Seventeenth Century Sieges

This led to the first of the four major sieges of the city in the seventeenth century. The Protestants of the city and some who had fled from the county, about 800 in all, took refuge in the castle where they were besieged by the Confederate forces under the Munster leader, General Garret Barry. The siege lasted for five weeks from mid-May to late June 1642 when the garrison surrendered and all the besieged were guaranteed safe passage to Cork. Control of the city was an important morale boost as well as of strategic significance for the Confederates who soon controlled the entire county with the exception of the castles at Askeaton and Lough Gur. Though it was a relatively short siege, it led to a high death toll; as many as 300 died, mainly from malnutrition and disease.

A similar situation arose during the next siege in 1651. This was in the aftermath of Cromwell’s brief and decisive military campaign, in which he had intended to include the capture of Limerick, but events in England and Scotland led to his return and it was his son-in-law Henry Ireton who laid siege to the city in June 1651. The split among the confederates had been particularly intense in Limerick with the more extreme faction dominant and this was a major factor prolonging the siege when it was clear that there was no hope of victory. As in 1642 hunger, disease and plague were the decisive factors which eventually led to surrender in the following October. It is estimated that about 5,000 died. The terms obtained seemed relatively generous: The garrison was allowed to march out, though without arms, the commander Hugh O’Neill was pardoned while the inhabitants were promised protection of life and property. However twenty-two others, regarded as the leaders of the resistance, were executed. Ireton himself died in the city in the following month probably from plague also. For the next five years the city was ruled by a military governor and even when the Corporation was restored it meant that a new oligarchy, English and Protestant, would henceforth control the government of the city. While the plan to expel all Catholics from the city was never implemented, economic and political power was taken from them as it was from the remaining Catholic landowners of the county. It has been suggested that the term Irishtown derives from the confinement of the Catholics there at this period.


Limerick prospered during the restoration period largely due to the influence of Roger Boyle, Earl of Orrery, who was President of Munster, Governor of Limerick and Constable of the Castle and had acquired considerable property in both the city and county. Orrery vigorously promoted trade and manufacture and in particular introduced Dutch settlers to the area. In 1673 one of these, William York, then beginning the first of three terms as Mayor of the city, had the Exchange built at his own expense. While they had lost political power, Catholics prospered through trade and enjoyed the practical toleration in religion which was a feature of the period.

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