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Chapter 4 - Coleraine Garrison and The Rebellions


Coleraine was used as a garrison town by English troops long before the Ulster Plantation. Just prior to the Plantation, Sir Arthur Chichester selected Coleraine as part of the necklace of garrison towns around Ulster because he considered Coleraine to be a barrier between the O’Cahans of County Coleraine and the Scottish Islanders of County Antrim. The town was also on the best land route to Derry city.

This section will discuss the history of the standing army garrisoned in Coleraine after 1600 and how the garrison and volunteer troops coped with the major rebellions.


The 1600s Garrison


Two attempts to garrison Coleraine in 1601 and 1602 failed because of a perceived threat from O’Neill’s men during the latter stages of his rebellion. During 1602 O’Cahan deserted the O’Neills and transferred his allegiance to the English. This act of treachery allowed Coleraine town to be garrisoned by the English. Captain John Sydney and his company of 100 men moved into the town in November 1602 (Mullin 1976, p26).

   In 1605 Sir Arthur Chichester asked Sir Thomas Phillips to take command of the garrison and develop Coleraine town. There were at least eighty foot soldiers garrisoned in Coleraine when he was developing the town between 1605 and 1610 as a private enterprise.

The town garrison was maintained into the 19th Century until Northbrook Mills barracks were sold in 1859.


Troops Accommodation


The troops used to garrison the town were usually accommodated within the town so that they could man the ramparts and the town gates. During his tenure Sir Thomas Phillips built 30 thatched houses in Coleraine town to accommodate his troops. There were times when the officers were billeted with well-off families in the town.


The O’Cahan Conspiracy


In 1614 Alexander McDonnell’s servant was about to be hanged in Coleraine as “an idle person”.  (Curl, 2000, p95) He saved his life by claiming that he had knowledge of a conspiracy to attack Coleraine town. He alleged that a meeting had taken place near Macosquin, three miles from Coleraine on the banks of the Bann.

   It was further alleged that Rory O’Cahan and others had planned to obtain weapons from a disaffected guard in the town. After that, they would use the guard to gain access into the town after the curfew. Their next step was to take two London Agents as hostages for ransom, kill the remainder of the inhabitants and then burn the town down.

   From other information given under torture it was shown that this rebellion was in contrast to the O’Doherty rebellion. That rebellion was an individual response to the physical abuse and broken promises inflicted on O’Doherty by the English.

   The O’Cahan plan was more elaborate and involved simultaneous attacks on Lifford, Derry, Culmore and Limavady (Gillespie, p15). Of the seventeen conspirators, eleven were acquitted and the remaining six including the priest O’Laverty were hung, drawn and quartered in Derry and their severed heads spiked over Derry’s gates.

   Then in 1616, three years after the town received its Charter the Irish Society became responsible for the town garrison and Nicholas Elcock had been appointed the agent responsible for the development of Coleraine. Elcock was captured by one of the McDonnell’s who held him for ransom until he managed to escape with the help of the Native Irish. McDonnell was eventually captured and beheaded; his head was displayed in Coleraine (Curl, 2000, p378). 

   The Philips and Hadsor Report of 1622 mentioned by Mullin (1976, p73) stated that there were 206 houses in Coleraine town. Sir William Windsor’s Company of Foot occupied sixteen of these as well as six houses outside the town.


The 1641 Rebellion


In the early 1630s the Irish Lordships were in despair due to the crop failures and their poor management skills under the English system. To add to their despair, Wentworth was appointed by King Charles I to raise money by any means and enforce High Church conformity. Wentworth’s tactics became the catalyst for the rebellion led by Rory O’Moore in 1641.

   At the start of the rebellion the Standing Army only had 943 horse and 2,292 foot in the whole of Ireland. Despite that, Coleraine mustered over 650 men in eight companies of a citizens’ militia to deal with the rebels. But the town had to disarm a company of fifty Roman Catholics after they received news of the Portna Massacre. Irish and Highlander troops sent out to stop the advance of the Irish across the Bann into the Route had turned on the loyal troops and then advanced through the Route, burning and killing as far as Ballintoy where they laid siege to the Protestants in Ballintoy Church. The Protestants, sustained on oatmeal smuggled in by Father McGlaim, called out ‘No Surrender!’ to their besiegers (McNeill, 1910).

