Battle of Kinsale

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


THERE now appear before us two remarkable men whose names are prominently identified with this memorable epoch in Irish history—Mountjoy, the new lord deputy; and Carew, the new lord president of Munster. In the hour in which these men were appointed to the conduct of affairs in Ireland, the Irish cause was lost. Immense resources were placed at their disposal, new levies and armaments were ordered; and again all the might of England by land and sea was to be put forth against Ireland. But Mountjoy and Carew alone were worth all the levies. They were men of indomitable energy, masters of subtlety, craft, and cunning, utterly unscrupulous as to the employment of means to an end; cold-blooded, callous, cruel, and brutal. Norreys and Bagnal were soldiers—able generals, illustrious in the field. Essex was a lordly courtier, vain and pomp-loving. Of these men—soldier and courtier—the Irish annals speak as of fair foes.

But of Mountjoy and Carew a different memory is kept in Ireland. They did their work by the wile of the serpent, not by the skill of the soldier. Where the brave and manly Norreys tried the sword, they tried snares, treachery, and deceit, gold, flattery, promises, temptation, and seduction in every shape. To split up the confederation of chiefs was an end toward which they steadily labored by means the most subtle and crafty that human ingenuity could devise. Letters, for instance, were forged purporting to have been written secretly to the lord deputy by the Earl of Desmond, offering to betray one of his fellows confederates, O'Connor. These forgeries were "disclosed," as it were, to O'Connor, with an offer that he should "forestal" the earl, by seizing and giving up the latter to the government, for which, moreover, he was to have a thousand pounds in hand, besides other considerations promised. The plot succeeded. O'Connor betrayed the earl and handed him over a prisoner to the lord deputy, and of course going over himself as an ally also. This rent worked the dismemberment of the league in the south. "Worse defections followed soon after; defections unaccountable, and, indeed, irretrievable.

Art O'Neill and Nial Garv O'Donnell, under the operation of mysterious influences, went over to the English, and in all the subsequent, events, were more active and effective than any other commanders on the queen's side! Nial Garv alone was worth a host. He was one of the ablest generals in the Irish camp. His treason fell upon the national leaders like a thunderbolt. This was the sort of "campaigning" on which Mountjoy relied most. Time and money were freely devoted to it, and not in vain. After the national confederation had been sufficiently split up and weakened in this way and when, north and south, the defecting chiefs were able of themselves to afford stiff employment for the national forces, the lord deputy took the field.

In the struggle that now ensued O'Neill and O'Donnell presented one of those spectacles which, according to the language of the heathen classics, move gods and men to sympathy and admiration! Hearts less brave might despair; but they, like Leonidas and the immortal Three Hundred, would fight out the battle of country while life remained. The English now had in any one province a force superior to the entire strength of the national army. The eventful campaign of 1601, we are told, was fought out in. almost every part of the kingdom. To hold the coast lines on the north—where Dowcra had landed (at Derry) four thousand foot and four hundred horse—was the task of O'Donnell; while to defend the southern Ulster frontier was the peculiar charge of O'Neill. "They thus," says the historian, "fought as it were back to. back against the opposite lines of attack." Through all the spring and summer months that fight went on. From hill to valley, from pass to plain, all over the island, it was one roll of cannon and musketry, one ceaseless and universal engagement; the smoke of battle never lifted off the scene. The two Hughs were all but ubiquitous; confronting and defeating an attack to-day at one point; falling upon the foes next day at another far distant from the scene of the last encounter! Between the two chiefs the most touching confidence and devoted affection subsisted. Let the roar of battle crash how it might on the northern horizon, O'Neill relied that all was well, for O'Donnell was at his post. No matter what myriads of foes were massing in the south, it was enough for O'Donnell to know that O'Neill was there.

