History of Limerick

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Viking Limerick

In the Middle Ages, the River Shannon was the main access route to the centre of Ireland, and the river has shaped the destiny of Limerick ever since. Denmark Street, in the city centre, commemorates Limerick's Norse founders. In the mid-ninth century the Vikings built a fortified ship-shelter on a spit of land, known as Inis Sibhton, in the lower reaches of the Shannnon at its confluence with the Abbey River. From here the feared Northmen ranged far and wide on voyages of plunder. The settlement provided a base for waterborne raids on the rich monastic settlements of Clonmacnoise and Birr in the Irish midlands.

The Vikings ruled the roost in Limerick for some forty years, during which time their waterside settlement grew into a small town. But for all their ferocity, the Vikings were never numerous or powerful enough to extend their rule over the rest of Thomond, the medieval kingdom which took in parts of the modern-day province of Munster. They may have been no more than vassals of King Mahon of Thomond and his brother Brian Boru, to whom they paid an annual tribute of 340 tons of wine. Consequently, the rulers of Thomond may simply have been waiting for an opportunity to crush them.

Medieval Limerick

The Old Irish name for the area around the Viking settlement, anglicised as Limerick, translates as 'vulnerable land'. King Mahon and Brian Boru demonstrated the aptness of the term in the 10th century. They moved against the Vikings in 967, defeating them at Solohead, in County Tipperary, and went on to sack Limerick. Their descendants built earthen ramparts around the reconstructed settlement, which became the seat of power of the O'Brien dynasty for the next 200 years. At this point, the Anglo-Norman invaders seized the walled city of Limerick. The Normans built a five-sided bastion - King John's Castle - on the original settlement. From its parapets they kept a wary watch on the surrounding countryside. The island became known as 'Englishtown' after the conquerors removed its Gaelic occupants to the area now referred to as 'Irishtown', on the other side of the Abbey River.

By Irish standards, Limerick had a fairly quiet time of it for the next 400 years. Its inhabitants remained loyal to the English crown, and built up a substantial trading port, building on the city's strategic location on the Shannon estuary.

The Williamite Wars and the Treaty of Limerick

Limerick fared badly during the religious wars which followed the Plantation of Ireland by English and Scottish settlers in the early seventeenth century. An Irish Catholic army occupied Limerick in 1642; an English army retook it nine years later. Then, after losing the lifting of the Siege of Derry in the summer of 1689 and the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, an Irish/French army loyal to King James, the Catholic pretender to the English throne, fell back on Limerick in 1691. An English army, in hot pursuit, surrounded the city. The Siege of Limerick - the city was the last redoubt of the Jacobite army - was a bloody, protracted affair. The Jacobite commander, Patrick Sarsfield, led daring forays out of the city, and his soldiers doggedly defended a breach in the city walls. However, a year into the siege, the English managed to break in and force their surrender. When Sarsfield signed the Treaty of Limerick in 1692 the conquest of Ireland, which had taken the English six hundred years, was finally completed. 'Limerica capta, Hibernian subacta, Octobris 1691' reads the inscription on a coin struck to mark the great event.

After the Treaty, the Catholic Irish aristocracy and their regiments departed Limerick for France and Spain, where they received a splendid welcome. Back home, the leaders of Irish Protestantism, who bridled at the relatively generous terms the Treaty offered the Catholic Irish, were demanding greater subjugation of the papists. They got it with the enactment, in 1695, of the Penal Laws. These effectively made the profession of Catholicism a criminal offence and would remain in force for decades to come. The enemy within now subjugated, the English and Scottish settlers could begin rebuilding and expanding Ireland's cities. Over the next 130 years Limerick's centre of gravity shifted to the south-west, where a gridiron network of commercial and residential streets was constructed in the Georgian style. The new development was named Newtown Pery after the general patron of the city, Edward Sexton Pery (1719-1806).

Nineteenth - and Twentieth-Century Limerick

Since the early nineteenth century Limerick's fortunes have more or less reflected those of Ireland. The industries established in the city in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century were not large enough to absorb the unemployed or curb emigration. The city, strategically placed on the Shannon, witnessed widespread street fighting during the Irish Civil War, as the Free State Army wrested control of the city from its Republican defenders, while thousands of starving people fled into the surrounding countryside.

The 'disillusioned decades' which followed the civil war are clearly evoked by Frank McCourt in Angela's Ashes, his harrowing memoir of slum life in the city in the 1940s. The first stirrings of prosperity, in Limerick and in the country as a whole, followed the anti-protectionist economic reforms of the late 1950s. Shannon Airport lies close to the city and has acted as a spur to the economic development of the mid-West region as has the National Technology Park in the suburb of Plassey. Limerick, like Ireland, prospered as never before in the later 1990s -- this is a trend which has continued into the 21st century.