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The Battle of Kinsale.

By Peter O’Leary

The Situation prior to the Battle.

By 1590 the English had successfully clamped down on the Gaelic and Anglo-Norman leaders in much of Ireland. Kildare was reduced in power; Desmond killed and his lands re-distributed; McCarthy Mór had died without an heir; Ormond, Thomond and Clanricard were now firmly loyal to the Crown. Only Hugh O’Neill and his ally Red Hugh O’Donnell in Ulster remained to be subjugated, and the Gaelic system could then easily be destroyed forever.

The Desmond war in Munster had reduced that Province to ruination. Amongst the lesser clans in Munster only McCarthy Duhallow and the O’Sullivans were holding on to their old allegiance to Gaelic law and customs. McCarthy Reagh and McCarthy Muskerry were barely neutral and Barry, Roche and the remaining Desmond FitzGeralds were all on the side of the Queen.

Most of the lesser clans in Munster were supporters of O’Neill but had to pay lip service to their own liege lord. This meant in many cases, that the chieftain and a few of his close followers would, for example in O’Leary’s case, nominally give support to Sir Cormac McCarthy, Lord Muskerry, and therefore the Queen: the remainder of the clan would support O’Neill in a clandestine manner.

Hugh O’Neill, the clan chieftain, was born in 1550. Despite being fostered in a loyalist Protestant family, he had secret ambitions to drive out the invaders. He served as a soldier in the English army, and was a captain of horse fighting under Essex during the Desmond rebellion. He was installed as The O’Neill in 1595.

Red Hugh O’Donnell was much younger, being born in 1573. He was captured by the English whilst a boy of 15 and locked up in Dublin Castle for four years before making a daring escape. His treatment made him an implacable enemy of the English and a willing ally of O’Neill. He took over from his father as The O’Donnell in 1592.

Together, they started to build up and train a large army in Ulster. They also appealed to King Philip III of Spain to send an army to Ireland to help. Philip was seeking revenge for the defeat of the Great Armada in 1588 and eventually agreed to do so.

Meanwhile O’Neill and O’Donnell were conducting a very successful war against the English forces in Ulster. They defeated English armies at Fermanagh, the Ford of the Biscuits, the Yellow Ford, the Curlews and the Blackwater Fort. These were battles fought mainly by surprise attacks and ambushes, but they caused serious losses and panic in the English armies. The Irish army, however, was not yet ready to undertake a conventional battle in the open field.

O’Neill came down to Munster in 1599 to reconnoitre the ground, and to talk to the Munster chieftains to try to persuade them to join his cause. This was not as successful as he had hoped for, and many refused to join him.

The Spanish landing. The siege of Kinsale.

King Philip eventually sent ships, an army of 4,800 men and large amounts of guns and ammunition. The Spanish landed at Kinsale in September 1601, and were given the walled town as a garrison, and put themselves to defend it against the English army.

Two factors were to influence the eventual out come of the battle of Kinsale. First of all the Spanish had landed at the furthest possible point in Ireland from Ulster forcing O’Neill and O’Donnell to cross the country to meet up with them. Secondly the Battle took place in winter when cover was at a minimum and the poorly provisioned Irish armies found it harder to feed themselves from the local land.


The English army under Mountjoy, the Lord Deputy of Ireland, and Carew, the President of Munster, soon surrounded Kinsale and started to batter the town with their artillery. De Aguilla, the Spanish commander, was an experienced soldier and put up a fierce defense. His instructions were, however, to hold the town until the Irish army came down from Ulster to combine with them.


O’Neill and O’Donnell march South.

In December 1601 the Irish armies moved South from Ulster towards Kinsale by a series of forced marches through the mountains. They managed to elude the English armies of Dowcra and Carew who had been sent by Mountjoy to intercept them. They reached Kinsale on the 21st.December 1601 and took up positions that trapped the English armies between themselves and the town held by the Spanish. The English were however able to supply themselves, and receive reinforcements, by sea through Oysterhaven.


Comparison of the two armies.

Mountjoy, for the British, managed to get reinforcements through Oysterhaven, which brought his army up to 12,000 men. Many of these became sick, and only about 7,500 were capable of being used in the Battle.

The combined armies of O’Neill, O’Donnell and Tyrrell came to 6,180. This include 500 of O’Sullivan Beare’s men, and 200 of Ocampo’s Spaniards.

On paper the sides were fairly evenly matched. In the event, the Spanish forces behind the walls of Kinsale took no part in the Battle, so their numbers counted for nothing. The other big difference was in the quantity and quality of the English artillery, some of it being mounted on the naval vessels which were lying offshore close to the town. The Spanish had a few small cannons, the Irish none.



The Battle.

On the Christmas Eve, 24th December 1601 O’Neill moved to attack the English army at dawn. He seems to have done so against his better judgement, but was persuaded by his more impetuous comrades, particularly O’Donnell.