"Back to back," indeed, as many a brave battle against desperate odds has been fought, they maintained the unequal combat, giving blow for blow, and so far holding their ground right nobly. By September, except in Munster, comparatively little had been gained by the English beyond the successful planting of some further garrisons; but the Irish were considerably exhausted, and sorely needed rest and recruitment. At this juncture came the exciting news that—at length—a powerful auxiliary force from Spain had landed at Kinsale. The Anglo-Irish privy council were startled by the news while assembled in deliberation at Kilkenny. Instantly they ordered a concentration of all their available forces in the south, and resolved upon a winter campaign. They acted with a vigor and determination which plainly showed their conviction that on the quick crushing of the Spanish force hung the fate of their cause in Ireland. A powerful fleet was sent round the coast, and soon blockaded Kinsale; while on the land side it was invested by a force of some fifteen thousand men.

This Spanish expedition, meant to aid, effected the ruin of the Irish cause. It consisted of little more than three thousand men, with a good supply of stores, arms, and ammunition. In all his letters to Spain, O'Neill is said to have strongly urged that if a force under five thousand men came, it should land in Ulster, where it would be morally and materially worth ten thousand landed elsewhere; but that if Munster was to be the point of debarkation, anything less than eight or ten thousand men would be useless. The meaning of this is easily discerned. The south was the strong ground of the English, as the north was of the Irish side. A force landed in Munster should be able of itself to cope with the strong opposition which it was sure to encounter. These facts were not altogether lost sight of in Spain.

The expedition as fitted out consisted of six thousand men; but various mishaps and disappointments reduced it to half the number by the time it landed at Kinsale. Worse than all, the wrong man commanded it; Don Juan D'Aquilla, a good soldier, but utterly unsuited for an enterprise like this. He was proud, sour-tempered, hasty, and irascible. He had heard nothing of the defections and disasters in the south. The seizure of Desmond and the ensnaring of Florence McCarthy—the latter the most influential and powerful of the southern nobles and chiefs—had paralyzed everything there; and Don Juan, instead of finding himself in the midst of friends in arms, found himself surrounded by foes on land and sea. He gave way to his natural ill-temper in reproaches and complaints; and in letters to O'Neill bitterly demanded whether he and the other confederates meant to hasten to his relief. For O'Neill and O'Donnell, with their exhausted and weakened troops to abandon the north and undertake a winter march southward was plain destruction. At least it staked everything on the single issue of success or defeat before Kinsale; and to prevent defeat and to insure success there, much greater organization for co-operation and concert, and much more careful preparations, were needed than was possible now, hurried southward in this way by D'Aquilla. Nevertheless, there was nothing else for it. O'Neill clearly discerned that the crafty and politic Carew had been insidiously working on the Spanish commander, to disgust him with the enterprise, and induce him to sail homeward on liberal terms. And it was so.

Don Juan, it is said, agreed, or intimated that if, within a given time, an Irish army did not appear to his relief, he would treat with Carew for terms. If it was, therefore, probable disaster for O'Neill to proceed to the south, it was certain ruin for him to. refuse; so with heavy hearts the northern chieftains set out on their winter march for Munster, at the head of their thinned and wasted troops. "O'Donnell, with his habitual ardor, was first on the way. He was joined by Felim O'Doherty, MacSwiney-na-Tuath, O'Boyle, O'Rorke, the brother of O'Connor Sligo, the O'Connor Roe, Mac Dermott, O'Kelly, and others; mustering in all about two thousand five hundred men." O'Neill, with MacDonnell of Antrim, MacGennis of Down, MacMahon of Monaghan, and others of his suffragans, marched southward at the head of between three and four thousand men. Holy Cross was the point where both their forces appointed to effect their junction. O'Donnell was first at the rendezvous. A desperate effort on the part of Carew to intercept and overwhelm Mm before O'Neill could come up was defeated only by a sudden night-march of nearly forty miles by Red Hugh. O'Neill reached Belgooley, within sight of Kinsale, on the 21st of December.

