19 July 2018

Two small reminders
of the Cromwellian siege
of Limerick in 1651

The pinnacles from Henry Ireton’s house now act as traffic bollards in the churchyard at Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

I have a schoolfriend who lives near Cambridge, where we meet occasionally for lunch or dinner. But he refuses to visit me in Sidney Sussex College because Oliver Cromwell’s portrait hangs in the Hall and Cromwell’s head is said to be buried in the ante-chapel.

I wonder, now that I am Precentor of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, whether my friend will decline to meet me in the cathedral because the pinnacles of Henry Ireton’s house in Limerick now stand in the cathedral churchyard.

The Ireton Pinnacles are a reminder of the brief presence in Limerick in 1651 of Henry Ireton (1611-1651), Oliver Cromwell’s son-in-law, who was the Major-General commanding Cromwell’s forces in Limerick during the siege of the city that year.

Ireton’s troops camped outside Saint Mary’s Cathedral and severely vandalised and damaged the cathedral. During the siege, Ireton lived in Ireton’s House, one of the Dutch gabled houses on Nicholas Street and originally known as Galwey’s Castle.

Henry Ireton was the eldest son of German Ireton of Attenborough, Nottinghamshire, and was baptised there in Saint Mary's Church on 3 November 1611. He became a gentleman commoner of Trinity College, Oxford, in 1626, graduated BA in 1629 and entered the Middle Temple that year.

At the outbreak of the English Civil War, Ireton joined the parliamentary army and fought at the battles of Edgehill (1642) and at Gainsborough (1643). Cromwell made him deputy-governor of the Isle of Ely and he served under the Earl of Manchester in the Yorkshire campaign and at the second Battle of Newbury, afterwards supporting Cromwell in his accusations of incompetency against Manchester.

On the night before the Battle of Naseby (1645), Ireton surprised the Royalist army and captured many prisoners. The next day, on Cromwell’s suggestion, he was made commissary-general and appointed to command the left wing, with Cromwell commanding the right. Ireton’s wing was completely broken by a charge led by Prince Rupert and Ireton was wounded and taken prisoner. But Cromwell charged and successfully routed the Royalists, freeing prisoners including Ireton.

Ireton was at the siege of Bristol (1645) and took part in the subsequent campaign that succeeded in overthrowing the royal cause. On 30 October 1645 Ireton entered parliament as MP for Appleby. During the siege of Oxford in 1646, he married Comwell’s eldest daughter Bridget.

Ireton was initially a moderate, arguing against the Republicans and the Levellers for a constitutional monarchy. But eventually, Ireton zealously supported putting Charles I on trial. He sat on the king’s trial and was one of the commissioners who signed his death warrant.

Ireton’s regiment was chosen to accompany Cromwell in his Irish campaign. Ireton arrived in Dublin two days after Cromwell on 17 August 1649, with 77 ships full of troops and supplies. Ireton was appointed major-general and after the conquest of the south of Ireland he became Lord President of Munster.

When Cromwell was recalled to England in May 1650, Ireton assumed command of the New Model Army in Ireland as Lord Deputy. He became known for both his military skills and the savagery of his methods.

A pinnacle from Henry Ireton’s house in the churchyard at Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

After a three-month siege of Waterford, Ireton advanced on Limerick. But by October he had to call off the siege because of cold, bad weather. Early in 1651, Ireton ordered that areas harbouring Irish resistance to be systematically stripped of food. By the end of the year, this scorched earth policy had created a famine.

Ireton returned to Limerick in June 1651 and besieged the city for five months until it surrendered in October 1651. At the same time, Ireton also inspected the Parliamentary siege of Galway. But the physical strain of his command took its toll on Ireton and he fell ill.

After the capture of Limerick, Ireton had several leading figures in Limerick hanged, including an Alderman, Bishop Turlough O’Brien (Terence Albert O’Brien) and an English Royalist officer, Colonel Fennell.

Ireton also wanted to hang the Irish commander, Hugh Dubh O’Neill, but Edmund Ludlow cancelled the order after Ireton’s death. In his historical novel, Destiny Our Choice (Hodder & Stoughton, 1987), John Attenborough (1908-1994) claims Ireton was influential in saving the life of Hugh O’Neill.

Ireton fell ill of the plague in Limerick and died on 26 November. In Limerick, his death was seen as divine retribution for the execution of Bishop O’Brien, who before his death called on Ireton to answer at God’s judgment seat for his murders.

The Hibernica Dominicana claims that on his death bed Ireton was muttering to himself ‘I never gave the aid of my counsel towards the murder of that bishop; never, never; it was the council of war did it… I wish I had never seen this popish bishop.’

Ireton’s body was embalmed and brought from Limerick to Bristol, and he was buried in Westminster Abbey.

