The siege that allowed William of Orange to step ashore at Carrickfergus

A plaque at Carrickfergus harbour marking the historic landing. INCT 23-755-CON
A plaque at Carrickfergus harbour marking the historic landing. INCT 23-755-CON

The event of the Williamite Wars in Ireland have several milestones including the landing of William of Orange at Carrick Harbour in June 1690.

But without an earlier milestone, William would not have arrived in the harbour at all. For while Carrickfergus was strongly Williamite in its sympathy, the garrison which was located at the castle was Jacobite and successfully held the town for James II, despite at least two attempts to capture it.

King William's arrival in Carrickfergus is marked with an annual pageant. INCT 24-231-AM

King William's arrival in Carrickfergus is marked with an annual pageant. INCT 24-231-AM

On one occasion, in January 1689, Protestant soldiers of Sir Thomas Newcombe’s regiment were intended to gain entry on the premise that they had been sent to assist garrison the town, then seize the gates and open them to other Protestants who would capture the Jacobite troops. At the last minute, however, the main plotters got cold feet and the soldiers deserted. A second attempt, the following month, involving 1,000 troops under Colonel Bermingham, fared no better. Soon afterwards, Jacobite gains in the countryside around, led to Protestant forces supporting William taking flight towards Coleraine. Eventually those forces would end up moving towards Londonderry, where they were famously besieged.

But a second and less remembered siege occurred at Carrickfergus. And without it the Prince of Orange would not have been able to arrive in County Antrim as he did. On August 13 1689, a Tuesday, Duke Schomberg had arrived in Belfast Lough and disembarked with his troops at Groomsport. He had around 90 ships, and 10,000 men. The next day a detachment of troops was sent to Belfast to assess the situation there, and at Carrickfergus the Irish troops in the town burned the suburbs, clearly preparing for a siege. Colonel Thomas Maxwell, Governor of Carrickfergus for King James, left the town and it fell to Colonel Mac Carty More, his regiment and that of Cormac O’Neill to defend the town.

The Duke of Schomberg took charge of Belfast, the Jacobites having retreated towards Lisburn, and on August 20 five regiments of foot were sent to besiege Carrick. They were followed by seven more regiments the next day. The conflict then began in earnest. The Williamite troops began to develop entrenchments around the town. Rev. George Storey, who provided an account of the period, tells us that a Lieutenant Gibbons was sent to parley with the Duke of Schomberg and was dismissed after it was found that the Jacobites wanted time to contact James in relation to having leave to surrender. After Gibbons had left, Jacobite cannon fired at the Duke of Schomberg’s tent, causing some damage, but he was not there at that point. Cannon firing continued from both sides. The siege had well and truly begun.

The next day, Thursday August 22, there was again fierce fire between the two camps. Around 50 ships sailed into Belfast Lough that day, bringing four regiments of foot and one of horse. The evening saw continued ‘smart fighting’. On the Friday the Jacobites asked to parley again and Storey says that they would have marched out from the town had Schomberg accepted their terms for doing so. He refused, intent on making them prisoners of war. Schomberg reviewed the trenches. “This night was spent in continual firing of great and small shot, and next morning the town was all over smothered with Dust and Smoak occasioned by the Bombs,” said Storey.

At this point a Mr. Spring escaped from the town and informed the Williamites that the Jacobite troops kept so close to the walls that the bombs did them no damage but only plagued the Protestants in the town. Other intelligence he gave was that Macarthy More and Owen McCarthy were the only two holding out from surrendering the town. The Williamites also learned that supplies had been gathered in the castle to allow the Jacobites to retreat there and sustain a siege. But Spring also told the Williamites that ammunition was running low inside the town.

On Sunday, August 25, the siege continued and a large breech was made in the wall near the North Gate. The Jacobites were alarmed that the Men of War were about to train their guns from the lough onto the castle and the next morning at six o’clock they raised the white flag again and sent their proposals to Schomberg. Schomberg did not want to become tied down at Carrickfergus any longer than was necessary; he was therefore keen to have the garrison surrender and his terms were lenient, On Wednesday, August 28, the Jacobites marched out of Carrickfergus.

The Jacobites had about 150 men killed and wounded in the siege, with Williamite losses at nearly 150 killed and 60 wounded. The removal of the Jacobites resulted in a garrison of Sir Henry Inglesby’s regiment being left in the town, while the remainder of Schomberg’s force moved on to Belfast. Among those held prisoner by the Jacobites once the siege began was the Mayor, Richard Dobbs, who recounted in a memoir that when he was released “I delivered the sword (which was hid by my Serjant) to General Schomberg, in the markett place, whoe was pleased to restore it unto mee”. Dobbs was the ancestor of Sir Arthur Dobbs, who would become Governor of North Carolina.

William III would add another chapter to the history of the town when he landed there in June 1690, From Carrickfergus he moved to Belfast and begun his eventful journey towards the Boyne.