   The first attempt to halt the rebels took place in Garvagh. Edward Rowley and William Canning were put in command of 300 men at the Battle of Garvagh. During the second battle they fell to 1,000 Irish rebels on 13 December 1641 at Rowellan’s Hill just outside Garvagh. Most of the settlers were killed, including Canning

   The rebels continued their slaughtering and burning on their way to Coleraine. At Aghadowey a dozen rebels on horseback hunted the refugees into the bogs, dismounted and then slaughtered all the men. John Hunter of Carnkirin came into Coleraine stripped naked and grievously wounded with 15–16 pike stabs to his back. Thophilus Vesey, the son of the Rector of Macosquin and six other Vesey children were stripped naked by the rebels and then had to make their way to Coleraine town.

   One of the early criticisms of Coleraine was that it was too large to be defended. It now proved to be barely adequate to house the thousands of refugees flooding in. Due to the overcrowding and malnutrition, the refugees were dying at the rate of 150 each day. A mass grave was dug to accommodate 2,000 bodies at one stage of the 140-day siege. There are no records to show the location of this mass grave and it is reasonable to assume that because of the physical state of the besieged it was probably easier to dispose of all the bodies in the River Bann. During that rebellion at least one in every five settlers was killed throughout Ireland.

   On 11 February 1642 one of the Coleraine Captains of the citizens’ militia, Archibald Stewart deployed from Coleraine and attacked the rebel army at the Laney in Ballymoney. He had 300 English and 600 Scottish Protestant troops under his command that day. The rebel army fired one volley from their muskets and then mounted a Highland charge on the Coleraine forces who were routed. One of those killed in this battle was the Rev John Campion, the Rector of Killowen church

   Then in early May 1642 the second Earl of Antrim routed the rebels. The navy also sent small boats up the Bann to relieve Coleraine. The Laggan Army based in the Foyle area slaughtered many rebels to the north west of the Bann and then relieved the town on 16 May 1642. The Scottish Presbyterian troops of Major-General George Munroe also relieved the town near the end of June and the Scottish Army became the garrison troops until 1649.

   The firm grip of the Presbyterian Scots on Coleraine was only broken on Sunday 23 October 1649 when Sir Charles Coot’s Parliamentary army crossed the Bann at the Barmouth and Lieutenant Colonel Tristram Beresford rowed up the Bann to Coleraine with enough troops to win Coleraine back again.

   By June 1650 Cromwell had defeated the last of the Irish rebels in Letterkenny and the rebellion was over (Mullin, p96).


The Siege of Derry - 1689


The Roman Catholic James II came to the English throne in 1685. His late brother, made this possible. Charles II had dissolved parliament and rid himself of the anti-Catholic opposition in the year 1679.

   In 1688 William, Prince of Orange landed at Torbay with an army of 14,000 and replaced James II on the English throne. James fled to France and then in March 1689 he headed for Dublin. He intended to seize Ireland and launch an attack on England. If he had been successful that would establish a Royal Catholic dynasty in England. To that end the Earl of Tyrconnel ensured that the army in Ireland was now commanded and manned with Roman Catholics. Through a process of gerrymandering the Catholics also returned a majority in the Dublin parliament.


The north west of the province held out against this new regime but by 15 March 1689, the Irish army had approached Coleraine.


‘In Coleraine Lundy had all the officers in the garrison gathered and emphasized the necessity to re-organise the broken forces that had fallen back on the town. Once their numbers were known, these men were formed into companies and battalions with officers appointed to command them; of the nine regiments that retreated from Down and Antrim, the colonels of only two had thus far came to Coleraine. Lundy assured them that the forces of Derry, Donegal and Tyrone were marching to support them and that Lord Blaney with his men were also on the march, from the south of the province. Once these units were in place there would be a considerable body of men in Coleraine which Lundy considered ‘a good post and easy to be kept, considering their number and the strength of the place’.