The Battle was a fiasco. Tyrrell in the vanguard was to move towards Kinsale, attack Thomond’s camp, and give the signal to the Spanish to move out from behind the walls and join the attack. The Spanish did not hear the signal, and stayed put, taking no part in the action.

O’Donnell in the rearguard, got lost in the appalling December weather, and after a successful encounter with the English cavalry, wheeled into their own Irish Foot causing havoc in the ranks.

O’Neill finding himself without his rearguard, changed his plans to advance and hold the heights of Ardmartin. His foot soldiers turned to the West to regroup where they were blundered into by the cavalry of O’Donnell.

In the confusion, the now much reduced foot soldiers of O’Neill were savaged by the English Horse under Ffolliott, Power, St.John and Wingfield.

The Battle was over in less than an hour. The Irish lost 1,200 and the English only 20. The tactics showed that the Irish Foot were poorly trained for open field fighting and the formation of the hollow square. It also showed up the superior English cavalry techniques using the lance, as compared with the Irish method of no stirrup and overhead spear throwing.

The Irish army left the field in some disorder. Most fled back to Ulster, though a few remained to continue the war with O’Sullivan Beare. The Spanish, who lost many men in the siege, but none in the battle, gave up the town to Mountjoy, "on Terms" and were allowed to sail back to Spain. It must be added that they had defended the town of Kinsale against all comers bravely and successfully for some 13 weeks.


The aftermath.

O’Donnell went to Castlehaven and took a ship to Spain. He was well received there but died a few months later, said to be by poisoning by Carew’s spy, Blake.

O’Neill returned to his native Ulster. He was reasonably well treated by Mountjoy, but lost most of his lands and authority. Six years later in 1607 he decided to go to Spain, and was accompanied by many supporters and lesser chieftains. This was known as the "Flight of the Earls". It gave the English administration the ideal opportunity to seize most of the land of Ulster, and to bring in Presbyterian Lowland Scots to farm it.

This may have seemed a good idea at the time, from the English point of view. They had achieved their objectives of destroying the Gaelic culture, ridding themselves of the Clan system and the more troublesome chieftains and providing a relief to the overpopulation problems in their own country.

In the longer term it was a disaster. It created the environment for the present "Troubles" in Ulster with much suffering and distress for millions of decent people of both cultures


The men of Uibh Laoghaire at the Battle of Kinsale.

Like many clans in Munster there were men of Uibh Laoghaire fighting on both sides. There is not much doubt that the sympathy of most of them was for O’Neill, and many individuals joined his Army when it came down South.

But the official position of the clan was totally different. The O’Learys were freeholders but subject to the chief clan in Muskerry, the McCarthys of Blarney and Macroom. The head of this family at the time was Sir Cormac mac Dermod McCarthy, Lord Muskerry (1552-1616) who had become chieftain in 1583. The O’Learys not only had to pay him dues, but also had to provide a military force in times of war.

Lord Muskerry was probably the chieftain with the most to lose in terms of land and wealth. He had therefore declared for the Queen although this was against the wishes of most of his clansmen, and indeed most of his immediate family. Carew, the President of Munster, had no confidence in the loyalty of Lord Muskerry or indeed of any of the chieftains who were obviously merely protecting their own interests by pretending to be loyalists. So Lord Muskerry, and his wife and son, were under some form of house arrest in Shandon Castle in Cork for most of this period.

There was therefore a contingent of troops provided by Lord Muskerry, and commanded by him, which served at the Siege and the Battle. To test this force, Carew made Lord Muskerry lead them out below the walls where the Spanish were ensconced, and there then ensued much rattling of sabers and exchange of shouts but not much else. Lord Muskerry’s force did take part in a more serious fight a few days later when they repelled a party of Spaniards who had sallied forth from behind the walls, and were spiking the guns of one of the batteries.

The Uibh Laoghaire contingent in this force was led by Donogh the recently elected O’Leary chieftain, and included Lisagh who was his half-brother and only about 15 at the time. Oddly enough Carew took a liking to Lisagh and they became firm friends. When Lisagh eventually married, he named his firstborn son George after his patron, a name which was previously unheard of in the family.

Meanwhile we have no details of the warlike happenings of the other members of the clan who were serving O’Neill. After the battle was over they would have quietly marched home to Inchigeelagh whilst their Northern comrades fled back to Ulster.

A third body of soldiers included Mahon MacDonagh O’Leary who was attached to the company of Barry Óg of Rincurran. He became a prisoner of the English after Rincurran fell, and was included in the Spanish force, which sailed from Kinsale after the surrender.

Thus there were representatives from Uibh Laoghaire in all three of the Armies at the Battle of Kinsale. Most clans found themselves represented in at least two of the Armies.