King John’s Castle sits smack in the middle of Limerick city, on King’s Island (Inis Sibhtonn in Gaelic), very near St. Mary’s Cathedral. The castle itself was built sometime between the years 1200 and 1210 CE. The castle grounds, however, have been used as a stronghold as far back as the Viking occupation in the year 922 CE. The stronghold was seized by the Anglo-Normans around the year 1195 and King John commissioned the building of the castle. It has been there ever since.
On Saturday we came upon the castle after walking down a small side road called Nicholas Street. The castle is fronted by a large modern glass front, the entrance flanked by two cannons. Right next door to this is the Limerick City Museum but we ended up staying at the castle so long that I was too tired to tour another museum and walk all the way back to the city centre. The castle was entertaining enough! The modern glass front turned out to be the visitor’s center, where we were greeted by a nice man who was watching the Ireland-Italy rugby match while taking our money and giving us some info on the place. I felt badly about Claude having to miss the match, especially since it turned out to be a really good game in which Ireland trounced the Italians, but he was just as interested in the castle as I was and toured it enthusiastically.
The visitor’s center is very thorough, filled with dioramas and information on the history and ongoing excavations being conducted in the castle grounds. There was a short film on the first floor briefly describing the entire history of the castle, and more dioramas and films on the second floor. Rather than hash it all over in this blog post, I would direct interested parties to the Shannon Heritage website for detailed information about the full history. The castle was used mainly for defense of the city of Limerick but was also used as a place of trade in the 16th century, and even contained housing for the poor during the World War II era. Now the castle has been excavated and restored by local archaeologists and shows visitors all aspects of the uses of the fortifications during its entire history.
The 17th century was a particularly active time for the castle, as there were no less than five sieges of the city during that era. The Protestant occupation of the castle during the Irish Rebellion of 1641 ended up causing serious damage to the building at that time. The most damaging conflict in terms of lives lost and trust destroyed occurred during the Williamite war between the Jacobites and the forces of William of Orange. Much of the second floor of the visitor’s center focuses on this time and the Siege of Limerick. Many Irish people lost their lives during this siege, and finally peace was had through the Treaty of Limerick, two treaties, really, which were signed on the Treaty Stone, now on display across the Thomond Bridge at the banks of the Shannon.
It took us about an hour to go through the entire visitor’s center, then we emerged into the open area of the castle courtyard. There they display some artifacts recreating everyday life at the castle. In addition to everything else the castle was used for, King John also minted his own coins there. The mint is on display in one conical tower of the castle. During the construction of the visitor’s center the ancient Viking settlement was discovered, so the continuing excavation of that portion of the castle is on display in a section underneath the center. Also out in the courtyard is a section of the ancient barracks once used in the 18th century. Claude pointed out the “sallyports” to me, the small doorways that were used by the soldiers in case they needed to abandon the castle on short notice. It is also possible to go inside the castle walls and tower on the north side of the castle complex and climb to the top of the parapets to view the city and the river. However I did not have the nerve or physical wherewithal to take a chance on climbing those stairs!
While walking next to the river on Sunday we again skirted the castle, then around the side, across the bridge, and viewed the Treaty Stone. The plinth it sits on is terribly elaborate, with a history of the sieges engraved in metal surrounding the base of the monument. The stone itself is just a big rock. But its history is very important to the people of Limerick and that is all that matters.
Ireland is simply littered with castles – to paraphrase Eddie Izzard: You’re driving along and look up and there’s another fookin’ castle! – but this is the first one we have visited in such good condition. We hope to visit many more! If you get to Limerick, King John’s Castle is not to be missed.