When the Vikings came to Limerick near the end of the 10th century AD they settled on land that offered easy access to the shore and for their ships. Development on the other side of the road created a main thoroughfare that led on to a series of parallel roads. Today that main thoroughfare is Mary Street and Nicholas Street. And so it has been since the late medieval period, with the arrival of the Normans. The main thoroughfare when the Vikings occupied Limerick, lay between the river and Mary Street running onto Nicholas Street. Today, part of it survives as Crosbie Row and Courthouse Lane, which can be seen in Figure 1, but early maps show it running the length of town.
When discussing the topography of the city at that time, it is important to remember that the Vikings were pagan and the process of their conversion to Christianity is unclear, so Christianity would have been secondary to the religious life of the town. The prime location of St. Mary’s Cathedral (founded in 1168) is therefore very interesting. The old main road runs right in front of the main entrance to the cathedral on the west side, while Nicholas Street. virtually bypasses it and does not deliver you to the entrance of what was one of the most important buildings in town.
The period between the return of the Normans c.1195 and the early 1200s saw major changes in the layout of Limerick which is interesting as the main entrance to the cathedral was no longer on the main route. This occurred because KIng John’s Castle was situated along the old route. The two stone bridges and the new castle were built causing a diversion away from the old main street. This forced the Mary Street-Nicholas Street axis into greater prominence and so it became the main street.
The Normans first invaded Ireland in 1169, conquering major towns and cities on the east coast of Ireland. The weapons used by the Normans were far superior to those used by the Irish. The Irish used swords, shields, axes, spears and bows and arrows as weapons. They had been used to fast ferocious fighting with short swords, usually made from iron, and wooden shields so they would move in quickly from a hiding place to surprise the enemy. The Normans, on the other hand, had military training and superior weaponry. Their soldiers included horsemen and archers as well as people on foot. They had chainmail and medieval armour and fought with bows and arrows, spears and large, well-made steel swords. These swords had long double-edged blades that were designed for cutting blows either from horseback or on foot.
Swords are made up of a blade and a hilt. There are many remaining examples of sword hilts, or parts of sword hilts from this time, but unfortunately there are very few examples of sword blades. The hilt is made up of a guard, grip and a pommel. A pommel is an enlarged fitting at the top of the handle. These were originally developed to prevent the sword from slipping from the hand, but by the 11thcentury in Europe they had become heavy enough to be a counterweight to the blade. This gave the sword a point of balance not too far from the hilt allowing for a more fluid fighting style. Pommels have appeared in a wide variety of shapes, including crescents, disks, wheels and animal or bird heads. They are often engraved or inlayed with various designs and occasionally gilt and mounted with jewels. The Hunt Museum has a beautiful example of a 12th century sword pommel on display in their collection (figure 4). This is a semi-circular bronze pommel with images of a lion and a unicorn carved in low relief.
While the Normans very quickly conquered the east coast, the Norman advance into Thomond (the kingdom which included Limerick, Clare, North Tipperary and parts of Offaly) was delayed for a long time as the King of Thomond, Dónal Mór O’Briain, was able to keep them at bay until his death in 1194. When Henry II had visited in 1171 Dónal Mór met with him at Cashel and paid homage, thus acknowledging Henry’s lordship of Ireland. Shortly after this, in 1173, Henry granted all of the kingdom to one of his knights, Philip de Braose. When de Braose tried to enforce this claim by invading, they were held back by Dónal Mór’s army at the battle of Thurles in 1174. Raymond le Gros, another Norman leader, captured Limerick in 1175 by bringing a fleet up the Shannon but they were unable to hold it as a year later Dónal Mór regained the city. From 1176 to his death in 1194 no other attacks were made on Thomond.
After his death the kingdom was weakened by rivalry between his three sons. The Normans exploited this weakness when his third son, Donagh Cairbreach, invited the Normans to help him suppress clans who were in revolt against his kingship. In return for their support Limerick city was handed over to the Normans. During this time the Butlers and other Normans were pushing into eastern Thomond, so by the year 1200 the kingdom had been greatly reduced.
Limerick was about to look very different. The old ringwork castle that the Normans built when they first came was about to be torn down and rebuilt into a beautiful stone castle.
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