A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE APPRENTICE BOYS OF DERRY AND THE "DERRY CELEBRATIONS"
The first celebrations of the Relief of Derry took place on the Walls on that Joyous calm Sunday evening of July 28th 1689 when the starving citizens, who had endured such hardship for 105 days, crowded onto the ramparts to welcome Browning’s ships that had just broken the Boom across the Foyle. The first organised celebrations took place on Sunday, August 18th when a thanksgiving service was held in St.Columb’s Cathedral, thus establishing the pattern for all those, which had followed throughout the centuries.
On August 1st ex-Governor and Seige hero, Colonel Mitchelburne hoisted the Crimson Flag, the emblem of the city’s defiance, on the Cathedral steeple and afterwards he formed the club known as the Apprentice Boys. After his death the actual club appears to have gone out of existence but the celebrations continued in one form or another throughout the early 18th century. The resident garrison appears to have taken over the organisation of the events in August and December while the Defenders and their descendants participated by attending Divine Service at the Cathedral.
"The Londonderry Journal" of August 5th 1772, in just its eighth issue, recorded that the previous Saturday being the ever-memorable First of August there were uncommon demonstrations of joy in the City. The report mentioned processions to the Cathedral and a superb banquet in the Town Hall, along with illuminations, firings and other tokens of joy. In 1775 mention is made in the same newspaper of the Independent Mitchelburne Club and the fact that the same Club had participated in the Relief exercise. When the Centenary of the Relief was celebrated in 1789, Roman Catholic Bishop McDevitt and his clergy joined their Protestant fellow-citizens in their Thanksgiving Services."The Sentinel" Commenting on the absence of Roman Catholics from the December festivities of 1838 claimed in the editorial that "until a very recent period Catholics have joined their fellow citizens in commemorating the Shutting of the Gates.
Early in the nineteenth century the Apprentice Boys movement began to adopt a more definite role in the celebrations, The Apprentice Boys of Derry Clubs was founded in 1814 and a medal was struck, it is recorded that there was musketry firing from the Cathedral and volleys fired over the Gates. A practice that was to prove controversial in later days.
The No Surrender Club was formed in 1824 and there now appears to have been an increase in activity within the movement. Plans for the erection of Walker’s Memorial Pillar were finalised and Apprentice Boys took part in the Foundation Stone Ceremony in December 1826 when the Mayor and all leading citizens and military personnel officiated.
When the Mitchelburne Club was revived in 1854 there appeared to be an established "tradition" of "firing" on the celebration days. Each club possessed field pieces for this purpose. John Hempton, speaking at the soiree marking the December 1861 celebration, mentioned that "We have lately formed a governing assembly and have adopted a rule of alternate attendance at the Episcopal and Presbyterian Churches. Instead of the jovial Bottle and Glass soirees of our predecessors we have now this tea meeting, where each Apprentice Boy is able to introduce ladies to enjoy with him the festivities of the evening." This date obviously marks the setting up of the General Committee. The Clubs associated with this soiree were the Apprentice Boys, Mitchelbourne, Baker, Murray, Walker, Browning and Cairns, The latter appears to become defunct after this to be replaced possibly by the revived No Surrender, Campsie and Williamite Clubs continued to flourish until 1884 although their presence was not recorded at the famous 1861 gathering.
Attempts were made from time to time during the nineteenth century to prevent the celebrations in the interest of so-called "public order" but the Apprentice Boys always maintained their right to hold them. The 1860 August celebrations were memorable. The Party Emblems Act was passing through Parliament and Bishop Higgin decided that it was his duty to ban the flying of the Crimson Flag from the steeple and ring the bells of the Cathedral. The Apprentice Boys took over the Cathedral and observed their ritual customs, despite the Bishop's dictum and without interference from the police. The December 1860 event proved more unpleasant when a massive security presence was brought onto the City. The Apprentice Boys decided to relinquish their usual custom of firing the city guns but some dissentients decided to test the legality of the matter. Despite troop and police manoeuvres they managed to salute the closing of the Gates with fire from the Cathedral roof and the ancient ringing of the bells. Ironically a similar force was employed in 1861-on this occasion to protect the Apprentice Boys from the Bogsiders who wished to disrupt their festivities.
The 1870 December celebrations involved even more controversy when an even larger force of troops and R.I.C. men were drafted into the city to prevent the burning of the Lundy effigy. The town was sealed off, the walls occupied and the Governor of the Association, the famous John Guy Ferguson, was denied permission to hoist the Crimson Flags on the eve of the 18th, Despite this the 182nd anniversary of the shutting of the Gates was marked with cannon fire, hoisting of the flags and peeling of the customary joy of bells. When the Apprentice Boys met at the Corporation Hall in the Diamond they fought furiously with the police and managed to ignite an effigy of Lundy that had been kept in hiding. The 1871 Relief celebrations followed the same pattern with arrests and serious disorder- mounted police charged the ranks of the Apprentice Boys either-despite proclamations prohibiting processions in the City, they gathered for a Cathedral Service and later burnt Lundy from the Memorial Hall tower. Such was the spirit of our ancestors!
Governor Walker's fine Pillar. In recent times suffered a sad end when "mysterious " bombers sealed its fate, The truth has yet to be told about this serious incident but the headquarters of the Apprentice Boys Association at the Memorial Hall still survives despite repeated organised attacks, The foundation stone of this Hall was laid on the 12th August 1873. Underneath the foundation stone, in hermetically sealed tin cases were placed coins of that year, most recent issues of all local papers, copy of Hemton's "Siege and History of Londonderry" and parchment with names of committee etc. The baronial "Scottish style" building was opened on the 13th August 1877 at an estimated cost of £3,250 while the large extension was opened in 1937 at a cost of £30,000. All celebrations connected with the Siege centre around the Hall and all newly elected candidates for the brotherhood of the Apprentice Boys must be initiated here within the historic Wall of Londonderry. Most of the credit for the formation of the Apprentice Boys Association and the celebrations must go to the Siege Governor and hero Colonel John Mitchelburne. To him must be ascribed the distinction and honour of preserving trophies that were captured during the Siege and placing them in the Cathedral, the erection there of the first tablet commemorating the Siege, the giving to the city and the Apprentice Boys Club their own distinctive Crimson colour and flag, the formation of the first Apprentice Boys Club of which he was principal organiser and probably the first President, forerunner of later Governors, the planning of the earliest anniversary celebrations, the first hoisting of the Crimson Flag on the Cathedral tower.
The celebrations today and the Apprentice Boys Association in Londonderry have encountered much hostility from many sources but as with their ancestors the Apprentice Boys have held their ground and will continue with "God’s help" well in to the 21st century. In more recent times branches of the Apprentice Boys Parent Clubs have been formed in England and Scotland while for many years clubs have thrived in the Republic of Ireland. The "Troubles" of the last thirty years have witnessed a phenomenal increase in Apprentice Boys membership and general interest in the history of the Siege and the Association. It is obvious that people of the Reformed Faith are rallying to the Crimson colours in times of stress as their forefathers have done through out the centuries.