Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army had taken control of the eastern part of Ireland, forcing the Irish Confederates west of the River Shannon to Athlone, Galway, and Limerick. Cromwell left Ireland in May 1650, leaving the army under the command of his son-in-law, Henry Ireton. After a failed attempt to take Limerick in October 1650, Ireton spent the winter preparing for a new offensive.
Limerick in 1651 was divided into two sections, Englishtown to the north which was surrounded by water and Irishtown to the south. Though Irishtown was the weaker of the two, it had formidable defensive walls. The garrison was led by Hugh Dubh O’Neill, nephew of Owen Roe O’Neill and was comprised of approximately 2,000 men. Ireton approached Limerick with over 8,000 men and 28 siege guns. Because of the superior defensive position of O’Neill Ireton decided that an attack on the city walls would be futile. Instead he secured the access roads to the city in order to cut off its supplies and began to build artillery earthworks to bombard the cities defenses. A failed amphibious attack on 23 June which left almost 100 dead convinced Ireton that it was best to starve the Confederates out.
Ireton built two forts, Fort Ireton and Fort Cromwell on nearby Singland Hill. A relief force was sent towards Limerick by Viscount Muskerry in early July. Muskerry marched with 3,000 men from Mallow, Co Cork. He met Lord Broghill, sent by Ireton with 2,000 men to guard the army’s flank, in Knocknaclashy, Co Cork on 12 July. Though they were outnumbered, the forces under Broghill successfully routed Muskerry’s forces, killing close to 500 as they fled. Limerick would not be relieved from the outside.
O’Neill’s only hope was to hold out until bad weather and disease forced Ireton to leave the field. To enable his supplies to last longer, O’Neill attempted to send the town’s old men, women and children out of the city. Forty of the civilians were killed by Ireton’s army and the rest sent back into the town. O’Neill began to feel pressure from the town mayor to surrender. The population was starving and a plague caused further suffering. Ireton had been battering the walls of Irishtown and many felt they were in imminent danger of failing. One of O’Neill’s subordinates, Colonel Fennell led a mutiny, seizing Limerick’s south-eastern gate. Fennell had control of some cannons and turned them against O’Neill. O’Neill had no choice but to surrender. The siege ended on this date in 1651. The towns people were spared and many of the troops were allowed to leave after surrendering their arms. Most of the commanders were executed, including Fennell. O’Neill was spared and sent to be imprisoned in London. The Parliamentarian forces lost over 2,000 men during the siege, including Ireton who died of the plague a month after the city fell. The Confederates lost approximately 700 men, but it is estimated that close to 5,000 civilians died in Limerick, many from starvation and disease.
Photo: King John’s Castle, Limerick