   A plan for the defence of the town was drawn up. While the garrison would be posted in Coleraine itself, the remainder of the force would deploy along the Bann to oppose the Jacobites if they attempted to cross the river. The latter element should be no more than an hour’s march away so that it could move quickly to Coleraine if the town were to come under attack. Lundy’s proposals seemed to have impressed the officers so much that they urged him to stay and command the garrison as governor but he told them that he could not do so, although Colonel Hamilton would return to command in two days’ time. This seemed to pacify the bulk of the officers.

   However not everyone was happy, and some of the subaltern officers and almost all the soldiers ‘began to be very troublesome’. The soldiers claim to have been betrayed by their officers and drew up the drawbridge to prevent Lundy leaving the town, even threatening him with their weapons. Showing considerable coolness, Lundy asked them to put up their arms and explain their grievances to him. They had no satisfactory answer although the bridge was let down. Lundy was compelled to stay all day to pacify the garrison and commented that he had never seen such disorder and distraction with ‘everybody running up and down like mad men’. Next day the garrison was still mutinous but still under arms, and Lundy, keen to return to Derry, had to ask Rawdon to place some of his reliable men on the bridge so that he could leave. Rawdon did so, but it was not until that night that Lundy was able, with considerable difficulty, to get away…..’


Extract from MS, The Siege of Derry: A Military History by Richard Doherty (page 47)


   Over 3,000 men were involved in the defence of Coleraine at that time under the command of Sir Tristram Beresford and Gustavus Hamilton.

   The enemy marched on the town on 28 March. They used three cannons protected by dragoons at the River and Blind Gate. Two cannons supported by a body of horse were used at King’s Gate. The attack only lasted for one day and the Irish army withdrew under cover of snowfall that night.

   One week later, on Sunday 7 April, the Irish army had crossed the Bann at Portglenone and there was a threat of the town being outflanked. Coleraine was evacuated and the refugees made their way to Londonderry city. The Coleraine Regiment of the citizens’ militia took part in the successful defence of Londonderry from 18 April until 31 July 1689. They were under the command of a Coleraine man, Colonel Thomas Lance.

   Ireland was used as a killing ground for the English who were opposed to the establishment of the Royal Catholic dynasty in their country. Despite that, the victory over James II and his forces at Londonderry and later at the Boyne and Aughrim is only celebrated in parts of the old province of Ulster.

Bridge Street Barracks


By the year 1709 a barracks was built in Coleraine to accommodate the garrison troops. The Barracks front occupied one third of Bridge Street and extended back as far as the location of the Methodist church. All that remains of this area now is the barracks square. That is the small car park located between Bridge Street and the Methodist church, just opposite Dunne’s car park.


Photo 6 Bridge Street Barracks


In 1717 the military establishment in Coleraine was three companies of foot. By 1772 the relationship between the regular soldiers and the townspeople had deteriorated. For example, on one occasion several people were sentenced to be whipped because of the quarrelling and abuse they used on garrison troops.


The Barracks and the Methodists


Although the Bridge Street Barracks had been offered for sale by public auction in 1774 the Methodists used it as a place of worship in 1776.

In July 1784 the 49th (Hertfordshire) Regiment, the Royal Berkshires later were deployed in Coleraine, Londonderry and West Ulster. In 1785 the barracks were still occupied. This time it accommodated two companies of the 5th Regiment, three companies of foot and a small detachment of the Royal Irish Artillery from 1793 – 1800 (Kerrigan, p246).


The Society of United Irishmen


In 1791, two years after the French Revolution, Wolfe Tone established The Society of United Irishmen. This was comprised of a group of dissident Presbyterians and Catholics. The Society’s aims included the ending of British rule in Ireland with armed French help if necessary.

   The 1793 Gunpowder Act that led to the dissolution of the Volunteers also forced the United Irishmen into armed insurrection in 1798 (Connolly, p569). That rebellion degenerated into a series of sectarian massacres on both sides. The 1803 rebellion never evolved beyond a general riot.

   Although the rebels captured Ballymoney on 6 June 1797, the United Irishmen never challenged Coleraine, but the Loyalists prepared for the worst again. The local gentry and businessmen raised the citizens’ militia again and formed the Coleraine Cavalry while others formed the Yeomanry Corps. Other local volunteer units were raised; these included the Moycosquin (Macosquin) Infantry, Coleraine Infantry, Dunluce Cavalry, Dunluce Infantry and the Cary Yeomanry. The Antrim Yeomanry Corps moved to Coleraine after losing the Battle of Antrim. This was a time when his treacherous tenants in Antrim had piked Lord O’Neill to death.

