Ireland’s Wars: The 1642 Siege Of Limerick

The Confederate War, throughout its duration but especially in its early phases, would be a regional conflict, a fight where campaigns would be fought in provinces quite removed from one another, with armies and goals of a very different nature to others. Munster would be no exception.

The war came late to Munster. Catholics and Catholic land-owners were more hesitant to rebel in the province than anywhere else, though they joined in eventually. That might have had something to do with the plantation there, or the memory of many failed uprisings half a century before, or just a breed of nobles who, while largely Catholic, remained loyal to the crown in the form of the Pale government.  Some raids from south Leinster in late 1641 did occur, but overall the atmosphere was remarkably cool.

That changed when William St Leger, the Lord President of Munster, started a campaign of reprisals against people in his immediate area of control, Tipperary. Somewhat ironically, in his younger days, St Leger had been one of those on the boats leaving Ulster with Hugh O’Neill, but had since returned with pardon. The range of this campaign is very much in dispute, but most sources name him as a serious aggressor, albeit most sources with a pro-Irish, pro-Catholic stance. Whole his activities were probably not as bad as they are made out to be, they still enraged many. This, along with the news of the wider uprising and rebel successes outside Munster, had the effect of inflaming tensions further. Before St Leger knew what was happening, he had to flee to the relative safety of Cork City and its walls, as the Catholics of Munster formed into militias led by a plethora of nobles, including the Desmond FitzGerald’s, the Knights of Glin and the McCarthy Mor.

St Leger was helped by divisions in the rebel leadership in the area. No one, in those early months, was in overall command of the rebel position in the south and the failure to coordinate was much to the annoyance of people like the Viscount Mountgarrett, who found himself short-handed after expected troops from Munster did not get put under his watch. His main conflict was with Maurice Roache, the Viscount Fermoy. Neither man was willing to serve under the other or dilute their apparent areas of responsibility. Such problems would plague the Confederate war effort all the way to the end of the conflict.

Finally, in the Spring of 1642, a compromise was reached, when both men agreed to place Garrett (or Gerald in some sources) Barry at the head of the “Munster Army”. Barry is an interesting figure. Well into his 60’s in 1642, he was a long-time veteran of European armies. Originally from Cork, he had served under the employ of Spain in their wars in the Low Countries, and was quite an accomplished and respected soldier, having even written a book on the subject of instilling military discipline.

Barry was no hardcore Confederate. In fact, but for a twist of fate, he should not even have been in the country. In 1641 he had been granted dispensation to recruit regiments in Ireland for the Spanish crown, a practise that was tolerated by the English as it was seen as a means of removing potential troublemakers from the country, and was in the middle of trying to sort that out when the war came. Seeing an opportunity, he threw his lot in with the rebels, and soon found himself in a leadership position.

Barry will be a central figure during the early days of the Munster fighting. With experience in sieges on the continent, he seemed a natural choice to command the effort to try and capture Cork City, thereby dealing what may very well have been a fatal blow to the hopes of St Leger to contain the rebellion in the province.

The delay in sorting out a recognised chain of command was crucial. Irish forces had been prepared to besiege Cork, but the dispute over leadership had resulted in Mountgarrett simply withdrawing to Leinster to fight his own campaign. Further, St Leger had been able to get the support and men of Murrough O’Brien, the Baron Inchiquin. Inchiquin will be an important enough figure of his own accord, and his story will come in a later entry. For now, it is enough to say that the rebels missed a chance to corner and defeat St Leger when he had pitiful few troops to support him, and were forced to settle into a siege campaign weeks late when they finally got their act together.

The siege was a failure for the Irish. Though not as bloody a repulse as Drogheda had been, it was still another Confederate disaster. Despite the critical defection from the government side of Donough McCarthy, the Viscount Muskerry, the rebels could make no headway at all, unable to complete the investment or seriously threaten the defenders. After several weeks of siege, Inchiquin emerged in a sudden sortie, and with 300 musketeers was able to defeat the forward lines of the Irish and then send the rest of the encamped army into flight, leaving most of their baggage behind them.

Barry and the others were forced to back off and regroup. The entire Confederate campaign had thus far been an embarrassment for the overall movement, and the failure to even cause much of a threat to Cork showed up the deficiencies of the Irish very well. Faced with a well armed, resolute enemy, they just did not appear able to win. Barry was accused of lethargy and being slow to act, because of both his age and the daily stipend he was being awarded. Needing a success to buoy spirits, improve the rebel position and to secure vital resources, Barry and the others headed northward, to the banks of the Shannon.

It has been a while since I really talked about Limerick properly. The city had been a staple of English government for centuries, since the Norman invasion, and had a reputation as a tough garrison town. The city had largely avoided being a target of war and had acted in a mostly independent manner for generations, though never being a source of trouble for the crown (one thing I note in many sources is the focus on Kilmallock, south of Limerick City, as the major administrative centre and seat of government in the area throughout the previous century). This peace had made Limerick a prosperous and impressive city. The castle that marked the focal point of Limerick, built by King John long before in the 12th century, was one of the most impressive looking in the country, if no more sturdy than others. It had also never really been tested.

Limerick was a crucial point in Ireland. It commanded the Shannon River, a major transport and commerce route. As a centre of English control, it provided ways and means to exert power over much of the surrounding area. It would also have been a source of many supplies, including food, powder and guns.

