Ireland’s Wars: The 1651 Siege Of Limerick

The entire focus of the war in Ireland now turned, once more, to the city of Limerick on the banks of the River Shannon. Henry Ireton and his army, that would reach 8’000 strong at its most numerous, was outside the city walls by the middle of June 1651. Inside, apart from nearly 20’000 civilians, they faced 2’000 soldiers under the command of Hugh Dubh O’Neill.

Limerick was one of the great fortresses of Ireland. The Confederates had been able to take it 1642 largely because they never had to deal directly with much of its defences, having been let past the outer walls and water barriers by a supportive civilian population. But Henry Ireton would have no such assistance as he began his operation to take the city.

Limerick at the time was split into two distinct sections. English Town or King’s Island, so named because it was bordered on three sides by the Abbey River and on another by the Shannon, was the main bastion of defence. Accessible from the outside only by one bridge across the Shannon – Thomond Bridge – it contained King John’s Castle, the major fortification of the area. The rest of the city was comprised mostly of “Irish Town”, and was the larger urban area. The walls leading around it were old, but they were thick and well-built, containing numerous bastions where cannon could survey all approaches to the city gates. In possession of the city for over nine years, additional defences had been prepared by Limerick’s authorities, especially earthen ramparts to shore up the walls and make any bombardment aimed at them a rather useless gesture, unless it was from the heaviest of artillery.

Limerick then was a substantial defensive position, easily one of the best in the country. If held by a larger garrison and with more secure lines of supply and reserves, it is unlikely that Ireton would even have contemplated an attack on it. But the larger situation was now firmly set against the Royalists, and Ireton had many advantages.

Ireton needed Limerick taken. He had Athlone and he had a few other crossings over the Shannon. The campaign to take down Connacht could continue without Limerick. But the garrison inside needed to be neutralised. Control of the Shannon as a trade route needed to be secured. And, as a symbol of resistance, Limerick needed to be reduced and captured, if only to strike one last terrible blow at the heart of the Royalist cause in Ireland. Ireton had been forced to abandon an attempt on Limerick before. He was determined for that to not be repeated.

O’Neill was in dire enough straits. He had enough men to man the defences, but the population of the city was swollen with refuges, and the food supplies would not be enough to feed them all long term, never mind the threat of disease they brought with them. After the defeat at Kncoknaclashy, O’Neill would have known that he was on his own, with Clanricarde and Castlehaven unable (or unwilling) to help him. His only hope would have been to hold out until the weather turned in late autumn and winter, forcing Ireton to withdraw. It was a long time to hold out for. The only other hope was sudden intervention from outside sources, like the Duke of Lorraine, dreams that many people clung to desperately in these trying times.

Leaving subordinates like Charles Coote and Broghill to manage the war elsewhere, Ireton took personal command of the effort to take Limerick. Having men on either side of the river allowed him to cut off access to the city from any direction, but Ireton was initially determined to adopt an aggressive posture, and not just blockade. Forts and smaller castles on the outskirts of Limerick were attacked and taken quickly, barriers established, ships placed nearby in the river to prevent any resupply or escape.

When initial calls for surrender were rejected, Ireton pressed on, hopeful that a coup de main type assault on King’s Island might end the siege before it had even begun. Soon after establishing himself outside the walls Ireton sent regiments to launch a sudden attack on Thomond Bridge and the fort guarding it on the northern side of the river. The fort was taken with little loss, the Parliamentarians soldiers using basic grenades to clear a breach made earlier by artillery – the New Model Army had learned after Clonmel – but the bridge was a more difficult prospect. After the surviving defenders retreated back over it onto King’s Island, several spans were cast down, stopping the Parliamentarian assault in its tracks. Hugh Dubh was clearly no fool, and knew how to defend his keep.

Ireton however, was not dissuaded. He knew that if King’s Island fell, the rest of the city would probably give up very quickly. To that end, on the 23rd of June, he enacted one of the most daring operations of his tenure in Ireland: an amphibious assault on King’s Island.

Several hundred men and a unit of cavalry were detached for the task, to be carried out using some captured boats. With the aid of morning mist, they embarked across the river, hoping to catch the defenders by surprise.

Unfortunately, the invisibility offered by the mists could be both a positive and a hindrance, and in the course of crossing the river several of the boats became lost and failed to keep up. As such, only the vanguard, under a Major (or Colonel, depending on the source) Walker and his 100 or so men made it across at the allotted time. They valiantly attacked the defences, and gained some traction on the walls, the defenders presumably surprised by this unexpected assault. But Hugh Dubh quickly organised reinforcements for that section and a counter-attack, and the Parliamentarians soon found themselves overwhelmed. Walker and his men had to fall back to the shore, running smack dab into the other boats that had just landed and were disembarking their units. In the confusion, the Irish defenders were able to pour down musketry fire, and most of those on the beach were killed. The rest abandoned the effort and returned to the north bank.

Again, the Royalists had held. The casualties were not very heavy – maybe a hundred or so dead for the New Model Army, presumably less for the Royalists –  but the failure of the effort was enough to convince Ireton that Limerick could not be taken by such aggressive tactics: at least not without unacceptable loss. Ireton had been at Clonmel, and knew what a botched assault could mean.

