The Siege and Battle of Kinsale

A great revolt broke out in Ulster shortly before the time we are dealing with, and spread throughout the whole of Ireland. In 1599 all Munster was in revolt—it would seem that the clans had realised the necessity of a united Ireland. It was headed by Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone, and Hugh Roe O’Donnell, Chief of Tirconnell. O’Neill visited Munster in January 1600, and encamped with his army at Inniscarra, near Cork. He was waited on by many chiefs, including Donall O’Sullivan Beare.

The English generals hitherto commissioned to suppress the rebellion had failed, so now Elizabeth sent over Lord Mountjoy as Deputy, and Sir George Carew as President of Munster. Carew, by fraud and treachery, as well as by force, had subdued nearly the whole of Munster by the end of 1600.

The Irish were making pressing demands on the King of Spain for help which was offered, but was very slow in coming. At last, on the 23rd September, 1601, a Spanish fleet of 54 ships with a force of 3,000 on board entered the harbour of Kinsale. The ships were to be brought into Cork Harbour, but, on nearing its entrance, a head wind started which caused them to make for Kinsale.

The English army at Kinsale was too small to oppose their landing—a force of 50 foot and 40 horse—and these immediately set out for Cork, many of the better class of persons accompanying them with all their goods. They carried off all cattle and corn from the district and broke down the mills.

The Spanish army marched, with 25 colours, towards the town, the gates of which were thrown open to them, and they were received kindly by the town people. The town, environed by hills, was without any kind of defence, and contained about 200 houses.

The commander-in-chief, Don Juan de Aquila, in order to allay the fears of the people, issued the following proclamation:—

“We, Don Juan de Aquila, general of the armie to Philip, King of Spaine, by these presents, doe promise that all the inhabitants of the towne of Kinsale shall receive no injury by any of our retinew, but rather shall be used as our brethren and friends, and that it shall bee lawful for any of the inhabitants that list to transport, without any molestation in body or goods, and as much as shall remaine, likewise without any hurt. Don Juan de Aquila.”

As soon as he had lodged his army, he despatched messengers to report his arrival to the Earl of Tyrone and Chief of Tirconnell. He then set about repairing the defences, and took possession of Rincurran Castle.

Mountjoy and Carew were at Kilkenny, and, learning the Spaniards had arrived, they set out for Cork, and at the end of three weeks encamped on the north side of Kinsale with an army of 12,000 men. On the 29th of October the Lord President besieged Rincurran, Don Juan sent a party of 500 to its relief, but, after some hard fighting, the place was delivered up to the English, and the prisoners were sent on to Cork. Sir George received the following letter of thanks on the occasion from the Queen, 31st of October, 1601:—

“Her Majesty’s letter unto the Lo. President.

“My faithful George, if ever more service of worth were performed in shorter space than you have done wee are deceived; among many eye-witnesses wee have received the fruit thereof, and bid you faithfully credit, that what so witt, courage, or care, may doe, wee truely finde they have beene all truely acted in all your charge, and for the same beleeve that it shall neither bee unremembered nor unrewarded; and in the meanwhile beleeve my helpe nor prayers shall never faile you.

“Your Soveraigne that best regards you,

“Eliz. R.”

Intelligence at this time was communicated to the English that O’Donnell was on his march to Kinsale. Carew, against his will, was despatched to intercept him. None of them was anxious to fight, as each, thought it better to reserve his strength for a future effort. They were one night within four miles of each other near Holy Cross in Tipperary. Here O’Donnell’s further progress was barred, for Carew lay right in his path. Luckily there came a sudden and intense frost which hardened up the bogs and morasses, and enabled him in the night to cross the Slieve Felim mountains, and in 24 hours he reached Croom, 40 miles distant, the greatest march that Carew ever heard of before. He arrived at Kinsale about the middle of November. O’Neill arrived 21st December with 4,000 men, and encamped some distance from the English lines, so the English were now besieged.

The chieftains of Munster up to this kept aloof, but on seeing the armies of O’Neill and O’Donnell on the field, they took courage and joined their ranks. Among these were Sir Owen McCarthy’s sons, Sir Finnin, and all the O’Driscolls, and all the Carties of Carbery, Donhall O’Sullivan Beare, O’Sullivan More’s eldest son, the Earl of Clancare’s base son, all the Carties of Desmond, the Knight of Kerry, John O’Connor, Kerry, and all from Kinsale to Limerick. The O’Driscolls gave up their Castles of Baltimore and Castlehaven, and O’Sullivan, Dunboy, which were garrisoned by Spaniards. At this time O’Sullivan Beare despatched the following letter to the King of Spain:—

“A letter from Donnell O’Sulevan Beare unto the King of Spain.”

“It hath beene ever, most mighty and renowned prince, and most gracious Catholike King, from time to time, manifestly proved by daily experience among us, the Irish, that there is nothing worketh more forcibly in our hearts, to winne, and to draw our love and affection, than naturall inclination to our progeny and offspring, and the memoriall of the friendship, which stiketh still in our minds: chiefly the same being renewed, cherished, and kept in us by mutall affection, and by showing like friendship to us also; we the mere Irish, long sithence deriving our roote and originall from the famous and most noble race of the Spaniards, viz., from Milecius, sonne to Bile, son to Breogwin, and from Lwighe, sonne to Lythy, sonne to Breogwin, by the testimony of our old ancient books of antiquities, our petigrees, our histories, and our cronicles.

“Though there were not other matter, wee came not as naturall branches of the famous tree, whereof we grew, but beare a hearty love and a naturall affection, and intire inclination of our hearts and minds, to our ancient and most loving kinsfolkes, and the most noble race whereof we descended.

