Map of Ireland

History of Limerick

The City of Limerick is the third largest city in the Republic of Ireland and a major cultural and industrial center.

The city was established by the Vikings as a walled city on "King's Island", an island in the River Shannon, in 812. However, history suggests the presence of earlier settlements in the area. Antiquity's mapmaker, Ptolemy, produced in 150 the earliest map of Ireland, showing a place called 'Regia' at the same site as King's Island. History also records an important battle involving Cormac Mac Airt in 221 and a visit by St. Patrick in 434 to baptise an Eoghanacht Chief, Carthann the Fair. [Spellissy 98] The name Luimneach dates from at least 561, and probably derives from 'Loimeanach', meaning a bare marsh.

1 Viking Origins
2 Siege and Treaty
3 The Famine
4 "The Limerick Pogrom"
5 The Limerick Soviet
6 Struggle for Independence
7 The Free State
8 The Emergency
9 Celtic Tiger
10 References

Viking Origins

The Viking sea-king, Thormodr Helgason, built the first permanent Viking stronghold on Inis Sibhtonn (King's Island) in 922. He used the base to raid the length of the River Shannon from Lough Derg to Lough Ree, pillaging ecclesiastical settlements. In 937 the Limerick Vikings clashed with those of Dublin on Lough Ree and were defeated. In 943 they were defeated again when the chief of the local Dalcassian clan joined with Ceallachan, king of Munster and the Limerick Vikings were forced to pay tribute to the clans. The power of the Vikings never recovered, and they reduced to the level of a minor clan, however often playing pivotal parts in the endless power struggles of the next few centuries.

King John's Castle, built in the 14th Century, lies alongside the River Shannon. Thomond Bridge also still stands, seen on the left of this photograph.

The arrival of the Anglo-Normans to the area in 1172 changed everything. Domhnall Mor O'Brien burned the city to the ground in 1174 in a bid to keep it from the hands of the new invaders. The Anglo-Normans finally captured the area in 1195, under King John. In 1197 local legend claims Limerick was given its first charter and its first Mayor, Adam Sarvant. A castle, built on the orders of King John and bearing his name, was completed around 1200.

Under the general peace imposed by the Norman rule, Limerick prospered as a port and trading center. By this time the city was divided into an area became known as "English Town" on King's Island, while another settlement, named "Irish Town" had grown on the south bank of the river. A 1574 document prepared for the Spanish ambassador attests to its wealth:

Limerick is stronger and more beautiful than all the other cities of Ireland, well walled with stout walls of hewn marble... There is no entrance except by stone bridges, one of the two of which has 14 arches, and the other 8 ... for the most part the houses are of square stone of black marble and built in the form of towers and fortresses.

Siege and Treaty

Main article: sieges of Limerick

Limerick was besieged several times in the 17th century. The first was in 1642, when the Irish Confederates took the King John's Castle from its English garrison. The city was besieged by Oliver Cromwell's army under Henry Ireton in 1651. The city had supported Confederate Ireland since 1642 and was garrisoned by troops from Ulster. The Confederates supported the claims of Charles II to the English throne, and the besiegers fought for a parliamentary republic. Famine and plague lead to the death of 5,000 residents before heavy bombardment of Irishtown led to breach and surrender in late October of that year.

In the Williamite war in Ireland, following the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, French and Irish forces (numbering 14,000) regrouped in behind Limerick's walls. Time and war had led to a terrible decay of the once proud fortifications. The occupying armies are recorded as claiming that the walls could be knocked down with rotten apples. The Williamite besiegers, while numbering 20,000, were hampered by the loss of their heavier guns to an attack by Patrick Sarsfield. In fierce fighting, the walls were breached on three occasions, but the defenders prevailed. Eventually the Williamites withdrew to Waterford.

The Williamites returned in August 1691. Limerick was now the last stronghold of the Catholic Jacobites, under the command of Sarsfield. The promised French reinforcement failed to arrive, and, following the massacre of 850 defenders on Thomond Bridge, the city sued for peace. On the 3rd of October 1691 the famous Treaty of Limerick was signed using a large stone set in the bridge as a table. The treaty allowed the Jacobites to leave under full military honors and sail to France. Two days later French reinforcements finally arrived. Sarsfield was urged to continue the fight, but refused, insisting on abiding by the terms of the treaty. Sarsfield sailed to France with 19,000 troops, and formed the Irish Brigade (see also the Flight of the Wild Geese. After they had left the treaty was repudiated by the Williamites, a point of bitterness in the city to this day.

