The Siege of Limerick

After his defeat at the Battle of the Boyne  James returned to France leaving his Irish and French allies in disarray. The Jacobite forces retreated to Limerick where the Catholics had taken control. Deep divisions arose on whether the war should be continued or a negotiated settlement sought. After much acrimonious debate the views of the flamboyant cavalry commander, Patrick Sarsfield, prevailed and it was decided to defend Limerick.

Grave reservations were expressed about the ability of the city to withstand a siege most notably by the French commander, Lauzan, who felt that its old and decayed walls could be knocked down "with roasted apples". William and his army set up camp on Singland Hill, half a mile outside the city in early August. His forces then advanced along the marshy ground towards the south east corner of the Irishtown walls near the present day St. John's Hospital.

The heavy guns required for a siege together with ammunition and supplies, were proceeding slowly from Dublin to Limerick and had reached Ballyneety, fourteen miles south east of the city on August 11th. Patrick Sarsfield in a daring manoeuvre decided to intercept the siege train.

Taking a force of cavalry and dragoons and guided by a famous rapparee, Galloping Hogan, Sarsfield crossed the Shannon at Killaloe, followed an old road through the Silvermines and arrived undetected at the spot where the Williamite cavalcade was camped for the night. Having discovered that the password was his own name, he reputedly launched the attack by proclaiming 'Sarsfield is the word and Sarsfield is the man'.

Two of the eight siege guns were destroyed as well as the ammunition, wagons and horses. It was a severe, though not a crushing, blow for the Williamites but its daring and skilful execution has given it a somewhat exaggerated fame. Apart from the limited long term military advantage it was accomplished through indiscriminate killing of soldiers, and carters together with their wives and children.

After a short delay, William began the siege of the city and after five days of bombardment, a breech was opened in the walls on August 25th. Two days later a full assault was launched and during many hours of heavy fighting the city was heroically defended.

The women of Limerick played a major role in the repulse of the attackers. In the words of a contemporary observer, they stood boldly in the breech, fighting with broken bottles and went nearer to the enemy than the soldiers. This unexpectedly strong resistance coupled with the lateness of the season, shortage of ammunition and bad weather led to the decision on 30th August to abandon the siege. Limerick had proved to be a major stumbling block to William's plans to capitalise on his victory at the Boyne and quickly crush the Jacobite resistance. Both sides then withdrew behind frontier lines and William left Ireland, never to return.

Hostilites were resumed the following summer with the Dutch general, Ginkel, in command of the Williamite army.

The Jacobites suffered major defeats at his hands, Athlone was captured and the loss of the critical battle at Aughrim was exacerbated by the death of the French commander St. Ruth. This was followed by the surrender of Galway and a retreat to the last surviving stronghold of Limerick.

Ginkel began his assault of the city on September 8th 1691. He concentrated his attack from across the Abbey river on the walls of the Englishtown. A large breach was made in the walls followed by major fires and great destruction of houses within the city.

The citizens and defenders fought back resolutely, as they had in 1690, and no attempt was made to storm the town. The siege dragged on until the 22nd of September when the Williamites crossed the Shannon and attacked the city from the Thomond bridge side. Great casualties were suffered by the Irish especially when the castle drawbridge was prematurely raised by the French inside the walls.

On the following day, with great recriminations between the French and the Irish, it was decided to seeks terms for surrender. This culminated with the signing of the Treaty of Limerick on October 3rd 1691.

Much debate has occurred about the controversial decision to surrender, the terms of the treaty itself and its subsequent dishonouring.

In purely military terms the surrender was surprising: the Jacobites should have been able to hold Limerick and continue the war. It would appear that the explanation for the surrender is largely psychological, low morale leading to a loss of nerve.

Having made that decision it is arguable that they should have held out for better terms, both in regard to religious liberty and restoration of landed estates though it must be remembered that contemporary Protestant opinion held that the treaty was far too generous to Catholics.

In the event the Protestant Irish parliament prevented the limited concessions from being implemented and Limerick acquired the synonym, the city of the broken treaty. The stone on which this symbol of betrayal and broken promises was reputedly signed became and remains, the symbol of the city itself.