A History of Limerick

By Tim Lambert

Viking Limerick

The Vikings founded Limerick in 922 AD. It was an obvious place to build a town because it was an island between the Shannon and the Abbey River and so was easily defended. Limerick soon became a thriving little town. However, the Vikings fought each other as well as the Irish. In 924 Vikings from Dublin attacked Limerick but they were repulsed.

Then in 968, the Irish captured Limerick. They killed many of the inhabitants. In 969 the Vikings recaptured Limerick. However in the early 11th century, the Irish again captured Limerick. Gradually the Vikings were absorbed into Irish society.

Inside Limerick, there were the same craftsmen found in any Viking town such as blacksmiths, carpenters, potters, and men who made things like combs from bones.

Limerick in the Middle Ages

In 1194 The English captured Limerick. The same year St Mary’s Cathedral was completed. In 1197 Limerick was given a charter (a document granting the townspeople certain rights).

King John’s Castle was built in the years 1200-1210. Thomond Bridge was also first built during King John’s reign.

Many English settlers came to Limerick. They settled on Kings Island in Englishtown while the native Irish were moved across the Abbey River to Irishtown. In the 13th century, a stone wall was erected around Englishtown. Later they were extended around Irishtown.

Limerick grew to be a prosperous town. Farm produce was exported and wine was imported from France and Spain.

Meanwhile, in 1171 a nunnery was founded in Limerick. Then in the early 13th century, the friars arrived in Limerick. Friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world, they went out to preach. In Limerick, there were also crutched friars. Their name is a corruption of cruxed friars. Crux is the Latin for cross and they had a cross sewn onto their uniforms. There were also Franciscan Friars known as grey friars because of their grey costumes and Dominican or Blackfriars. Also in the 13th century, the Trinitarian Abbey was built.

Then in 1315, the Scots attempted to conquer Ireland. In 1316 Edward Bruce the brother of King Robert captured Limerick. However, the occupation was short-lived. In 1318 the Scots were defeated by an English army and Edward was killed.

Limerick in the 16th and 17th Centuries

In the 16th century, Limerick remained a busy little town. However, the 17th century was a turbulent one for Ireland and Limerick underwent four sieges.

In 1641 Ireland rose in rebellion. In 1642 the Irish army entered Limerick. The English troops in the city withdrew into the castle and the Irish laid siege. The English held out for a month but they gave in when they realised the Irish were mining the walls. (A common tactic was to dig tunnels under the walls of a castle and then burn the wooden supports. The walls would then collapse).

Then in 1649, Oliver Cromwell began the reconquest of Ireland. In June 1651 an English army under Henry Ireton arrived in Limerick. They were unable to take the city by storm as it was too heavily defended. So they blockaded Limerick. The plague broke out in the city and decimated the defenders. Eventually, after 5 months, the Irish under their leader, Hugh O’Neil were forced to surrender. The English then executed several people who they claimed were responsible for prolonging the siege by refusing to accept surrender terms earlier.

The next siege of Limerick took place in 1690. In 1688 the Catholic king of England, James II was deposed. The next year he landed in Ireland with French troops. The Irish rose in support but in 1690 they were defeated at the Battle of the Boyne. James fled to France and his army retreated westwards. Despite the defeat at the Boyne in June they decided to defend the city. William of Orange the new English king arrived on 8 August. William then waited for his heavy cannons to be brought from Dublin.

However, the cannons were intercepted by Patrick Sarsfield on 11 August. They destroyed the ammunition, wagons, and horses. However, this audacious move only delayed the inevitable.

The siege began in late August and on the 25th a breach was made in the walls of the city. William’s forces then attempted to break through the breach but they were repulsed. William’s men were running out of ammunition and at the end of August, the siege was lifted.

The siege was resumed in 1691 when an English army was sent under a Dutchman named Ginkel. (William of Orange was king of Holland as well as England). On 8 September 1691, Ginkel’s men began the bombardment and soon made a breach in the walls of Englishtown. On 22nd September the English soldiers crossed the Shannon on a pontoon bridge and attacked the earthwork a French officer ordered his men to raise the drawbridge before the Irish troops could cross.

The English then massacred the Irish soldiers. The remaining defenders were demoralised by this disaster and the next day (23 September) they asked for a truce. Limerick surrendered on 3rd October 1691.

However, the English did not honour the treaty. The stone on which the Treaty of Limerick was signed was preserved and in 1865 it was placed on a granite pedestal.

In the late 17th century a palace was built for the Protestant Bishops of Limerick. The Widows Alms Houses were built in 1691.