To that end he switched tacks and decided to encircle, blockade and starve Limerick into submission. The operation became a siege proper, as Ireton had several forts constructed on either side of the city, along with a makeshift bridge that would allow him to cross from shore to shore to coordinate efforts easier.  Two of the larger forts were dubbed “Fort Ireton” and “Fort Cromwell”. They provided shelter for the men of the new Model Army, defence against any sallies, and a position from which to set up artillery. Not that such a thing did much good, the medium class of cannon Ireton having with him being unable to break through the reinforced walls of Limerick. He began to make moves to have heavier artillery transported, but that would take time, since boats would have to be used to get them there.

The situation within Limerick started to get more desperate, as the days, weeks and months dragged on, the siege settling down into an affair where little actual fighting occurred. Hugh Dubh had a great many mouths to feed and little food to do it with, and that was before fever and other disease began to spread like wildfire among the civilian population and his own soldiers. The death toll began to ramp up, and there was nothing to be done. Dissatisfaction with Hugh Dubh’s leadership, and the Royalist cause in general, began to increase to dangerous levels.

With little to do, and Broghill deflecting the only serious Royalist response in the south, Ireton busied himself elsewhere, taking troops into County Clare proper, setting up a base of operations in Bunratty (which had been liberated from Confederate control) from which to launch attacks on small bands of Royalist soldiers and Tories operating in the area, as well as seek out crops and cattle with which to feed his soldiers. He was partially successful, the Tories melting away whenever he got close and most foodstuffs in the area either already eaten or whisked away before he could get them.

The Parliamentarians were not hard up for supplies, and would get victuals from both land and seaward sources during this campaign, as well as reinforcement. But they suffered from the same afflictions that the people of Limerick did, with fever, dysentery and other common ailments of sieges ripping through the New Model Army as they lay camped outside the walls. The death toll was not gigantic – Limerick was certainly suffering more – but it was not inconsiderable. And it would only get worse as things remained as they were and the good weather vanished.

There were few things Hugh Dubh could do to provide a pro-active defence. His army was suffering from disease and both had to garrison the walls and ward off potential trouble from the civilian population they were protecting. A number of sallies were made throughout the siege, that inflicted some damage on the Parliamentarians, but never in great numbers. They were just temporary surprise attacks, infantry moving out, firing, driving back the New Model Army for a time, but they could make no more headway than a short distance, especially in the face of the forts that Ireton had ordered built. Invariably the Parliamentarians would rally and counter-attack, and the Royalists would be obliged to rapidly retreat back behind the walls or over Thomond Bridge.

The fractures within Limerick’s population began to grow too large as August turned to September, and then to October, with no sign of relief or the promised reinforcements of the Duke of Lorraine (which, as we know, were never going to come). New civic leaders were picked during the siege, replacing hardliners with men who wanted to find a way out that didn’t involve a slaughter like that which had occurred at Drogheda or Wexford. With less hope of victory every day, they began to put more pressure on Hugh Dubh to seek terms.

He refused, still hoping that the city, despite the loss to disease and the shortening of supplies, could hold out. He had attempted to expel a number of civilians from the city, to lessen the threat of starvation and disease, but Ireton refused to allow them passage, ordering them back inside the walls and killing a number when the attempt was made again. But still, Limerick held on, with the eyes of so many throughout Europe – Clanricarde, Cromwell in Scotland, Ormonde in Paris, negotiators with Lorraine in the Low Countries, the Pope – fixed upon it and whatever result would come. If it could hold, the cause might have some hope heading into the new year.

In October, three events of consequence finally pushed the affair to a decision. The first, and arguably most important, was news from Scotland. Many hoped that Charles Stuart and his Covenanter allies might beat back Cromwell and invade England. While that faction had no love for the Catholic Irish, any enemy of the Parliamentarians had to be considered a friend at that desperate time.

In August Charles Stuart had gathered an army and advanced on England. He was numerically inferior to the forces that Cromwell controlled, after the defeat at Dunbar the previous year, but hoped that by simply moving into northern England he could rally people to his cause and increase the size of his army, ready for a climactic showdown with Cromwell and then (hopefully) a victorious march south. It was, in truth, a desperation manoeuvre from the young man, who saw the war in Scotland slipping away from him in the face of unanswered Parliamentarian success and a malaise in operations.

This campaign resolved itself on the 3rd of September 1651, at the Battle of Worchester. Cromwell inflicted a decisive defeat on the Scottish Royalists, perhaps the most brilliant of his military career despite his advantage in numbers – many of his troops were inexperienced militia who fought courageously under his leadership. The Scottish army was practically annihilated, those who did not die becoming prisoners. One of the few escapees was Charles Stuart himself, his cause now in ruins through sheer lack of men. After many (mis)adventures, he managed to escape Scotland and head back to the continent, a King in exile once more. The Parliament forces advanced through a now mostly undefended Scotland. The Civil War in Britain was coming to an end.