In Munster, in the face of all odds—amid the wreck of the national confederacy, and in the presence of an overwhelming army of occupation—a few chiefs there were, undismayed and unfaltering, who rallied faithfully at the call of duty. Foremost among these was Donal O'Sullivan, Lord of Bear, a man in whose fidelity, intrepidity, and military ability, O'Neill appears to have reposed unbounded confidence. In all the south, the historian tells us, "only O'Sullivan Beare, O'Driscoll, and O'Connor Kerry declared openly for the national cause" in this momentous crisis. Some of the missing ships of the Spanish expedition reached Castlehaven in November, just as O'Donnell, who had made a detour westward, reached that place. Some of this Spanish contingent were detailed as garrisons for the forts of Dunboy, Baltimore, and Castlehaven, commanding three of the best havens in Munster. The rest joined O'Donnell's division, and which soon sat down before Kinsale.

When O'Neill came up, his master mind at once scanned the whole position, and quickly discerned the true policy to be pursued. The English force was utterly failing in commissariat arrangements; and disease as well as hunger was committing rapid havoc in the besiegers' camp. O'Neill accordingly resolved to besiege the besiegers; to increase their difficulties in obtaining provisions or provender, and to cut up their lines of communication. These tactics manifestly offered every advantage to the Irish and allied forces, and were certain to work the destruction of Carew's army. But the testy Don Juan could not brook this slow and cautious mode of procedure. "The Spaniards only felt their own inconveniences; they were cut off from escape by sea by a powerful English fleet; and," continues the historian, "Carew was already practicing indirectly on their commander his 'wit and cunning' in the fabrication of rumors and the forging of letters. Don Juan wrote urgent appeals to the northern chiefs to attack the English lines without another day's delay; and a council of war in the Irish camp, on the third day after their arrival at Belgooley, decided that the attack should be made on the morrow." At this council, so strongly and vehemently was O'Neill opposed to the mad and foolish policy of risking an engagement, which, nevertheless, O'Donnell, ever impetuous, as violently supported, that for the first time the two friends were angrily at issue, and some writers even allege that on this occasion question was raised between them as to who should assume command-in-chief on the morrow. However this may have been, it is certain that once the vote of the council was taken, and the decision found to be against him, O'Neill loyally acquiesced in it, and prepared to do his duty.

"On the night of the 2d of January (new style)—24th of December old style, in use among the English—the Irish army left their camp in three divisions; the vanguard led by Tyrrell, the center by O'Neill, and the rear by O'Donnell. The night was stormy and dark, with continuous peals and flashes of thunder and lightning. The guides lost their way, and the march, which even by the most circuitous route ought not to have exceeded four or five miles, was protracted through the whole night. At dawn of day, O'Neill, with whom were O'Sullivan and O'Campo, came in sight of the English lines, and to his infinite surprise found the men under arms, the cavalry in troops posted in advance of their quarters. O'Donnell's division was still to come up, and the veteran earl now found himself in the same dilemma into which Bagnal had fallen at the Yellow Ford. His embarrassment was perceived from the English camp; the cavalry were at once ordered to advance. For an hour O'Neill maintained his ground alone; at the end of that time he was forced to retire. Of O'Campo's three hundred Spaniards, forty survivors were with their gallant leader taken prisoners; O'Donnell at length arrived and drove back a wing of the English cavalry; Tyrrell's horsemen also held their ground tenaciously. But the rout of the center proved irremediable. Fully twelve hundred of the Irish were left dead on the field, and every prisoner taken was instantly executed. On the English side fell Sir Richard Graeme; Captains Danvers and Godolphin, with several others, were wounded; their total loss they stated at two hundred, and the Anglo-Irish, of whom they seldom made count in their reports, must have lost in proportion. The earls of Thomond and Clanricarde were actively engaged with their followers, and their loss could hardly have been less than that of the English regulars.

"On the night following their defeat, the Irish leaders held council together at Innishannon, on the river Bandon, where it was agreed that O'Donnell should instantly take shipping for Spain to lay the true state of the contest before Philip the Third; that O'Sullivan should endeavor to hold his castle of Dunboy, as commanding a most important harbor; that Rory O'Donnell, second brother of Hugh Roe, should act as chieftain of Tyrconnell, and that O'Neill should return into Ulster to make the best defense in his power. The loss in men was not irreparable; the loss in arms, colors, and reputation was more painful to bear, and far more difficult to retrieve."[1]


[1] M'Gee.