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Origins of Limerick City and King John's Castle

Updated on May 8, 2014
History of Limerick City
History of Limerick City

Beginnings of Ireland's Limerick City

The emergence and growth of Limerick City can be dated as far back as 922 AD. It appears now that Limerick City and county became significant because of its location, the landscape, its foreign settlers and its subsequent royal endorsement by King John of England. At its height Limerick’s prosperity was considered to be second, only to Dublin, in terms of being Ireland’s most significant city. However it is now debatable as to whether Limericks development was ultimately better helped or hindered by the many centuries of feudal occupation that was at the heart of its inception.

In 812AD Viking invaders came across a settlement of people on an island situated the eastern bank of the ShannonRiver. Initially the site where King John’s Castle now stands was a Viking stronghold which was constructed on King’s Island in 922. King’s Island was once known as Inis Sibhtonn Island and was later renamed King’s Island. Immediately the Vikings spotted its strategic significance as an ideal location from which to trade with the rest of Europe and also to maintain dominance over the lucrative Shannon Basin region.

Viking Invasion of Limerick 922AD
Viking Invasion of Limerick 922AD

The Vikings arrival at Limerick

Subsequently the Viking leader Tamar Mac Ailche used his new island to raid every settlement along the bank’s of the Shannon. He also built a strong fortification around King’s Island from which to defend his position of dominance. Eventually a group of Dublin Viking’s defeated Tamar Mac Ailche and then they took control of KingsIsland for the next thirty years from 837 to 867AD. By this time many more settlements had grown up around King’s Island and these Viking settlers began to integrate with the native Irish and intermarry with the Irish tribes.

In 1166 Dermot MacMurragh had been banished from his Leinster kingdom by his enemy. Subsequently he travelled to England and met with King Henry II. MacMurragh agreed that he would accept King Henry II as his Overlord in Ireland and in return the King would send Strongbow and an army to Ireland to return MacMurragh to his kingdom. This was the opportunity King Henry II had been hoping for as he had had aspirations to invade and conquer Ireland for quite sometime. There were also Norman’s in Wales who assisted Strongbow to conquer Leinster, initially. Once the Norman’s settled in Ireland they became known as Anglo-Normans.

King John's Castle, Limerick City, Ireland

King John's Castle in Limerick City

It was in 1197 that King Henry made his son John Lord of Ireland. Subsequently John visited Ireland in 1185. He returned to Ireland once again in 1210 when he was King. During this visit he decreed that a new castle should be built on King’s Island in Limerick. He also recognised its strategic importance. From this vantage point they could now subdue and conquer the many warring Gaelic Chieftains of the West of Ireland. However the castle would not be known as King John’s Castle until later centuries.

Archaeological digs in 1989 and 1995 unearthed the remains of a large banquet hall which was not part of the original castle but was subsequently added at a later stage. King John’s Castle was designed very much to be a typical Anglo-Norman structure of its era. The castle was composed of a very strong front wall, with towers flanking an almost rectangular structure. There is a curving at the bottom of the walls and this was a common feature included to allow defence weapons thrown to deflect off the castle walls and down towards their targets. The round towers also extended outwards to enable soldiers to stand on top of them and aim at the enemy below. The entire structure was surrounded by a moat.

In the summer of 2013 the castle was reopened to the public after extensive renovations. It now also houses a museum which gives an extensive breakdown of King John’s Castle’s turbulent history and its significant importance to the development of LimerickCity. [i]

It was undoubtedly true that the occupation of Limerick by the Anglo-Normans led to the construction of King John’s castle and Thomond Bridge which connected King’s Island to the rest of LimerickCity. However this development was consistently interrupted by the volatile politics of English occupation as well as the instability of the English Crown in England. Also there was also religious dominance and discriminate by the English Protestants towards the Irish Catholics. This led to the clear segregation of Limerick city; which led to the individual developments of Englishtown and Irishtown and later the addition of Newtown Pery.