The Famine

Through the 18th century the city recovered as an important trading port. Many important public buildings and infrastructure projects were paid on the back of local trade taxes. The House of Industry was built on northern bank of the river in 1774, in part as a poorhouse and infirmary. A basic sewer system was built in the Newtownpery in the time of George III, by simply closing over the gutters. St. Joseph's Psychiatric Hospital was completed in the south-side by 1826. Wellesley Bridge (later, Sarsfield Bridge) and new Wet Docks were also built during this time. Chief imports through the port included timber, coal, iron and tar. Exports included beef, pork, wheat, oats, flour and emigrants bound for north America. Exports of food continued during The Great Famine, often requiring the deployment of troops to protect the port.

No statistics exist on how many people in the Limerick area died during the famine. Nationally, the population declined by an average of 20%, half of whom died and half emigrating. While the Great Famine reduced the population of County Limerick by 70,000, the population of the city actually rose slightly, as people fled to the workhouses.

See Also: The Great Famine

"The Limerick Pogrom"

Having fled from persecution in Lithuania, a small number of Jewish tradespeople began arriving to Limerick in 1878. They initially formed an accepted part of the city's retail trade, centered on Collooney St. The community opened synagogue and a cemetery in the 1880s. Easter Sunday of 1884 saw the first of what were to be a series of sporadic violent anti-Semitic attacks and protests. A Jewish woman was injured and her house damaged by an angry crowd. In 1892 two families were beaten. In 1904 a young Catholic priest delivered a fiery sermon castigating Jews as "international moneylenders" and demanding freedom for the Irish peasant. He urged Catholics "not to deal with the Jews". The Limerick Pogrom was the economic boycott waged against the small Jewish community for over two years. Limerick's Protestant community, many of whom were also traders, supported the Jews throughout the pogrom, but ultimately Limerick's Jews were forced from the city. Many resettled in Cork City, the home of Chaim Herzog, later the sixth president of Israel.

The Limerick Soviet

A soviet existed in Limerick for two weeks during 1919, before it was quashed by the British authorities, administering the ownership of media, business and transportation. This was one of the first of its kind in Europe, outside of Russia.

Struggle for Independence

The IRA and the independence movement of Sinn Féin gained popular support in Limerick following the repressions and executions of 1916. Royal Irish Constabulary carried out violent raids on the homes of suspected Sinn Féin sympathizers. Prisoners were interned without trial in Frongoch camp in North Wales. Open conflict erupted on Roches Street in April 1920 between the Welch Fusiliers and the general population, involving bayonets on the one side and stones and bottles on the other. The troops fired indiscriminately, killing a publican and an usherette from the Coliseum Cinema. The Limerick Trades and Labour Council called for a general strike and boycott of the troops. A special strike committee was set up to print their own money and control food prices.

The British Government organized a new force to quell the population. The Black and Tans, known as "the sweepings of English jails", were formed of ex-servicemen. On the night of March 6, 1921, Limerick's Mayor, George Clancy and his wife were shot in their home by three Tans. On the same night the previous Mayor, Michael O'Callaghan was shot in similar circumstances. These assassinations became known as the Curfew Murders. IRA reprisals included the unsuccessful attack on six RIC men leaving a pub on Mungret Street and the murder of a Black and Tan on Church Street. A truce between the IRA and the British forces came into effect on July 9, 1921.

See Also: Irish War of Independence

The Free State

In what is now Jury's Hotel on the Ennis Road on 5 December 1921 Eamon de Valera gave a speech cautioning against optimism in the peace process. A few hours later in London, Michael Collins signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty granting limited independence to the southern portion of Ireland, as the Irish Free State, while retaining Ulster. The treaty also gifted the ports of Berehaven, Cobh and Lough Swilly to the United Kingdom as UK sovereign bases, while annuities would continue to be paid to the British government in lieu of money loaned to Irish tenants under various land acts. De Valera and others virulently opposed the treaty's compromises. The scene was set for the civil war.

In Limerick, the first signs of trouble came when the British forces withdrew early in the New Year. Three separate Irish factions rushed in to fill the vacuum: The pro-Treaty Claremen of the First-Western Division under General Michael Brennan, who was asked by the new Free-State government to occupy the city because of doubts about the loyalty of Liam Forde's Mid-Limerick Brigade. In the event the Brigade split into pro and anti-Treaty factions, the latter lead by Forde. William St. became a battle zone by 7pm on 11 July 1921, when the Free Staters opened fire on the Republican garrison holding the Ordnance Barracks. In the chaos, Roches Stores, which still stands on Sarsfield St, was looted. The Free Staters brought in an 18-pounder gun on the 19th and flattened the Barracks. The Castle Barracks was captured the following day. The Republicans abandoned the city. Limerick Prison, designed to hold 120, contained 800 prisoners by November. The Civil War ended the following May in victory for the Free State. De Valera and the Republicans would refuse take their seats in the new Dáil Éireann until 1927.

