, and both sides headed for the Boyne, the subject of so many Irish songs.

According to Jonathan Bardon, _A History of Ulster_, Blackstaff Press, 1992, pp. 157-158, "Derry was the last walled city to be built in western europe. The siege of 105 days was the last great siege in British history, and the most renowned. 'Oh! to her the loud acclamations o the garrison soldiers round the Walls when the ships came to the Quay,' Ash wrote in his diary.'...The Lord, who has preserved this city from the Enemy, I hope will always keep it to the Protestants.' For the Protestants of Ulster this epic defence gave inspiration for more than three centuries to come."

You can generally tell the perspective of a commentator by whether he refers to the city as Derry (the Catholic title) or Londonderry (Protestant). I've called it Londonderry because, at this particular time, the Protestants were defending it. Though the area is in fact mostly Catholic.

For more background on the siege, see "Derry Walls Away." - RBW

Historical references

  • Dec 7, 1688 - The "Apprentice Boys" close the Londonderry gates against Lord Antrim's "Redshanks"
  • Jul 28, 1689 - Browning's ships break the 105 day siege of Derry (source: Cecil Kilpatrick, "The Siege of Derry: A City of Refuge" at the Canada-Ulster Heritage site)

Cross references


  • Bodleian, Harding B 26(603), "The Shutting of the Gates of Derry" ("Brothers, up! the pealing chime"), J. Moore (Belfast), 1852-1868


Author: unknown
Earliest date: before 1869 (broadside, Bodleian Harding B 26(603))