The monarchy was restored in 1660, and on 30 January 1661, the 12th anniversary of the execution of Charles I, Charles II had Ireton’s corpse exhumed at Westminster Abbey and mutilated in a posthumous execution, along with those of Cromwell and John Bradshaw, in retribution for signing his father’s death warrant. After Ireton's corpse was hanged at Tyburn, his head was exhibited at Westminster for at least 24 years.

Ireton and his wife Bridget Cromwell were the parents of a son, Henry Ireton, and four daughters. One daughter, Bridget Bendish (1650-1726), and her brother Henry were later implicated in the Rye House Plot to kill Charles II in 1683.

When Ireton’s House and other old houses on Nicholas Street fell into disrepair in the 19th century, they were pulled down. Two of the pinnacles from Ireton’s house at the corner of Nicholas Street and Bridge Street, beside Saint Mary’s Cathedral, were placed in the cathedral churchyard, where they still stand as bollards.

In a curious twist, the Limerick-born actor Richard Harris starred as Oliver Cromwell in the 1970 movie Cromwell, with Alec Guinness as Charles I. Michael Jayston plays Ireton as a subtle manipulator who hates Charles I and pushes Cromwell into actions that at first Cromwell considers neither desirable nor possible.

The entrance to Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick … Ireton’s house stood nearby until the 19th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

When McNamara truly was
the leader of the band in
Saint Mary’s Parish, Limerick

The ‘birthplace’ of McNamara’s Band in Mary Street, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

The Chas Flats are part of a boarded-up complex of apartments, with broken windows and doors and a sad air of abandonment, on the corner of Mary Street and Creagh Lane, awaiting redevelopment in heart of the old city on King’s Island.

A fading green plaque placed on one of the gable ends on Mary Street by Limerick Civic Trust is now almost illegible to make out but once read:

McNamara’s Band
This world-wide
celebrated musical ensemble got
its name from the Limerick brothers –
Paddy, Michael, Jack and Tom
all of whom were born in
St Mary’s Parish

“My name is McNamara,
I’m the leader of the Band”.

The fading plaque placed on the Chas Flats by Limerick Civic Trust (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

This is one of the oldest parts of Limerick, the street names are reminders of the city’s mediaeval legacy, and these houses stand beside Fanning’s Castle, a tower house dating from the 16th and 17th centuries and built by the Whitamore and Fanning families, two of the leading merchant and political families in late Tudor, Stuart and Cromwellian Limerick.

A few doors away down Mary Street, the band room of Saint Mary’s Band Room bears the date 1885. But the building was erected in 1922, and the date refers to the foundation of the band in 1885.

Three years later, in 1889, Shamus O’Connor and John J Stamford wrote the first version of ‘McNamara’s Band.’ The song was originally about a one-man band, but people in Limerick insist it was inspired by Saint Mary’s Band, which at the time included many members of the McNamara family from Saint Mary’s Parish.

Stamford, who wrote the lyrics, was then the manager of the Alhambra Theatre in Belfast and the song was written expressly for the theatre’s owner, the Irish-American music hall veteran William J ‘Billy’ Ashcroft.

Saint Mary’s Fife and Drum Band was founded in 1885. From its humble beginnings in the Yellow Driller on the King’s Island, it moved to Nicholas Street, then to Barrington’s Mall, Fish Lane and finally in 1922 the new band room was built in Mary Street.

The band was the brainchild of Patrick ‘Todsy’ McNamara, an Abbey fisherman, and many of his fisher friends formed the original band.

The founding figures in the band included Paddy Salmon, Steve Collins, the brothers Patrick and Michael McNamara, Paddy (Halley) Kennedy, Jack Gogarty, Jim Ring, Paddy (Sparrow) O’Donoghue and his two brothers, Ned Walsh, John Lynch, Tom Forward, Jack McNamara, John Hayes, Jim Doyle, and Gerry, Michael and Jimmy Frawley.

At its first attempt in September 1885, the band won the All-Ireland Championship under the baton of Steve Collins. By the late 19th century, Saint Mary’s Fife and Drum Band included the four McNamara brothers named on the fading plaque – Patrick, John, Michael and Thomas – and played throughout Ireland.

In the early 20th century, Patrick and Thomas McNamara emigrated to New York, where they formed ‘McNamara’s Band’ with Patrick ‘Patsy’ Salmon, another Limerick emigre. When Patsy Salmon left, Patrick and Thomas McNamara formed ‘McNamara’s Trio,’ with Thomas on piccolo, Patrick on violin and Patrick’s daughter Eileen on the piano. The trio recorded and released several songs.

During World War I, three members of the band were killed in action within six months of each other in 1915. John McNamara, who remained behind in Limerick, enlisted in the Royal Munster Fusiliers and fought in the Second Boer War and World War I. He was killed in action on 9 May 1915, and his body was never recovered. He is remembered on Le Touret Memorial in France.

