Limerick endured three major sieges during the seventeenth century. In each case they were part of vital military campaigns which would determine not just the fate of the city itself but of the entire country. It can also reasonably be argued that they had important implications for British and European history as they involved both directly and indirectly such major figures as Oliver Cromwell, King William of Orange, Louis XIV of France and the Papacy.
The Cromwellian siege of 1651 was an important element in the re-conquest of Ireland begun by Oliver Cromwell in August 1649 and continued after his departure the following year by his son in law, Henry Ireton. After the capture of Clonmel in May 1650, its heroic defender, Hugh O’Neill took command of Limerick city which was now the main centre of resistance.
Ireton began his blockade of the city early in June 1651. He occupied the area of the island field, outside the city walls. The siege lasted for almost five months during which time both the garrison and the citizens suffered greatly from overcrowding, hunger and disease. There was also considerable disagreement among the defenders on whether to agree to terms for surrender offered by Ireton but the hard line party prevailed, supported in particular by the intransigent bishop of Emly, Terence Albert O’Brien.
Though Ireton had failed to capture the city, the impossibility of withstanding the lengthy siege eventually led to the inevitable decision to surrender. In many respects Ireton gave generous terms: most of the defenders of the city, both military and civilian were allowed either to depart or if they promised to live peaceably could remain. A short list of those who it was argued had been responsible for prolonging the siege were exempted from pardon and sentenced to death though O’Neill was, surprisingly, not executed.
While there may have been some revenge killings in the immediate aftermath of the occupation of the city, the death toll was minuscule compared to the numbers who had died of hunger and disease during the siege itself, perhaps as many as 5,000. Much of this death toll could have been avoided by an earlier surrender and on the relatively generous terms which Ireton had offered at the start of the siege in June.
The Cromwellian control of the city resulted in the loss of political, social and economic power which the catholic merchants, both Old English and Irish had enjoyed. Despite the collapse of the Cromwellian regime in 1660 this power was not regained and the Protestant control of the city was to remain with the exception of the brief period of catholic resurgence in 1690.
The events which led to the two famous sieges in 1690 and 1691 were a direct result of what happened in England in 1688.
The King, James II, was a catholic and due to his unpopularity he was overthrown and forced to flee to France. His daughter and son in law, Mary and William of Orange, were invited to became joint rulers of his three kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland.
The ensuing war in which James, with French help, tried to regain his thrones was conducted entirely in Ireland due to the support which Irish catholics gave to the Jacobite cause. Irish protestants sided with William, the acknowledged champion of protestant Europe. This War of the Two Kings also had an important European dimension arising from the Grand Alliance which William had formed with Austria and the Holy Roman Empire against the expansionist policy of France.
The outcome of the war in Ireland was of importance to all the major powers in Europe with many of the catholic states and the papacy sympathetic to William rather than the catholic James, because of their resentment of French policies under Louis XIV.
William landed in Ireland in June 1690 and inflicted a decisive defeat on James at the Battle of the Boyne in July 1690. This battle, the most famous in Irish history, is still celebrated on the twelfth of July each year by Ulster protestants as the basis of their political and religious liberty.
After his defeat James returned to France leaving his Irish and French allies in disarray. The Jacobite forces retreated to Limerick where the Catholics had taken control. Deep divisions arose on whether the war should be continued or a negotiated settlement sought. After much acrimonious debate the views of the flamboyant cavalry commander, Patrick Sarsfield, prevailed and it was decided to defend Limerick.
Grave reservations were expressed about the ability of the city to withstand a siege most notably by the French commander, Lauzan, who felt that its old and decayed walls could be knocked down “with roasted apples”. William and his army set up camp on Singland Hill, half a mile outside the city in early August. His forces then advanced along the marshy ground towards the south east corner of the Irishtown walls near the present day St. John’s Hospital.
The heavy guns required for a siege together with ammunition and supplies, were proceeding slowly from Dublin to Limerick and had reached Ballyneety, fourteen miles south east of the city on August 11th. Patrick Sarsfield in a daring manoeuvre decided to intercept the siege train.
Taking a force of cavalry and dragoons and guided by a famous rapparee, Galloping Hogan, Sarsfield crossed the Shannon at Killaloe, followed an old road through the Silvermines and arrived undetected at the spot where the Williamite cavalcade was camped for the night. Having discovered that the password was his own name, he reputedly launched the attack by proclaiming ‘Sarsfield is the word and Sarsfield is the man’.
Two of the eight siege guns were destroyed as well as the ammunition, wagons and horses. It was a severe, though not a crushing, blow for the Williamites but its daring and skillful execution has given it a somewhat exaggerated fame. Apart from the limited long term military advantage it was accomplished through indiscriminate killing of soldiers, and carters together with their wives and children.
After a short delay, William began the siege of the city and after five days of bombardment, a breech was opened in the walls on August 25th. Two days later a full assault was launched and during many hours of heavy fighting the city was heroically defended.
The women of Limerick played a major role in the repulse of the attackers. In the words of a contemporary observer, they stood boldly in the breech, fighting with broken bottles and went nearer to the enemy than the soldiers. This unexpectedly strong resistance coupled with the lateness of the season, shortage of ammunition and bad weather led to the decision on 30th August to abandon the siege. Limerick had proved to be a major stumbling block to William’s plans to capitalise on his victory at the Boyne and quickly crush the Jacobite resistance. Both sides then withdrew behind frontier lines and William left Ireland, never to return.
Hostilites were resumed the following summer with the Dutch general, Ginkel, in command of the Williamite army.
The Jacobites suffered major defeats at his hands, Athlone was captured and the loss of the critical battle at Aughrim was exacerbated by the death of the French commander St. Ruth. This was followed by the surrender of Galway and a retreat to the last surviving stronghold of Limerick.
Ginkel began his assault of the city on September 8th 1691. He concentrated his attack from across the Abbey river on the walls of the Englishtown. A large breach was made in the walls followed by major fires and great destruction of houses within the city.
The citizens and defenders fought back resolutely, as they had in 1690, and no attempt was made to storm the town. The siege dragged on until the 22nd of September when the Williamites crossed the Shannon and attacked the city from the Thomond bridge side. Great casualties were suffered by the Irish especially when the castle drawbridge was prematurely raised by the French inside the walls.
On the following day, with great recriminations between the French and the Irish, it was decided to seeks terms for surrender. This culminated with the signing of the Treaty of Limerick on October 3rd 1691.
Much debate has occurred about the controversial decision to surrender, the terms of the treaty itself and its subsequent dishonouring.
In purely military terms the surrender was surprising: the Jacobites should have been able to hold Limerick and continue the war. It would appear that the explanation for the surrender is largely psychological, low morale leading to a loss of nerve.
Having made that decision it is arguable that they should have held out for better terms, both in regard to religious liberty and restoration of landed estates though it must be remembered that contemporary Protestant opinion held that the treaty was far too generous to Catholics.
In the event the Protestant Irish parliament prevented the limited concessions from being implemented and Limerick acquired the synonym, the city of the broken treaty. The stone on which this symbol of betrayal and broken promises was reputedly signed became and remains, the symbol of the city itself.