The Battle of Kinsale

Eleanor Hull
The Battle of Kinsale
Sir George Carew, First Earl of Totnes

Sir George Carew, First Earl of Totnes
From a portrait at Clopton House, Stratford-on-Avon

Sir George Carew (b. 1564), later Earl of Totnes, who had been selected to ‘pacify’ Munster, was one of the most capable officers ever sent into Ireland. We may dislike his methods and condemn his principles, but of his competency there is no doubt.

A Devonshire man, like so many of the leading figures of the Elizabethan period, he had come over to Ireland fresh from Oxford, to take service under his cousin, Sir Peter Carew the Elder.

A younger Sir Peter, Sir George Carew’s brother, had been killed in the unfortunate advance of Lord Grey’s forces into Glenmalure, and George never forgave this loss.

The first act that brought him into public notice was a sudden attack made by him on a passer-by in the streets of Dublin whom he believed to have been concerned in the death of this young man, for which act he was sent to England in disgrace. He made a voyage abroad with Sir Humphrey Gilbert, rose to be captain in the navy, and became later Master of the Ordnance in Ireland, Privy Councillor, and Treasurer at War.

By the time he was appointed President of Munster in 1600 he had passed many years in Ireland and knew the country well.[1]

Vigorous, able, and ruthless, he carried through his task with determination. The accounts of his attacks on the Munster castles prove his energy and skill. When a cannon was clogged, or could not be got into position, it was Carew who took it successfully in hand; when the Irish believed Dunboy to be unassailable his quick eye noted in passing a green spot on the mainland where some troops could land and a cove on a small island which would take two falcons of brass, “as if it had been fashioned for the purpose.”

His reputation for an uncanny knowledge was so great that the Irish believed that he had a familiar spirit, “for they say he knows all things and that nothing can be hidden from him.”[2]

Men were so attached to him that Brian MacMahon was content to betray Tyrone’s plans before the critical battle of Kinsale, because his son had, many years before, acted as Carew’s page in England; and a Spanish captain so admired him that he wondered that Cecil could allow Carew to spend his time among a barbarous nation “for which, he verily believed, Christ had never died.”[3]

Carew’s ambitions grew as time went on. He remembered that Robert FitzStephen, whom he claimed as an ancestor, had had half of the county of Cork given to him by Henry II, the castle of Carew, close to Bantry, bearing witness to his claim. The O’Dalys of Moynterbary were still his family bards; and the time came when the President put in immense claims to the O’Sullevan and MacCarthy estates.

Carew had imbibed to the full the doctrines of his time. He held no faith with rebels, and worked by underground means when fair means failed. He deliberately adopted and carried out the policy of “setting one rogue to ruin another,” and would admit no man to pardon until he had “done service” on some member of his own family.

In the seizure of Fineen MacCarthy when under the Queen’s safeguard he stooped to the basest act of perfidy. But he accomplished the work on which he was sent, and it is only fair to remember that in carrying it through he had the support of a large body of the local lords, Catholic and Protestant, Anglo-Irish and native Irish alike.

Throughout the whole of the Desmond wars the Irish gentlemen were divided into two great and powerful factions—one siding with the English, the other with the Irish party. Mixed motives, in some cases fear, in others interest or avarice, or personal hatreds, or desire for reward, influenced many powerful Irish Catholic lords to fight on the side of the Queen’s armies.

In Munster not only several of the lords of Anglo-Norman descent (such as Ormonde, Barrymore, Viscount Buttevant, Dunboyne, and Castleconnell) stood, at least outwardly, on the Queen’s side, but several of pure Irish blood. The Baron of Upper Ossory, the Earl of Thomond, chief of the O’Briens, MacCarthy Reagh, Lord of Carbery, Sir Cormac MacCarthy, Lord of Muskerry, and Morrogh O’Brien, Lord of Inchiquin, were open supporters of the Crown.

In the North there was a ‘Queen’s’ Maguire and an independent Maguire; a ‘Queen’s’ O’Rorke opposed Brien and his son; Hugh O’Neill was confronted by Turlogh O’Neill and the sons of Shane; and O’Donnell had to fight Neill Garbh O’Donnell, who was lying in wait for his territories. In the South Owen O’Sullevan was out against his cousin O’Sullevan Beare, and Fineen MacCarthy spent a large part of his career struggling with his cousins for the title of Earl of Clancar.

The theory of a solid Irish party fighting against a solid English party was never true at any time in Ireland. It was least of all true during the Ulster and Munster rebellions, even in what was professedly a war of religion. The contrary view ignores one of the main elements in the problem of Elizabethan Ireland. Had such a state of things existed, the wars would have been quickly decided one way or the other; but the fact that Catholic Ireland was at war not only with England, but with a large section of Catholic Ireland, many of whose leaders had their own interests to serve, made it a long and painful and difficult contest.

The country was honeycombed with men half-hearted in the Irish cause or false to it, and from this condition of things English Governments reaped the full benefit. They avowedly and industriously fomented these family dissensions and jealousies, scattering promises lavishly to the ambitious and offering rewards to those who would turn the arms of their followers against those members of their house who were in rebellion, or who would by force or guile bring in their heads.