Coleraine also garrisoned many troops who were killed in subsequent battles and others were hung from the trees in St Patrick’s churchyard for breaking the law. The first execution in the town took place on 25 June 1797 when a Ballymoney rebel was hanged.


The Pike Meeting House


There was a lane located 100 yards up Captain Street leading to the Presbyterian Meeting House. This building was the forerunner to Terrace Row Presbyterian Church. During the rebellion a stock of pikes was found in the roof space and under the floor. The place became known as The Pike Meeting House.


The Kilrea Guillotine


In Kilrea an enterprising mechanic had constructed a guillotine and after testing the infernal device on a few cats and dogs it was declared fit for purpose. A list of potential Protestant victims from the vicinity was drawn up and in the meantime the guillotine was kept in the Lisnagrats corn mill (McSkimin p33).


The Kerry Militia


In 1796 the Kerry Militia were garrisoned in Coleraine. At that time the town had also raised the Coleraine 1st Company of Volunteers with Captain Richard Heyland in command.

There was a threat from the United Irishmen and eventually the Kerry Militia were implicated in that plot. The Somersetshire Regiment replaced the Kerry Militia in 1797. As the Kerry Militia passed through Stewartstown on 12 July between eight and ten of them were killed by a mob.


The Manx Fencible Regiment


On 10 May 1798 Lord Henry Murray was in command of the Manx Fencible Regiment garrisoned in Coleraine. At one stage of their campaign Lieutenant Kewley was ordered to move to Portrush and prevent the rebels escaping by boat (Manx Soc., Vol VI, p 18, N).

   On Saturday 9 June 1798, Lord Henry Murray, Colonel of the 2nd Royal Manx Fencibles marched out from Coleraine Barracks with part of his own corps, the Dunluce Cavalry led by Captain Macnaghten and the Dunluce Infantry led by Captain Stewart of Gracehill as well as two field pieces.

The force of 327 troops made their way to Ballymoney but met no United Irishmen so they contented themselves with burning down the houses of anyone connected with the rebels.

   During that period William Dunlap from Priestlands and Francis McKinley from Conagher were seized, tried for rebellion and hanged in St Patrick’s churchyard on 7 June 1798. The bodies were buried in Derrykeighan. Francis McKinley’s uncle James was the great-great-grandfather of William McKinley US President from 1897 to 1901.


The Duel


In 1800 the Armagh Regiment may have been garrisoned in Coleraine because on 21 January two Lieutenants had an argument at the Mess Dinner. Their affections for the Rector’s daughter were to remain unrequited but they fought a duel on the matter. Lieutenant Benjamin Hay of the Armagh Regiment was killed. He is buried in St Patrick’s graveyard (Mullin, 1979, p122).


The Freedom of the Town


In 1803 the Corporation of Coleraine conferred the freedom of the town on the Volunteers. The honour was paid to the members of the Corps of Yeomanry and Cavalry for their loyal conduct during the United Irishmen’s insurrection.


Northbrook Barracks


There was a second barracks in Coleraine. Dragoons (mounted infantry) were quartered in a mansion house at the rear of Northbrook Mills. That was located where the bus depot and railway station now are. The Northbrook Barracks were still in use in 1824.

Major James Stewart raised a local Corps of Pensioners in 1846. They probably made use of Northbrook Barracks because they were observed in 1847 drilling in a field adjoining the Ballymoney Road. The company strength at that time was fifty men (Mullin, 1979, p120).


The End of the Coleraine Garrison


The Northbrook mansion was offered for sale in 1849. After the Northbrook Barracks closed Coleraine ceased to be a garrison town. Between the years 1880 and 1889 the garrison strength in the whole of Ireland was maintained at 30,000. During 1881-1882 there were 50 permanent military garrisons and 50 part-time stations that could be raised to meet any threat (Hawkins, 1973). It was not until 1939 that Coleraine became a garrison town again.  

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