Saint Mary’s Prize Band was founded in 1885, and the present band room on Mary Street was built in 1922 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

A recording of ‘McNamara’s Band’ features in the film The Way to the Stars (1945), in which Stanley Holloway leads the crowd in a pub close to a Royal Air Force base during World War II.

Later that year, on 6 December 1945, Bing Crosby recorded the best-known version of the song. It was released early in 1946, when the lyrics were credited to ‘The Three Jesters’ (Red Latham, Wamp Carlson and Guy Bonham). It was an immediate Top 10 hit for Bing Crosby and remains one of his most popular songs.

The English Premier League team Tottenham Hotspur also adopted the song as its club anthem. Supporters claim the song was written in Barnet, not far from White Hart Lane, the Spurs home in North London until last year (2017).

Other sources say it became the Spurs song because Peter McWilliam was a long-time Spurs manager (1912-1927, 1938-1942) and ‘Mac’s Band’ became his song appropriately.

With its Irish resonances, the song was revived at White Hart Lane when the Northern Ireland international Danny Blanchflower joined Spurs in 1954. The song experienced another revival in the ‘Glory years’ of the early 1960s, and continued to be played until last year as the players emerged from the tunnel after half-time and returned to the pitch for the second half.

The original lyrics of the song are:

My name is McNamara, I’m the Leader of the Band,
And tho’ we’re small in number we’re the best in all the land.
Oh! I am the Conductor, and we often have to play
With all the best musicianers you hear about to-day.


When the drums go bang, the cymbals clang, the horns will blaze away,
MacCarthy puffs the ould bassoon while Doyle the pipes will play;
Oh! Hennessy Tennessy tootles the flute, my word ’tis something grand,
Oh! a credit to Ould Ireland, boys, is McNamara’s Band!

Whenever an election’s on, we play on either side –
The way we play our fine ould airs fills Irish hearts with pride.
Oh! if poor Tom Moore was living now, he’d make yez understand
That none could do him justice like ould McNamara’s Band.


We play at wakes and weddings, and at every county ball,
And at any great man’s funeral we play the ‘Dead March in Saul,’
When the Prince of Wales to Ireland came, he shook me by the hand,
And said he’d never heard the like of ‘McNamara’s Band.’

In the Bing Crosby 1946 version, the politics of ‘Ould Ireland’ are removed and the words are made more ‘Oirish.’ ‘My name is ...’ becomes ‘Me name is ...,’ the Prince of Wales becomes General (Ulysses) Grant, and stereotypes are added in the final lines to make it a comedy song.

Oh!, me name is McNamara, I’m the Leader of the Band,
And tho’ we’re few in numbers we’re the finest in the land.
We play at wakes and weddings, and at every fancy ball,
And when we play at funerals we play the march from Saul.


Oh! the drums go bang, and the cymbals clang,
and the horns they blaze away,
McCarthy pumps the old bazoon
while I the pipes do play;
And, Hennessey Tennessey tootles the flute,
and the music ’tis somethin’ grand,
A credit to old Ireland is McNamara’s Band!

Right now we are rehearsin’ for a very swell affair,
The annual celebration, all the gentry will be there.
When General Grant to Ireland came,
he took me by the hand,
Says he, ‘I never saw the likes of McNamara’s Band.’


Oh me name is Uncle Yulius
and from Sweden I have come,
To play with McNamara’s Band
and beat the big bass drum,
And when I march along the street
the ladies think I’m grand,
They shout ‘There’s Uncle Yulius
playing with an Irish band.’

(no chorus)

Oh! I wear a bunch of shamrocks
and a uniform of green,
And I am the funniest looking Swede
that you have ever seen.
There’s O’Briens and Ryans and Sheehans and Meehans,
they come from Ireland,
But by Yimminy I’m the only Swede
in McNamara’s Band.

This version also misses the cultural significance of the reference to ‘The Dead March’ in Act 3 of Handel’s oratorio Saul. ‘The Dead March’ introduces the obsequies for the deaths of Saul and Jonathan, and includes an organ part and trombones alternating with flutes, oboes and quiet timpani. It has been played at most British state funerals, and was performed too at the funerals of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

The White Hart Lane version has changed one verse:

Oh the whistle blows the cockerel crows,
and now we’re in the game,
It’s up to you, you Lilywhites,
to play the Tottenham way.
Oh there’s many a team from many a town
and some are great and small,
But the famous Tottenham Hotspur
are the greatest of them all.

In August 1965, Arthur Quinlan interviewed Thomas McNamara, the last surviving member of McNamara’s Band, for RTÉ News outside the venue where it all began in 1885. Thomas, who played flute and piccolo with the quartet, died in May 1978.

Saint Mary’s Band has continued to honour the custom of parading through Saint Mary’s Parish on New Year’s Eve and then to Saint Mary’s Cathedral to ring out the old year and to ring in the New.

Saint Mary’s Band continues as part of the life of Saint Mary’s Parish (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)