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A Forgotten Siege: The Castle Of Limerick |

A Forgotten Siege: The Castle Of Limerick

The Castle of Limerick, renowned for its sieges, faced a forgotten one in 1642. Led by General Purcell, the Catholic army confronted the garrison commanded by Captain George Courtenay. Despite being outnumbered, the garrison, consisting of soldiers and English families, held out within the castle for over five weeks. Continuous assaults, disease, and famine took a toll. Eventually, the castle walls crumbled from Irish mines. Realizing further defence was futile, Captain Courtenay surrendered. The garrison received quarter and accommodation in the town. This lesser-known siege highlights their unwavering resolve. The recently discovered manuscript sheds light on this overlooked chapter of Limerick’s history.

The ancient city of Limerick holds historical fame primarily due to the two sieges it endured at the hands of the Williamites, as well as the renowned Treaty that brought an end to the latter siege. Throughout its many centuries of existence, Limerick had faced several previous brutal assaults, from the time when Mahon and his heroic and more famous brother, Brian Boru, drove the Danes out of the city their ancestors had built, to the relentless siege of 1651, when the savage Treton drenched its noblest defenders’ blood through the streets.

For nine years preceding this date, the city had been under the control of the Confederate Catholics. The story of how it fell into their hands is recounted in a recently read paper presented before the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland by M.J. McEnery, MRIA. The paper provides a brief yet accurate summary of the events leading to the formation of the Catholic Confederation and concludes with the publication, for the first time, of a manuscript preserved in Trinity College Library, entitled: “A Relation or Diary of the Siege of the Castle of Limerick, by the Irish, from May 18 to June 23, 1642.”

At the outbreak of the Rebellion, Munster showed no visible signs of disaffection. It was under the strict rule of Sir William St Leger, the Lord President, who was, in turn, dominated by the crafty and unscrupulous Earl of Cork. Initially, there was no inclination among the nobility or gentry of Munster to support the uprising. In fact, several prominent gentlemen of influence, including Lord Muskerry, hastened to offer their services to the Lord President, only to be rudely rebuffed. Deeply offended, they withdrew and soon received the moderate manifesto of the Catholic Lords of the Pale, outlining the reasons for the Confederation and its objectives.

Treated with suspicion and disdain by the government, the Munster gentry, connected by religious and family ties and sharing common grievances with the Lords of the Pale, began to arm themselves and raise forces among their relatives and tenants. Lord Mountgarrett, who had initiated the revolt in Leinster and seized Kilkenny, was invited to Munster. As he advanced through Tipperary, he was joined every day by fresh bodies of the Catholic gentry and their retainers. However, a dispute for leadership erupted between him and Lord Fermoy, causing Mountgarrett to return to Kilkenny in disgust. Eventually, the Munster Catholics elected General Barry as their commander, and under his leadership, Lord Muskerry and General Patrick Purcell served. Most of the Southern Province swiftly fell under their control, with only the garrison cities of Cork and Limerick, along with a few other fortified places, resisting the Confederates. Lord Inchiquin repulsed them before Cork, subsequently earning infamy as Morrough of the Burnings. Turning north, they advanced to Limerick, where the citizens opened the gates and welcomed the Catholic forces, while the garrison sought refuge within the castle.

The imposing Norman fortress, built by King John, stood as a stronghold of great strength and had long dominated the city. After the suppression of the Desmond rebellion, it had fallen into decay but underwent extensive repairs during the reign of James I. In a report to Carew in 1611, Sir Josias Bodley mentioned, “At the King’s Castle at Limerick, the foundation of the round towers was so undermined with the continual beating of the river against them, the half towers at the gate and the rest of the wall being in like manner ruined, all of which I caused substantially to be repaired, as also the munition house and other parts of the castle. And as the whole structure, shaped like a square, had only three towers at three of its corners, with the corner facing the town remaining unfortified, having neither ditch nor other outwork to hinder the enemy’s approach to the very foot of the wall, I thought it necessary to construct a bulwark at that vulnerable corner, made of hewn stone and equal in height to the existing wall, capable of holding five or six pieces of ordnance, and to dig a ditch around the entire structure, cutting off all access save by a drawbridge.” This new bulwark would endure the fiercest assaults during the siege of 1642.

When the Catholic army, commanded by General Purcell, entered Limerick, the garrison was under the control of Captain George Courtenay, a younger son of Sir William Courtenay from the noble house of the Earls of Devon. Faced with hostile citizens, Captain Courtenay withdrew with his soldiers and the English families within the city into the castle. He had under his command sixty-eight men from his own company, twenty-eight warders, and around two hundred civilians, not including women and children. This small force barricaded itself within the Castle of Limerick shortly after noon on Wednesday, May 18th, and despite being surrounded and attacked by vastly superior numbers, it stubbornly held out for over five weeks.

General Purcell summoned Captain Courtenay to surrender, but the English captain, relying on the strength of the castle’s walls, refused to negotiate, hoping that relief would arrive in due course. The firing commenced, but initially, its effectiveness was limited. The diary recorded, “None within the castle were hurt that day or night, except for one poor old woman killed outside the castle half an hour after our arrival.” On the second day of the siege, “The enemy launched fiercer attacks, and from the adjoining castle (on Thomond Bridge), they killed John Skegge, a little girl and boy, and injured three women and children. A bullet shot from the enemy rebounded from the wall and landed in a boy’s mouth without causing harm, and the boy laughed.” The diary continued to chronicle casualties day by day, although they paled in comparison to the deaths caused by disease and famine, which soon began to afflict the crowded and ill-provisioned garrison.

Due to the houses of the town being built so close to the castle walls, the Irish are always able to fire from under cover and, undetected, commence undermining the bulwark fortifications. The hopes of the gallant little garrison are briefly raised by the appearance of three English warships in the Shannon River. However, from their positions on Thomondgate Hill, the Irish maintain such a strong and well-directed fire that the ships are forced to keep a respectful distance throughout the siege and can render no aid to their friends in the castle.

Around the middle of the siege, General Purcell once again proposes terms. They send a letter to Captain Courtenay, which is brought in by a mute servant girl, as the castle trusts no one else to leave. The substance of the letter persuades Captain Courtenay to surrender the castle into their hands, mentioning honourable terms to spare the shedding of Christian blood, advance their religion, suppress “Puritanism,” and deal with the “round heads” (the first time they hear this name). No answer is given to this summons, and the siege continues.

Soon, huge cracks appear in the castle walls, the result of the Irish mines, and on June 21st, the upper part of the bulwark falls down almost as low as the sally port door. It is seen that the mines underneath have been fired. Captain Courtenay, realizing the futility of further defence, asks for terms, which are granted on the following day. The garrison and others in the castle receive quarter for their lives and goods, and accommodation is provided for them and their necessities in the town until arrangements can be made to transport them all to Cork. These terms are faithfully observed, and the diary states, “We receive civil usage from the soldiery, and our former acquaintances in the townland pay us kindly visits.”

How different the conduct of Cromwell is when the city surrenders to him nine years later. He expels all the inhabitants, confiscates their property, and shows no mercy, including hanging General Purcell.

Limerick Echo – Tuesday 02 August 1904

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