There are many tales from the siege of steadfastness in the face of adversity and danger from ordinary people living in extraordinary times.
For many weeks, the “maiden city” of Londonderry in Northern Ireland had been besieged by the troops of the former English King, James II. Inspired by the example of their Governor, the Reverend George Walker, the citizens had held out against fire, famine and disease.
But by the beginning of June, 1689, they were rapidly losing heart.
The garrison’s soldiers were so exhausted that they could hardly stand, and in helping to repel the assaults of the enemy, several of them collapsed from weakness. In his attempt to crush the Irish Protestants, James had ordered that Londonderry must be taken at all costs, and the river leading to the city was blocked by a huge boom to prevent relief ships getting through.
General Kirke’s offer
On 7th June, 1689, thirty ships under General Kirke anchored at the entrance to Lough Foyle. The fleet, an English one, was loyal to the new King, William III, and it was considered essential that a message be got through the enemy lines telling Governor Walker that food and help were on their way.
General Kirke offered a thousand pounds to any soldier who would carry such a message, but, realising the great danger involved, no one stepped forward.
Then, after a long pause, one of General Kirke’s most valued young officers, Colonel James Roche, volunteered with Scotsman James Cromie (also spelt Cromy or Crumy) to attempt to get to Londonderry on foot to deliver a message from the fleet in Lough Foyle.
Admitting that he had “no plan except to go”, Roche was handed a letter. It had a waterproof covering and was weighted with leaden bullets so that it could be jettisoned if Roche fell into enemy hands.
A few minutes later, Roche & Cromie were rowed to a secluded creek and left to make their way past James’s troops as best they could.
This was a hazardous mission behind enemy lines which would have to then be repeated if they hoped to return to their ship.
Roche & Cromie’s dangerous journey
The two men were put ashore on the County Londonderry side of Lough Foyle about 2200 that night, and from there made their way undetected to a wooded area about three miles from the city itself.
Roche decided that it would be safer to stick to the woods which lined the river. They crept stealthily from tree to tree. In the distance they could hear the rumble of musketry and, as they drew nearer to Londonderry, they caught glimpses of the enemy’s tents and armed sentries.
By the time night came, Roche & Cromie were hiding in some bushes not far from the walls of the city. Heavy clouds had covered the moon, and as the wind rose, a violent storm began. The sentries, who did not seem to have much sense of discipline, hurried for the shelter of the tents.
Roche decided that this was his opportunity to cover the last lap of his journey.
With the messages in his charge in a bladder removed his clothes and entered the river with the intention of swimming to the city.
Cromie stayed behind as he could not swim. (According to Captain Ash’s diary it seems his role was to guide Roche suggesting he may have been familiar with the area).
Taking off his boots and most of his clothes, Roche slipped into the water. The tide was with him, and he was swept quickly towards the ferry-gate leading into Londonderry. Although he was a strong swimmer, he felt very weak by the time he reached the gate, and he had to be carried into the house of one of the burghers.
Roche delivered his message telling the garrison there were thirty ships below Culmore. The news that relief was at hand had spread throughout the city. It put new heart into the besieged soldiers and they determined to hold out until the ships could force their way through the blockade.
The city fired four guns from the Cathedral, a prearranged signal to let the fleet know Roche had got through.
Dangerous Return Journey
In the meantime, however Cromie was discovered and captured by the Jacobites.
This had disastrous effects for Roche and what happened next could easily have been plucked from the script of an action thriller.
The following evening, he went back to the ferry-gate, dived into the water, and swam to the spot where he had hidden his clothes. When he got there, he found to his dismay that they had vanished!
The enemy had discovered his hiding-place. He became suddenly aware, too, that the wood was full of soldiers.
Thinking it would be safer to leave the river, he plunged into the wood and forced his way through the prickly undergrowth. His arms, chest, and legs soon became a mass of raw wounds as the briars and brambles tore into his skin.
