Conference examines sieges of Limerick

Mike Dwane


Mike Dwane

Horses flee an artillery explosion in a detail from Granagh artist Ester Barrett's painting Siege of Limerick, based on the Williamite assault of 1691
When did the Danes last invade Limerick? Which former mayor was hung, drawn and quartered, his head mounted at John’s Gate? And why was the city spared the dreadful fate suffered by Drogheda and Wexford at the hands of Cromwell’s Roundheads?

When did the Danes last invade Limerick? Which former mayor was hung, drawn and quartered, his head mounted at John’s Gate? And why was the city spared the dreadful fate suffered by Drogheda and Wexford at the hands of Cromwell’s Roundheads?

The answers to these and other questions will be provided in a conference next weekend dedicated to the sieges of Limerick during the 17th century.

Practised in the Art of War: Limerick Sieges, 1642 to 1691 is being hosted by the Thomond Archaeological and Historical Society and is supported by Limerick City of Culture. It takes place at Absolute Hotel from October 3-5.

Limerick was besieged four times in the space of 50 years, the first in 1642 when Catholic Confederates successfully laid siege to Protestant settlers who had taken refuge inside King John’s Castle following the outbreak of rebellion a year before.

The 1651 Siege of Limerick led by Cromwell’s son-in-law Henry Ireton was part of the payback for that rebellion and saw the lot of Catholics in Limerick greatly reduced.

And there were two sieges during the Williamite wars, the first of which in 1690 saw King Billy’s men repulsed by Sarsfield and the Jacobites, before Limerick fell in a second siege the following year. That the conference will attract speakers from overseas - including Kjeld Hald Galster of the Royal Danish Defense College - reflects the international dimension of the sieges of 1690 and 1691.

Those battles were not just about whether Ireland would be Catholic or Protestant, or even whether James II would be restored to the English throne - but were part of the wider rivalry in Europe between William of Orange and France’s absolute monarch Louis XIV.

“A key point about the 1690 and 1691 sieges is the extraordinary number of foreign troops there,” said Liam Irwin, former head of the history department at Mary Immaculate College and himself a member of the Thomond Archaeological and Historical Society.

“You had a huge French army supporting the Jacobites and Sarsfield and then on William’s side you had Danes, English, Dutch and you had the Brandenburg regiment - an incredible diversity of European soldiers fighting in Limerick. And all the eyes of Europe were on Limerick and aware of what was going on there and looking at what the outcome would be. Limerick was going to be, you could almost say, pivotal to the future of European politics because if William had lost that could have changed things throughout Europe,” said Mr Irwin.

“It is a fascinating time but complicated from our vantage point today. You have things like the Pope, of all people, being on the side of William of Orange. The Pope was more afraid of the power of France on the continent. He actually was quite pleased that William was winning so you have all these seeming contradictions.”

While events in Limerick reverberated around Europe, Mr Irwin’s own talk as part of the conference will focus on the local and national impact of the various sieges.

“The result of the 1642 siege is that Limerick is in the hands of the Confederate Catholics right up until the time of Cromwell. Then in 1651, after Ireton and the Cromwellians besiege Limerick from the outside and capture it, the result is disastrous for the Catholics. They are expelled form the city. Limerick Corporation is abolished. You have religious persecution and dire consequences as a result of that, “ said Mr Irwin.

That there was no widescale slaughter as seen in Drogheda and Wexford may be down to the absence form the field of battle of Cromwell himself or more likely, according to Mr Irwin, the fact that the forces of the English Parliament are on a mopping up exercise by the time they reach Limerick, the war already won.

“Perhaps they didn’t feel the need to make an example of Limerick by that stage”, he said, although an exception was made in the case of Dominic Fanning, the Mayor of Limerick whose resistance saw him hung, drawn and quartered. Nor would Ireton himself survive Limerick, dying from plague contracted during the siege. Disease, said Mr Irwin, killed many more than the fighting itself in 1641.

Mr Irwin will also speak on the outcome of the 1691 siege and says the popular belief that the Treaty of Limerick was dishonoured with the ink scarcely dry is “only partially true”. The military surrender was generous and “honoured in full” but the civilian treaty - particularly about religious freedom - was not. But this Mr Irwin attributes less to William of Orange than to the Protestant-dominated Irish Parliament which would go on to introduce the penal laws.

The conference gets underway on Friday, October 3 with an afternoon tour of King John’s Castle led by the archaeologist Ken Wiggins.

That evening, Mr Galster will deliver a keynote lecture on Danish involvement in the 1690-91 sieges at the Absolute Hotel. This will be followed by a wine reception and the unveiling of an impressionistic painting - Siege of Limerick - by Granagh artist Ester Barrett.

A full programme of lectures takes place on the Saturday, with eight academics and historians expanding on subjects such as the international flavour of the sieges, the transition from medieval to modern siege techniques, battlefield archaeology, logistics of seventeenth-century campaigning and the effects of the sieges on Limerick’s citizens.

A conference dinner will take place on Saturday evening.

And on Sunday morning, Limerick City Museum’s Brian Hodkinson

and conflict archaeologist Damien Shiels will lead a walk around the walls of Limerick with an emphasis on the Irishtown defences where the famous breech was successfully defended in 1690.

Anyone interested in the conference can get full details and download a booking form from the City of Culture website, from or from Daniel Tietzsch-Tyler at Although people can turn up on the day, participants are encouraged to register in advance, particularly those interested in the conference dinner.