On this day in history: 27th Oct 1651
Limerick City surrenders to the armies of Cromwell after a 6 month siege.
Limerick was sieged twice during the Irish Confederate Wars between the alliance of Irish Confederate Catholics and English Royalists fighting against the English Parliament. The second and largest was during the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland in 1650–51. Limerick was one of the last fortified cities held by the Irish alliance with the garrison being led by Hugh Dubh O’Neill, nephew of Owen Roe O’Neill and comprised of approx. 2,000 men. O’ Neill surrendered to Henry Ireton (son in law of Cromwell) on 27th Oct 1651 after a protracted and bitter 6 month siege.
Over 2,000 soldiers of Cromwell’s army were killed at Limerick, and Ireton died of Plague only one month after the siege had ended. The Irish lost approximately 700 soldiers, but it is estimated that close to 5,000 civilians died in Limerick, many from starvation and disease.
Preface to the battle:
Cromwell’s Army was in control of most of the eastern part of Ireland, forcing the Irish Confederates west of the River Shannon to Athlone, Galway, and Limerick. Cromwell then left Ireland in May 1650 and left command of his army to 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. He approached Limerick with over 8,000 men and 28 siege guns but because the defensive positions were so strong, he 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. He also began to build artillery earthworks to bombard the cities defences. He attempted an amphibious attack across the river on 23 June but this failed after a counter attack by O’Neill and left almost 100 English. This convinced Ireton that it was best to starve O’Neill out.
A force of approx. 3,000 men was sent to relieve Limerick by Viscount Muskerry from Mallow, Co Cork in early July. This met an army sent by Ireton with 2,000 men to guard his flank, and they clashed at Knocknaclashy, Co Cork on 12 July. Ireton’s forces (under Broghill) heavily defeated Muskerry’s forces, killing close to 500 as they fled. There would be no relief for Limerick from the outside.
O’Neill’s hoped that if he could hold out, bad weather and disease would force Ireton to withdraw. To stretch his supplies to last longer, O’Neill sent the town’s elderly and children out of the city. Forty of the civilians were killed by Ireton’s army and the rest sent back into the town. At this stage 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. O’Neill began to feel pressure from within to surrender. One of O’Neill’s subordinates, Colonel Fennell led a mutiny, seizing Limerick’s south-eastern gate. This gave Fennell control of some cannons and he threatened to fire on O’Neill’s men unless they surrendered. O’Neill had no choice but to surrender. The siege ended on 27th October in 1651.
The towns people were spared and many of the garrison soldiers were allowed to march to Galway, which was still holding out, after surrendering their arms. Most of the commanders were executed, including Fennell. O’Neill was spared and sent to London where he was imprisoned in the Tower until 1653.
Blessed Terence Albert O’Brien (last Bishop of Emly) was executed immediately after the siege. He had urged resistance while treating the wounded and supporting the soldiers and civilians throughout the siege. He was denied the amnesty offered to the others by Ireton was executed on 31st October.