Never were the vices and weaknesses of human nature more skilfully and persistently played upon, or with greater effect. Desmond and Tyrone, in all their efforts, were hampered by the knowledge that they were surrounded by spies and by allies who would not hesitate to betray them if it were to their own advantage.

During the progress of the war there were many changes of side. All did not confederate at the same time; and men who lost their estates deserted the English, while others, who had come out with Desmond, fell oft as the hope of success grew weaker and the expectation of French or Spanish assistance grew faint.

The Pope offered indulgences equal to those bestowed for the crusade in defence of the Holy Sepulchre to those who joined the armies of O’Neill, but even this did not suffice to weld the Catholics into a solid body fighting for the faith.[4]

During the fifteen years’ war between 1588 and 1603 the towns of Ireland stood solid for the Crown. Though a large part of the inhabitants continued Catholic in religion, they were largely of English descent, and retained their old traditional loyalty unimpaired. From the shelter of their walls they looked in disapproval at the disturbed state of the outlying districts, and to them, quite as much as to the English, the armies of Desmond or the O’Byrnes were hosts of rebels. All they desired was to be left in quiet to carry on their now flourishing trade with France and Spain, or to attend to their municipal duties.

Numbers of Spaniards had settled in the towns of Cork, Waterford, and Limerick, while Galway had all the appearance of a Spanish town, with its solid lofty houses of hewn stone, bearing over the doors the arms of the wealthy merchants who inhabited them. Numbers of young Irishmen in the South were so ‘Spaniolized’ that they spoke Spanish as easily as their mother-tongue.

Though the chances of the civil wars threw fresh trade into their hands, and they could not be prevented from supplying the rebel forces with the munitions of war, got through in spite of all the watchfulness of the English garrisons, their sympathies were limited to their business relations, and they on every occasion were ready to pour forth professions of loyalty to the Crown.

In the towns the priests, too, for the most part preached and instructed the children in principles of loyalty, even during the wars of Munster. Many of them, both priests and friars, “gave an opinion that it was not only lawful to assist the Queen, but even to resist the Irish party and to draw the sword upon it.” This is the report of O’Sullevan Beare, who was intimately acquainted with the South of Ireland, and in constant communication with it, even after he went to Spain.[5]

These priests were indeed placed in a position of great difficulty; they were faced with the Papal excommunication if they did not support a war which had a distinctly religious character, and which had received the approval and blessing of the new Pope. They became sharply divided into two parties, most of the old Irish throwing themselves heartily on the side of the Catholic war, while the priests of the ‘new Irish,’ many of them men of great influence, remained staunch to their allegiance.

A question that aroused much attention was the position of the Irish Catholic soldiers fighting in the Queen’s armies against the adherents of a cause which had the express sanction and blessing of the head of their Church.[6]

The matter was considered so difficult that a special ecclesiastical council was held at Salamanca in May 1602 to consider it, but their decision was hardly clear enough to enable the individual soldier to decide on his course of action in the special circumstances of this war. They recognize the right of the Queen to command the obedience of the Irish soldiers in fighting the Queen’s rebels, but the troops are exhorted not to use their obedience against the spread of the Catholic faith, a distinction that, however real in theory, was a perplexing one for the Irish soldier to translate into practice.[7]

In the same year a party of thirteen Jesuit missioners coming to labour in Ireland assured her Majesty of their allegiance and their intention to defend their prince and country, “in spite of any excommunication, Papal or otherwise, denounced against her Majesty, upon any conspiracies, invasions, or foreign attempts.”[8] This is a remarkable expression of opinion to be made in the year following upon the descent of the Spaniards on the coast of Cork. O’Sullevan Beare, the Catholic historian of Elizabeth’s reign, gives it as his opinion that one reason that the Catholic priests “were far from exhorting their people to war” was that “at this time there was no persecution of priests.”[9]

This agrees with the petition offered by the Catholic party in 1613 on the occasion of the second Parliament of James I, stating that in Queen Elizabeth’s reign ecclesiastical disabilities had been very sparingly and mildly pressed. Even the Catholic colleges abroad were not all anti-English. We find a complaint made by O’Donnell and Father Conry to Philip III of Spain in 1602, when the rebellion was at its height, that in the Irish College of Salamanca, supported by the King and bishops of Spain, the Irish pupils were being reared “on such bad milk as obedience to the Queen and an affectionate love for her interests and for persons outside the pale of the Church” by the President, Thomas White, S.J., who even refused to receive pupils from Ulster and Connacht, because they were in arms against the throne.

The memorialists pray that the Irish President may be removed, and that a Spanish rector may be appointed “who will punctually obey the orders he shall receive,” because White’s students, on their return to Ireland, teach that it is permissible to obey the Queen and to take arms against the King of Spain.[10]

So difficult was it even in the very centre of Catholic Spain, and in purely Irish quarters, to secure a satisfactory disloyalty to the Crown. Even after the promulgation of the Bull of Pope Pius V absolving Elizabeth’s subjects from their allegiance large numbers of her Catholic people felt that they could justly fight on her side, or if they joined the insurgents could fight for their faith and properties without incurring the stigma of disaffection to their sovereign. O’Sullevan Beare says that their opinion was not officially condemned by their own side till long afterward, in the year 1603, “when the war had been nearly finished.”[11]