Englishtown and Limerick City

Englishtown was situated in the oldest part of LimerickCity which is at the Southern end of King’s Island. The whole area was 29.5 acres and in time it became completely enclosed by large stone walls. This protective feature as well as the fact that it was supplied by both the River Shannon and the AbbeyRiver made it a very secure fortified settlement.

The streets around King John’s castle even today have the reminiscent features of days gone by. There still remains a linear street pattern and many small lanes at right angles to the High Street. However when the English decided to expand Limerick by building the initially elite development of Newtown Pery, Englishtown went into sharp decline.

For many centuries Englishtown contained the city centre which was based around St. Mary’s Cathedral, St Mary’s Street and Nicholas Street. However by the late 18th century a new city centre was established in Newtown Pery and that is where it remains today. After this Englishtown became neglected and run down. Many of its previous grand homes were split up into smaller units, which were then rented out or left to deteriorate by their owners. Subsequently Englishtown became rundown and many traders subsequently moved more towards the new city centre.

Today the most prominent remaining landmark is St. Mary’s Cathedral. It was built on 1168 on the site of a castle which was previously owned by Donal Mor O’Brien, King of Munster. Certain parts of the castle were incorporated into the building of St. Mary’s Cathedral.

Irishtown and Limerick City

In 1419 work began on the building of walls around the settlement on the south bank of the river and this area would later be commonly known as Irishtown. In the preceding centuries it was considered to contain many tenements housing Limerick’s Catholic population which was in stark contrast to the opulence of Englishtown.

Irishtown was 27.5 acres in size. The Irish Catholics who lived here were mostly trade’s people who worked with metal, leather or bone. Irishtown had no administration building but it did have two parish churches. In time Irishtown also became completely walled in but was separated from Englishtown by a number of gates. These were securely closed at night in order to keep its Irish inhabitants under control and segregated from Englishtown. This was a true feudalistic symbol of how those in Irishtown were treated at this time. They were classed as inferior citizens who were not allowed to trade or conduct business with their new rulers. As a consequence Irishtown developed rather haphazardly and the lack of any cohesive geographical plan for the area is the main reason it has always been lacking in prosperity.

Limerick City in the 19th Century

Newtown Pery and Limerick City

In complete contrast the third area of Limerick city and the most recent to develop was Newtown Pery. McLoughlin (1981) said of the three distinct areas of Limerick city that a visitor to Limerick city cannot help but notice …’a contrast between the irregular street plan…and the grid-like layout of the Georgian part, Newtown Pery.’ (McLoughlin, 1981:49).

This development was initially the idea of Edmund Sexton Pery who was a Merchant, a Solicitor and a member of the Irish House of Commons. He owned the land on which Newtown Pery was built. His vision was the doubling of the city’s urban space. There was a great deal of planning and strategic layout put into the design of Newtown Pery. The Georgian houses that were built here were also a new architectural direction for Limerick city. All of the wealthy professional people such as doctor’s and solicitors now wanted to live in this new development. Newtown Pery was the catalyst that led to the city centre moving southwards away form Englishtown.

Limerick City and the Shannon River

Frank McCourt wrote about growing up in Limerick City

Limerick city had a population of 57,109 according to the 2011 Census of the Population. In contrast in 1536 the population of Limerick city was 3,000, just 2,000 less than Ireland’s capital city Dublin had at that time. However the population of the greater Dublin area in 2011 was 1.273 million.

Therefore over the preceding five hundred years the growth of Dublin has been significantly higher than that of Limerick. It would appear that while the feudal occupation of Limerick initially led to its existence and its growth the ensuing segregation of the city into an English entity and an Irish one meant that overall the cohesive plan for the city was inadequate to sustain continued growth and prosperity. Many Urban Renewal plans of the last three centuries have only been partially successful in overriding the initial inadequacies in design and growth of Limerick city. This appears to be as a consequence of the cultural and religious segregation as well as the feudal unrest that seems to have hindered the growth and prosperity of Limerick city.


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    • ologsinquito profile image

      ologsinquito 3 years ago from USA

      Irish history is so fascinating, and your story really delves into the history of Limerick City. I'd love to visit sometime.