The Apprentice Boys

The dates in this article are in the old style of dating. The English adopted a new style calendar in 1752, which added eleven days to its calendar.

On the morning of December 7, 1688, a regiment of Catholic troops crossed Lough Foyle and advanced on Londonderry with the presumed intention of slaughtering all the Protestants within. The town fathers paralyzed by fear, or piously resigned to martyrdom, or stained by treason, were ready to admit the enemy when suddenly a band of thirteen apprentice boys lifted their crimson banners and, with shouts of "No Surrender!" shut the gates in the face of the invaders. Thus began the siege of Londonderry, a frightful ordeal that lasted more than three months before King William's forces broke it.

The Apprentice Boys are still memorialized throughout Protestant Ireland, especially during the summer "marching season." In Londonderry itself, the celebrations are led by the Apprentice Boys of Derry, one of the most powerful Orange lodges, and always include a procession atop the wide city walls to the beat of the Lambeg drums and the booming of Roaring Meg, one of the cannons used to defend the city under siege. Even more than the Battle of the Boyne, it is the salvation of Londonderry by their own hands and their own suffering that warms the blood of Ulster Protestants.

Although the story of the Apprentice Boys is well fixed in legend, it is not quite accurate. The siege, for example, did not begin when the gates were closed, nor were the gates closed for long. When the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, the Earl of Tyrconnel, learned that his troops had been denied admission to Londonderry, he immediately sent another force which was allowed to enter. The siege did not begin until four months later when King James II demanded the city's surrender. The crimson banners and shouts of "No Surrender!" have no foundation in the original sources and the number of people involved in closing the gates is unknown. Thirteen of the gate-closers were named in the original sources, but they were accompanied by a large crowd.

It is common enough to add imaginative details whenever great events are elevated to the level of legend, but what is most surprising about the story of the Apprentice Boys is that they were not apprentices.

The first version of the event, a letter written two days later by the town authorities, described how "our rabble," "a great number of younger, and some of the meaner sort" acted on their own to the "amazement" of the more responsible citizens. In the next week, the "principal gentlemen" of Derry wrote a second letter and issued an official declaration to explain what had happened; both documents cast blame upon a mob of the "younger and more inconsiderate." In less than a year, however, the rabble receded and a more respectable group took its place. The first history written by an eyewitness, George Walker, published in 1689, referred simply to "the younger sort." The second, written by John Mackenzie, published in 1690, gave the mob a supporting role but had the closing done by a small group of respectable young men, all of whom wore swords, an emblem of gentility in the seventeenth century. Mackenzie named thirteen of the chief participants, prefacing each name with the title "Mr." (for Master), a term never applied to an apprentice boy. Mackenzie's gate-closers were not rabble, but neither were they apprentices.

It is hard to say when the young gentlemen became apprentice boys. There is an account by a contemporary, Thomas Ash, who kept a Circumstantial Journal, in which it is stated that "while we were in this confused hesitation, on the 7th. December, 1688, a few resolute APPRENTICE BOYS determined for us." Ash, however, did not arrive in Londonderry until after the gate closing. If he wrote the statement attributed to him, he was reporting hearsay, but he may not have made the statement at all. It does not actually appear in Ash's journal but in a kind of introduction that was added later, perhaps by the editor who first published the journal a century after the event. If the story of the Apprentice Boys were current by 1689, it is hard to understand why it was not mentioned in the histories written by Walker and Mackenzie and even harder to explain why the Apprentice Boys were still missing a decade later when an epic poem, the Londeriados, was written. The poem describes in vivid detail, and awful verse, every heroic act associated with the siege but says nothing about apprentices. The Apprentice Boys must be an eighteenth-century invention.

Who then closed the gates? Was it the rabble, or respectable young men? The historical context is crucial. In early December 1688, William of Orange had successfully invaded England with the intention of depriving James II of the crown, but James was still in London and still king. Royal officials everywhere had to choose between loyalty to James or defection to William. In Derry, the established government collapsed into indecision and the city was being governed by a few Protestant gentlemen with the general consent of their peers. At the same time, Protestants throughout Ireland were in a panic because of a widespread belief that the Catholics were plotting a massacre for December 9. It was under these circumstances that Tyrconnel, a Catholic, sent a regiment of troops to garrison Londonderry. The troops were sent for the city's defense but there was genuine fear that their mission was more sinister. All contemporary accounts describe an intense debate within the city about allowing the regiment in, and a growing consensus that it should be kept out.

The men governing the city shared that sentiment, but they were already acting on shaky legal grounds and had no desire to implicate themselves further in treasonable activities. They saved themselves by giving their implicit consent that the gates be closed, and then blamed the closing on the always conveniently ungovernable "rabble."

In Mackenzie's opinion, "those who made some figure in the town wished the thing were done, yet none of them thought fit to be themselves active in it." By 1690, when the siege was over and William was King of England, it was time to give credit to the young gentlemen who led the action. What happened in Derry on December 7, 1688 was an orderly urban riot allowed of encouraged by the civil authorities to achieve a public good, and occasional necessity before municipalities acquired more bureaucratic means of governing.

Londonderry was not saved by thirteen apprentices acting in defiance of authority, but that news will hardly cause the Apprentice Boys of Derry to close their lodge, nor will it put an end to the Protestant marches in Northern Ireland. Unlike history, which sleeps in books, legend needs only a nub of fact to move men and women to the emulation of great deeds. Protestants in Ireland rightly venerate the memory of the Apprentice Boys, and Catholics could without shame join parades that honor the bravery of the young Irishmen who acted in December 1688 in defense of their faith. The history that now divides the Irish will at last unite when the Apprentice Boys of Derry live together in a national memory with MacDonagh and MacBride, and Connolly and Pearse.

(Written by James P. Walsh, Professor Emeritus, Central Connecticut State University.)

© Irish Cultural Society of the Garden City Area