“Besides this, my Soveraigne, such is the abunddance of your goodnesse, and the bounty or greatnesse of your liberality, now every way undeserved of our parts, as tokens of love and affection by your majestie shewed unto us, that it is not fit or seemely for us but to bestow our persons, our men, and our goods, in the service of a prince that dealeth so gratiously with us, that sendeth forces of men, great treasure, victuals and munition for our aide against our enemies, that seek to overwhelme and extinguish the Catholike faith diabolically, put to death our chieftaines tyrannously, coveting our lands and livings unlawfully.

“For the foresaid consideration, and for many other commendable causes me moving, I bequeath, and offer in humbleness of mind, and with all my heart, my owne person with all my forces, perpetually to serve your majestie, not only in Ireland, but in any other place where it shall please your hignesse; I commit also my wife, my children, my mannors, townes, countrey, and lands, and my haven of Dunboy, called Biara-haven (next under God) to the protection, keeping, and defence of commericke of your majestie, to be and remaine in your hands, and at your disposition.

“Also at your pleasure bee it (my liege Lord) to send defence and strong keeping to the haven of Dunboy, first for yourselfe (my Soveraigne) to receive your ships, and for me also as your loving servant, so that the Queene of England’s ships may not possess the same before you, while I followe the warres in your highnesse behalfe, I pray Almighty God to give your majestie long life, health of body and soule, with increase of grace and prosperity. So I betake you to the keeping of God.

“From the campe neere Kinsale, the nine and twentieth of December, 1601, Stilo Novo.

“Your most dutifull loving servant,


Now the English were harassed on every side. The Tyrone horse during the day hovered round their camp, and they were not able to get in provisions for men or horses. Famine, sickness, and exposure to bad weather, decimated their ranks. The Spaniards made sallies in the night and inflicted heavy loss. As the vast majority of the English army were Irishmen, there were many deserters daily from the English camp, who were increasing with adversity. The Irish cause was thus bound to succeed if the allies remained quiet and kept the English hemmed in.

Additional troops to reinforce de Aquilla were despatched in twelve vessels, six of which, owing to bad weather, had to put back to Corunna, while the other six safely reached Castlehaven in November. Levison, the English Commander, was sent from Kinsale with a squadron to attack them, and was on the point of capturing the Spanish ships when O’Sullivan Beare, with his uncle Dermot and 400 followers, came just in time to rescue them. Some cannons taken from the Spanish ships were mounted on shore, and the English were driven off with the loss of 500 men.

The English now were reduced to great straits, and neither hay, corn, water, nor fuel, was permitted to be taken to the camp, desertion was increasing, the army was rapidly melting away, and by the 20th December the fighting force was reduced to about 6,000.

The Spaniards had plenty provisions, yet, for some time back, Don Juan was urging the Irish chieftains to make a night attack on the English camp, in which the Spaniards were to take part. Hugh O’Neill was opposed to this attack, and held out against it for some time, for he thought it better to let famine and pestilence do the work. O’Donnell, however, was in favour of it with the view of pleasing the Spaniards, as he did not wish they should have the slightest grounds for complaint—in fact, he would rather suffer defeat than give any reasons for grumbling. A council of war was held, and the majority decided against O’Neill. It was decided the attack should take place on the night of the 23rd December.

On the 22nd December Brian MacMahon, an Ulster chieftain, and “a principal Commander in the Irish army,” whose eldest sou had been a page to the Lord President, sent a messenger requesting the Lord President for a bottle of aqua vitae. The President, for old acquaintance, granted the request. The next night the same messenger was sent conveying the thanks of MacMahon and warning the President to be on his guard as an attack was to be made that night by the Irish and Spaniards.

The English lost no time in making preparations. Mountjoy is to take the field against the Irish, and Carew is to keep an eye on the Spaniards. The night was cold, dark, and tempestuous, and the guides of the armies had great difficulty in finding their way—in fact O’Donnell’s army went astray. About daybreak, O’Neill approached the English camp, which he expected to take by surprise. To his amazement he found all in readiness to meet him, the men drawn out in line of battle, and the horses mounted. He halts, and, seeing his ranks in some disorder, he orders a retreat, in the view of some to put his ranks in order, while others say he meant to await the approach of O’Donnell. There was confusion in the ranks, which the quick eye of Mountjoy observed. The Deputy gives the order to follow. The Earl of Clanricarde and Sir Richard Greame charge with 1,000 foot, but cannot break the ranks. The route lay through a boggy glen, cut by a stream to the northwest of the town.

At the stream O’Donnell came up and drove back the English, but he was not supported; even at this juncture, some of the chiefs fled, leaving the rank and file to their fate. The regiments were then broken, the vanguard and main body were mixed up, and the Irish were broken, scattered, slain. They were pursued two miles, and the English did not return to the camp until they were “tyred with killing.” It is estimated by some that the Irish left 1,200 dead on the field, and 800 wounded, many of whom died that night. Other authorities state that the number of dead was about 200. The Four Masters attribute the defeat to the anger of God, and O’Sullivan Beare to the sins of the Irish. If the Irish won the battle, O’Neill would be paramount, and some of the Irish Chiefs, it seems, preferred a stranger. They fled from the field and created a panic, which was the real cause of the defeat. Don Juan made no move to co-operate with the Irish, only he showed himself at the end when all was over, and immediately returned behind his entrenchments. At the end of a week he had concluded a treaty with the English, surrendering all the castles and garrisons the Irish Chiefs entrusted to his care, and then prepared to return to his own country. On arriving in Spain he was coldly received by the King, whose favour he had lost, and was confined a prisoner in his own house, where he died of chagrin soon after.

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