The Free State government set about rebuilding the county in the spirit of the times, with grand plans and schemes. The Shannon Scheme, the plan to build a Hydroelectric power station utilising the energy of Ireland's largest river was begun in 1925. The German electric company Siemens Schuckert was awarded the 5.2m pound contract, providing employment for 750 people. The Electricity Supply Board set up to manage the project gradually oversaw the electrification of rural Ireland.

The Emergency

Almost from the moment that de Valera and his new Fianna Fáil party were elected in 1932, Ireland was plunged into a series of "emergencies". De Valera fulfilled an election promise to suspend the payment of land annuities to Britain, and Britain retaliated by raising import duties on agricultural products to 40%. De Valera swept through the Dáil the "Emergency Imposition of Duties order" imposing reciprocal taxes. Economic War had begun.

Limerick's farm-based economy was reduced to a state of barter. This was the period during which Ireland's interventionist, control economic style was developed. The Laissez-faireism of the 1920s was abandoned in the face of skyrocketing unemployment, poverty and emigration. The state set up non-agricultural industries such as Turf Development Board (Later Bord na Móna) and Aer Rianta (airports authority). In 1935 Charles Lindbergh was consulted on the building of an airport on the Shannon Estuary at Rineanna (later renamed Shannon Airport), and in 1937 Foynes was developed as a stopping point on the flying boat route across the Atlantic. During this time, the de Valera government introduced several emergency laws to suppress the IRA and General Eoin O'Duffy's fascist Blueshirt army.

This first Emergency ended in 1938 with the Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement when Neville Chamberlain's appeasement policy allowed a climb down. The UK would end economic sanctions and return the treaty ports in exchange for a once off payment of £10m.

The following year the outbreak of war in Europe forced the introduction of The Emergency Powers Act to control prices and imports. Ireland, with no native merchant fleet, and no coal, gas or oil supplies faced hard times indeed. An army officer named Captain McKenna described it as the day "Realisation dawned on Ireland that the country was surrounded by water, and that the sea was of vital importance to her". Towards the end of the war, shortages of rubber and petrol particularly, ended all non-emergency motorised transport, including rail, to and within the city. Lord Adare restarted a four horse stage-coach route to his hotel in Co. Limerick, a sight not seen since the 19th Century.

The army was expanded massively to over 300,000, in preparation for the expected invasion by either Germany attempting a stepping-stone approach to the invasion of Britain, or Britain herself, seeking use of the ports. Knockalisheen barracks (later Knockalisheen Refugee Camp) was built near Limerick at Meelick to house the new defense forces.

Celtic Tiger

The seemingly sudden economic growth of the 1990s, termed the Celtic Tiger, making Ireland one of the richest countries in Europe, had deep foundations, stretching back through the 1980s and 1970s. Shipping in Shannon estuary was developed extensively during the period with over 2bn pounds investment. A tanker terminal at Foynes and an oil jetty at Shannon Airport were built. In 1982 a massive Alumina Extraction Plant was built at Aughinish. 60,000 ton cargo vessels now carry raw bauxite from West African mines to the plant, where it is refined to Alumina. This is then exported to Canada where it is further refined to Aluminium. 1985 saw the opening of a huge power plant at Moneypoint, fed by regular visits by 150,000 tonne tankers.

EEC funding was poured into infrastructure. Industrial estates at Raheen and Plassey (Castletroy), and energetic government intervention, brought in numerous foreign firms, notably Analog Devices, Wang Laboratories and Dell Computers. A science and engineering focused third level college called NIHE, Limerick, since elevated to university status as the University of Limerick, furthered the area's reputation as Ireland's Silicon Valley.

The new wealth not only halted the high levels of emigration chronic through the 1980s, but lead to the first large scale immigration for centuries. The city now boasts a Russian delicatessan, a Chinese supermarket, several Asian foodstores, a number of African and Caribbean food shops. Near the Crescent Shopping Centre, and down the road from the Mormon church, is Limerick's first Mosque.


  • Limerick City Library (
  • The History of Limerick City, by Sean Spellissy (1998)
  • The Lost Years, The Emergency in Ireland 1939-45, by Tony Gray (1997)
  • Anatomy of a Siege: King John's Castle, Limerick, by Kenneth Wiggins (2000)

History of Cities in Ireland Series
Republic of Ireland: Dublin | Cork | Limerick | Galway | Waterford | Kilkenny
Northern Ireland: Belfast | Derry | Armagh | Newry | Lisburn
This article is from and is available under the terms of the GNU Documentation license.

Map of Ireland