seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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The End of the Siege of Limerick

king-johns-castle-limerickAn 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)


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Execution of the Sheares Brothers

Brothers John and Henry Sheares, both Irish lawyers and members of the Society of United Irishmen, are executed in Dublin on July 14, 1798 during the Irish Rebellion of 1798.

The Sheares brothers are the sons of Henry Sheares, a liberal banker from County Cork who also sits in the Irish Parliament for the Borough of Clonakilty. Henry attends Trinity College, Dublin, buys an officer’s commission and then studies as a lawyer, being called to the bar as a barrister in 1790. John qualifies as a barrister in 1788.

In 1792 the brothers go to Paris and are swept away by the popular enthusiasms of the French Revolution. They meet leaders such as Jacques Pierre Brissot and Jean-Marie Roland, both of whom are to be executed in 1793. In particular they witness the introduction of the guillotine, on which 1,400 are to die in 1792. On the boat from France to England they meet Daniel O’Connell, then a student, who is disgusted by the increasingly bloodthirsty nature of the revolution. O’Connell remains an advocate of non-violence thereafter.

The brothers join the United Irish movement upon their return to Dublin in January 1793, when it is still legal, and John begins to write articles for the Press, a nationalist paper. However, France declares war on Britain, and by extension on Ireland, in February 1793. The Society’s initial aims of securing Catholic emancipation and universal suffrage are unsuccessful, amounting to the administration’s 1793 Relief Act. Its stance becomes more radical, and in turn the Irish administration fears a group inspired by France, banning it in 1794.

The Sheares brothers principally organise the movement in Cork, while continuing with their legal careers. A Mr. Conway, one of their keenest members in Cork, informs the administration of their activities. During 1793 the brothers also join the Dublin Society of the United Irishmen, where another spy, Thomas Collins, passes on their names. Their other two less famous brothers enlist in the British army and are killed in action. On the arrest of most of the United Irish “Directory” members in March 1798, John is chosen as a replacement on the approach to the outbreak of rebellion. His main act at this point is to decide on the date – May 23.

The Directory fatally stays in Dublin, where the United Irish have less support. Already quietly betrayed by Conway and Collins, John also befriends Captain Warnesford Armstrong from County Down, who claims to be a busy member of the party there. John never verifies this, and Armstrong informs the authorities of the brothers’ whereabouts, also appearing as a witness in the ensuing trial. They are arrested on May 21 and indicted on June 26.

Inevitably the brothers are tried on July 12, as the rebellion is at its height, and are hanged, drawn and quartered two days later outside Newgate Prison. Their lawyer is John Philpot Curran who, with Sir Jonah Barrington, obtain a stay of execution in the hope that Henry will recant, but the brothers are already dead. They are buried at Dublin’s St. Michan’s Church. Visitors are brought to their coffins on a tour of St. Michan’s vaults.

(Pictured: The coffins of the Sheares brothers in the crypt of St. Michan’s Church)