Limerick in the 18th Century

For 70 years after the siege, Limerick was officially a fortress. Troops patrolled the walls and the gates were locked at night and on Sundays. However, in 1760 the status of Limerick was changed and most of the medieval walls were pulled down.

Afterward, a new suburb was built called Newtown Pery. It was named after Edmund Sexton Pery who was largely responsible for building it. Some rebuilding had already commenced in Limerick before the walls were demolished. St Johns Square was begun in the 1750s. The Custom House was built in 1769.

Limerick in the 19th Century

In the 19th century, many new buildings were erected in Limerick. The old Town Hall was built in 1803. A County Court House was built in 1810. The first hospital in Limerick opened in 1811. St Saviour’s Dominican Church was built in 1816 and Limerick Goal was built in 1821.

Sarsfield Bridge was built in 1827. Thomond Bridge was rebuilt in 1836. Villiers Alms Houses were built in 1830. Barringtons Hospital was built in 1830 and Limerick Potato Market was built in 1843. A statue of O’Connell was erected in 1857. St John’s Cathedral was built in 1859. The spire was added in 1883.

Taits Clock was built in 1867 in honour of Sir Peter Tait. J Corbett designed it. The Sarsfield Monument was erected in 1880. Meanwhile, work began on the Franciscan Church in 1876 but it was not finished until 1936.

There was a great deal of terrible poverty in Limerick in the 19th century. Yet in some ways, it was an age of improvement. In 1826 a company was formed to supply Limerick with water and from 1824 Limerick had gaslight. The first electric light in Limerick was switched on in 1880.

Meanwhile, the railway reached Limerick in 1848 when it was connected to Tipperary. Limerick was connected to Waterford by rail in 1854. Furthermore, Peoples Park was laid out in 1876. Meanwhile about 1829 a lace-making industry was started in Limerick, which soon prospered.

Limerick in the 20th Century

In 1901 Limerick had a population of 38,000 and in the 20th century, Limerick remained an agricultural town. The main industry was food processing. However, in the late 20th century tourism became a major industry in Limerick. Other industries were engineering and ‘hi-tech’ industries. The National Technology Park was founded in 1984.

Meanwhile, Limerick gained a free library and museum in 1906. An Art Gallery was added in 1948. The University of Limerick was founded in 1972. Hunt Museum began in 1976 when John and Gertrude Hunt left their collection to the nation. Belltable Arts Centre opened in 1981.

In the late 20th century and early 21st century, a great deal of money was spent refurbishing areas of Limerick and restoring its old buildings.

In the late 1980s, Arthur Quay was refurbished and a new walkway was created along the waterfront. O’Halloran Bridge was built in 1987. Arthurs Quay Shopping Centre opened in 1988.

Also in the late 1980s, the Potato Market and the Milk Market were refurbished. The old Bishop’s Palace, which had fallen into ruins, was rebuilt. A new tourist information office was built in 1991. Also in 1991, a visitor centre was built in King John’s Castle.

In the 1990s Kings Island was refurbished. More refurbishment was carried out on Steamboat Quay where a hotel and apartments were built. Abbey Bridge opened in 1999. Also in 1999, the Georgian House opened in Pery Square.

A view of Limerick

Limerick in the 21st Century

At the beginning of the 21st century, the County Court House was refurbished. Lime Tree Theatre opened in 2012. In 2020 the population of Limerick was 94,000.

A Timeline of Limerick

922 The Vikings found Limerick

1194 The English capture Limerick

1197 Limerick is given a charter

1200-1210 King John’s Castle is built

1642 An Irish army enters Limerick

1651 The English besiege Limerick

1691 Limerick is besieged again

1769 Limerick Customs House is built

1803 The Old Town Hall is built

1811 The first hospital in Limerick is built

1816 St Saviours Dominican Church is built

1824 Limerick gains gas light

1826 Limerick gains a water company

1827 Sarsfield Bridge is built

1830 Barringtons Hospital is built

1843 Limericks Potato Market is built

1848 The railway reaches Limerick

1857 A statue of O’Connell is erected

1859 St Johns Cathedral is built

1876 Peoples Park is laid out

1901 The population of Limerick is 38,000

1972 The University of Limerick is founded

1981 Belltable Arts Centre opens

1984 The National Technology Park is founded

1987 O’Halloran Bridge is built

1988 Arthur’s Quay Shopping Centre opens

1991 A Visitors Centre is built in King John’s Castle

1999 Abbey Bridge opens. The Georgian House opens.

Last revised 2024