It was now dark, and for the next three hours he pressed onwards, stumbling into holes and frequently falling headlong.
Eventually he found himself back on the river bank, and he was just about to slip into the water again when a company of dragoons emerged from the trees and surrounded him.
As they stood staring at him by the light of their lanterns, Roche tried to leap into the river. He was stopped by one of the troopers, who struck him in the face with a battle-axe, breaking his jaw.
The soldiers then rushed forward to seize him, but the almost naked Roche managed to wriggle from their grasp. He ducked beneath their arms and, with blood streaming from his jaw, jumped into the river.
The troopers shouted for him to stop and, as he started to swim away from them, let loose a hail of pistol-bullets. Most of these struck the water, but three hit him, in the arm, the breast, and the shoulder.
Dizzy with pain, Roche somehow managed to keep on swimming. He even had the wit to submerge himself, and he did not surface until he could no longer hold his breath. He was still within pistol-range of the dragoons, but now their bullets splashed harmlessly wide of him.
Using up all his reserves of strength, Roche swam a few more yards, until he was completely out of danger of being shot again. Then, almost unconscious from loss of blood, he turned on to his back and floated to wherever the tide might take him.
Here he was in luck. As in the previous night, the river carried him towards Londonderry. Some time later, a look-out on the city walls saw Roche’s limp body drifting slowly towards the ferry-gate.
Once more he was pulled out of the water and taken to a nearby house. There his wounds were dressed and he was given all possible medical attention.
Cromie’s capture also endangered the boat party they were to rendezvous with. Colonel Richard’s records in his Diary of the Fleet:
“At night we sent our boat to the place where they were put ashore, and where we promised to take them in again. The boat being come within pistol shot of the shore, [ they] laid still upon their oars, and in a small space of time somebody hailed the boat ashore.
The lieutenant in boat asked for the word, and they or he said he had forgot it. Then the lieutenant asked the name of the ship, which he also said he had forgot, and desired the boat would come nigher in; but being asked where the other man was, he said he had not seen him since he went into Derry.
The lieutenant told him if he would wade off, they would take him in, otherwise not: at which the man that spoke retired, and immediately several muskets were discharged upon the boat, but did hurt nobody.
Upon this the boat returned on board and gave us this account.”
Cromie in fear of his life was forced to deliver a false message to the city. The Jacobites invited officers to speak with Cromie under a flag of truce and a party lead by Col Blair did so.
When asked why his message differed from Roche’s, Cromie (still under Jacobite guard and thus evidently picking his words carefully) replied that he was in the enemy camp and Roche was safe behind the walls.
Although the fleet had successfully sent a message to Londonderry, the city was still to reply and let Maj Gen Kirke know their distress.
It was then that the peril of Roche’s journey was shown. A man we only know as McGimpsey came to Adam Murray and volunteered to swim out to the fleet. A letter was written ‘representing the great extremity things were reduced to’ and placed in a bladder around McGimpsey’s neck who then started on his perilous swim. He didn’t make it.
Gov Walker records “Whether he was taken alive by the enemy, or was killed by running himself against the boom, as some reported, is uncertain, but within a day or two they hung up a man on the gallows in view of the city on the other side of the water, and called over to us to acquaint us that it was our messenger.”
Roche stayed behind the walls for the rest of the siege. He recovered enough by the 4th July to climb the Cathedral tower, for Ash records “he struck the flag on the Church three times, and as often hoisted it up, then made a wave, which was done to let the fleet see our great distress, a signal frequent at sea.”
A few months later, William III awarded Colonel Roche the sum of £3,000 for the brave part he had played. And from that time on, the gallant Colonel was known throughout Ireland as “Roche the Swimmer”.
After the Siege he was promoted to Captain and is without doubt one of the unsung heroes of the siege.
He is depicted in the detail of the Relief of Londonderry window in the Apprentice Boys Club Room in the Memorial Hall (pictured). If you look carefully below the coat of arms you can see figure of a man swimming.
Source: Various accounts