Ireton made sure that news of the Worchester campaign got into Limerick, through informers, news sheets and anyone else who wanted to tell Hugh Dubh of it. He would naturally have been suspicious of such news at first, but the cavalcade of confirmation would have assuaged those doubts soon enough. The Royalist cause had received a blow from which it would most likely not recover, certainly not in time to do anything to help Limerick. The movement was doomed.

That set off the fears of the civilians who wanted out of the war, and even a number of soldiers under Hugh Dubh’s command who saw which way the wind was blowing. Past mid-October a group of them seized Limerick’s St John’s Gate, capturing its small compliment of cannon. They threatened to turn the guns on the defenders if Hugh Dubh would not seek terms. It’s notable that they did not just throw open the gates to Ireton: they wanted surety they would not be butchered when the city fell.

The last blow was from Ireton himself. Having finally gotten heavy artillery in place and hearing word of what was happening in the city, he opened up a rudimentary breach in the exterior walls with a short bombardment. Storming parties were ready to make an attempt, but their services would not be required.

Facing mutinous troops, a diseased ridden garrison and population, a civilian authority that no longer supported him and no likelihood of relief, Hugh Dubh finally gave in, and signalled his willingness to discuss terms with Ireton.

Those terms were harsher than usual, but with the war rapidly coming to a close Ireton must not have felt like being merciful. The garrison would be allowed to march out, going north, but would leave all guns and supplies behind. The property of civilians would be guaranteed, but they could be expelled at any time. No provision was made for the toleration of Catholicism in any form.

Worst, a list of people was drawn up that were excluded from any terms, most of whom were executed soon after the agreement was signed. They included hardline political leaders from the city’s community, and several members of the clergy who were some of the only ones to keep urging a spirit of resistance. Many of them suffered the grisly fate of being hung, drawn and quartered, settling Ireton’s remembrance in the area as a bloodthirsty and revengeful tyrant. Hugh Dubh was allegedly on the list too – Ireton would never forget the Parliamentarian dead at Clonmel – but he was eventually just made a prisoner and sent to London.

Limerick was finally surrendered on the 27th of October, roughly 136 days after the siege had first started. The amount of people who died during the siege is unknown. Certainly more civilians than soldiers died, maybe as many as 5’000. Maybe as many as 2’000 Parliamentarians died, mostly from disease, along with roughly 700 or so of Limerick’s garrison.

The siege had not been, in any way, a spectacular event. The initial attempts to end it quickly had failed rather limply, and from there it was mostly just a blockade, with the inevitable consequences doing the rest. Hugh Dubh had too much going against him to have won out, and Ireton, in the end, had to do little more than wait until the forces of nature and the garrison’s internal division did what was necessary. It would not be the most dramatic military affair in the area in that century.

Its effect was fairly catastrophic though. In combination with Worchester, the fall of Limerick essentially ended the Civil Wars as a contest. Now the Parliamentarians had numerous footholds over the Shannon, controlled that rivers estuary and had taken all of the Royalist fortifications of consequence. The only thing that the Royalist conventional forces controlled was the under-populated and strategically worthless heartland of Connacht, along with the city of Galway, now that factions last remaining urban centre of any real value. The road to conquer all of those areas had already been opened, but Limerick’s capture ensured that the Parliamentarians would now be able to finish the matter far earlier than previously, as even if the weather now turned bad they would have a suitable holding for resupply and winter quarters for the New Model Army, and could commence the final march into the western province as soon as the weather cleared.

That final effort to end the war in Ireland would now go ahead, but without the man who had made it possible. In the aftermath of Limerick’s surrender, Ireton came down with the same fever and dysentery that had assaulted much of his army, the physical pressure of command hardly the best environment in which to combat disease. According to the memoirs of subordinates, he had run himself ragged during the siege of Limerick, rarely even changing his clothes, and upon falling sick continued to try and maintain his previous working habits. His health deteriorated rapidly in the days and weeks after the surrender of Limerick, until he was eventually bedridden and incapable of command. Delirious, he died on the 26th of November, the leadership of the army passing to Edmund Ludlow. Ludlow had been sent to Ireland to lead the effort to reorganise the civic administration of the land, and had probably not been envisioned as a leader of the army, but his task was not a very difficult one going forward.

Ireton’s efforts in Ireland were very much a mixed bag after his appointment to lead the New Model Army. He had, perhaps, been too cautious and slow moving in some of his operations. And during his tenure the Tory issue started to reach really troublesome levels. His first great offensive had petered out rather limply with the Shannon defensive line remaining intact, and it was only due to battles at which he was not present – Scarrifholis, Tecroghan, Meelick Island and Knocknaclashy – that it was weakened enough to be broken when he tried again. Still, the taking of Athlone and Limerick, not to mention his crossing of the Shannon to do so, were notable achievements, that marked the remainder of the Royalist cause in Ireland for destruction. Ireton would not live to see it, but he had played his part. Always more of a politician than a soldier, his reputation in Ireland would be a negative one.

Even as Ireton had been camped outside Limerick, his subordinates elsewhere had been continuing the war effort. Charles Coote had already done much in this war, but he wasn’t finished yet.

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

This entry was posted in History, Ireland, Ireland's Wars, Limerick, War and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The 1651 Siege Of Limerick

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