An alliance of Irish Confederate Catholics and English Royalists led by Hugh Dubh O’Neill surrender to Henry Ireton on October 27, 1651 after a protracted and bitter siege of Limerick during the Irish Confederate Wars.
By 1650, The Irish Confederates and their English Royalist allies have been driven out of eastern Ireland by the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland. They occupy a defensive position behind the River Shannon, of which Limerick is the southern stronghold. Oliver Cromwell himself had left Ireland in May 1650, delegating his command of the English Parliamentarian forces to Henry Ireton. Ireton moves his forces north from Munster to besiege Limerick in October 1650. The weather, however, is increasingly wet and cold and Ireton is forced to abandon the siege before the onset of winter.
Ireton returns the following June with 8,000 men, 28 siege artillery pieces and four mortars. He then summons Hugh Dubh O’Neill, the Irish commander of Limerick, to surrender but is refused. The siege is on.
Limerick in 1651 is split into two sections, English town and Irish town, which are separated by the Abbey River. English town, which contained the citadel of King John’s Castle, is encircled by water and known as King’s Island. Thomond bridge is the only entrance onto the island and is fortified with bastioned earthworks. Irish town is more vulnerable, but is also more heavily fortified. Its medieval walls have been buttressed by 20 feet of earth. In addition, Irish town has a series of bastions along its walls, mounted with cannon covering its approaches. The biggest of these bastions are at St. John’s Gate and Mungret gate.
Due to Limerick’s fortification, Ireton does not risk an assault on its walls. Instead he secures the approaches to the city, cuts off its supplies and builds artillery earthworks to bombard the defenders. His troops take the fort at Thomond bridge, but the Irish destroy the bridge itself, denying the Parliamentarians land access to English town. Ireton then tries an amphibious attack on the city, which is initially successful, but O’Neill’s men counterattack and beat them off. After this failed attack, Ireton resolves to starve the city into submission and builds two forts on nearby Singland Hill. An Irish attempt to relieve the city from the south is routed at the battle of Knocknaclashy. O’Neill’s only hope is to hold out until bad weather and hunger force Ireton to lift the siege. O’Neill tries to send the town’s old men, women and children out of the city so that his supplies will last a little longer. However, Ireton’s men kill 40 of these civilians and send the rest back into Limerick.
O’Neill comes under pressure from the town’s mayor and civilian population to surrender. The town’s garrison and civilians suffer terribly from hunger and disease. Ireton finds a weak point in the defenses of Irish town and knocks a breach in them, opening the prospect of an all out assault. Eventually, in October 1651, six months after the siege had started, part of Limerick’s garrison mutiny and turn some cannon inwards, threatening to fire on O’Neill’s men unless they surrender. Hugh Dubh O’Neill surrenders Limerick on October 27. The inhabitants lives and property are respected, but they are warned that they could be evicted in the future.
The garrison is allowed to march to Galway, which is still holding out, but has to leave their weapons behind. However, the lives of the civilian and military leaders of Limerick are excepted from the terms of surrender. Catholic Bishop Terence Albert O’Brien, an Alderman and the English Royalist officer Colonel Fennell are hanged. O’Neill is also sentenced to death, but is reprieved by the Parliamentarian commander Edmund Ludlow and imprisoned instead in London. Former mayor Dominic Fanning is drawn, quartered, and decapitated, with his head mounted over St. John’s Gate.
(Pictured: King John’s Castle on King John’s Island, Limerick)