And it was a far easier place to attack than Cork. Despite the long period of time where Limerick had been a loyal urban centre, its population was largely Catholic, and largely sympathetic to the rebels. When the rising began, you did not need to be a genius to see that Limerick could not safely be considered untouchable. When reams of Protestant refugees began to flee into the city for safety during the bloodletting of 1641, they saw quickly that they could not count on being able to defend Limerick for long, and retreated inside the more easily defensible walls of King Johns Castle, led by Limerick’s constable George Courtenay, and with an artillery piece for protection. Further, the Shannon was boomed several times over in order to prevent an assault from the river.

When Barry’s army did arrive at Limerick in late April/early May, the citizens threw the gates open and invited them in warmly. The castle, manned by several hundred, held out. Lacking the machinery to force a breach, and lacking enough men (and enough competence) to take the castle by assault, Barry fell back on an old siege tactic.

It would not be until 1990 that excavation work around King John’s Castle would uncover evidence of what happened there in 1642. The discovery of a series of tunnels, remarkably well preserved, provide a glimpse into the dark and dank conflict that was fought in the earth of Limerick, for five critical weeks.

Barry, using men from his army, the local populace and miners from Tipperary who had been caught in the city at the time of the siege, set to work digging tunnels under the castle in an effort to undermine its walls. He was aided by the number of buildings with high walls built around the castle, which provided cover for the initial work and a nearby location to start from. Such poor town planning would never have been allowed if Limerick had ever seen the scourge of war on the same regularity with other parts of the country.

The defenders, mindful of their own strengths and weaknesses, had already undertaken countermeasures before the siege started, digging a trench around the outskirts of the castle wherever they could  in order to foil mining schemes. A soon as they became aware of the tunnels being dug towards their position, the defenders began their own countermines.

This is one of the bleakest parts of historical warfare. The besiegers and defenders are in a race against each other in the dark, extending tunnels and propping them up with wooden stilts, ever mindful of a collapse that could leave either side buried without hope of rescue. The attackers hoped to dig their way under the walls and then collapse their tunnel, thereby creating a breach or even bringing down one of the castles towers. The counterminers hoped to intercept and destroy the opposing tunnel before it reached its objective.

The tunnels uncovered in the 1990s suggest that they were surprisingly wide, tall enough for a man to walk, albeit somewhat hunched over. The digging of the tunnels would have been long and torturous work, where progress was measured in inches.

After a few weeks of such activity, a victory was won by the defenders on June 7th: the first of the attacking mines breeched the previously dug trench, having failed to go deep enough to avoid it. The defenders, who appear to have had liberal access to water at this time, were able to flood the tunnel from on high, and Barry was forced to abandon that avenue, only six metres from the walls of the castle.

The Irish regrouped and began new efforts, eventually forming enough teams to have five tunnels heading towards the castles walls from different directions. Courtenay was starting to run short of supplies by this stage, not least wood to make secure tunnels, and was only in a position to try and intercept one of the mines, which could not be counted upon to breach into the trench a second time. Focusing on the one heading towards the eastern wall, he was able to intercept it on the 20th of June.

What must have been a terrifying fight broke out. The defenders lit a fire in the tunnel after forcing the breach and a gun battle broke out in the smoky darkness. The attackers were driven back leaving the defenders in control of both tunnels, which they promptly dismantled for the wood contained within them.

Things had reached a critical point. The Irish needed a success and seemed unable to get inside the walls, while the defenders couldn’t hold on forever. Crucially, it did not appear as if any kind of relief force was prepared to try and save the Limerick garrison, with St Leger and others still back in south Cork.

But then, even while the defenders were starting a new countermine with the recovered wood, disaster struck. In the 21st June the fifth of the attacking tunnels – one that has never actually been discovered but is known from written accounts, got under the northern wall of the castle. When destroyed, the northern corner of the castle collapsed with it. Later that day, a tunnel on the eastern side reached a similar goal. In the course of these collapses, the artillery piece the defenders held was toppled from its vantage point.

With two breaches now open and short of supplies, Courtenay was left with little option. Caught between a choice of negotiated surrender or a fight to the death, he choose to live. On the 23rd of June, the Irish entered the castle. The defenders were allowed to march out freely and depart, having lost over 50 men, probably from disease as opposed to military action.

It was a great triumph, both for Barry and the Confederates. Limerick was one of the largest urban areas in the country, third only to Dublin and Cork, and had fallen into the rebels hands without any major loss of life. Barry’s reputation was saved and the Irish could point to their first great success. In practical terms it was of far more worth than Julianstown and the city would remain in Irish hands for a long time to come, providing a base of operations in Munster and over the Shannon. The defenders simply lacked the numbers, supplies or local support to see out the siege, unlike the situation outside Cork City previously. They did the best they could and held longer than expected because of their efforts, but the result was inevitable the moment Barry began mining from all sides of the castle.

The loss of Limerick must have been a thunderbolt to St Leger and the rest of the government side. They would now put their faith in the hands of Inchiquin when it came to the Munster rebellion, and it would not be too long before he and Barry met each other in the field again.

Before that though, we have to go back north to Ulster, where the Irish rebels in the province were preparing for their first major engagement with the enemy.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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13 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The 1642 Siege Of Limerick

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