The Battle of Kinsale (2)

Eleanor Hull
The Battle of Kinsale | start of chapter

On September 20, 1601, Sir Charles Wilmott received in Cork the long-expected news that a fleet of forty-five Spanish ships had been sighted from the Old Head of Kinsale, bearing toward Cork Harbour. Shortly afterward this was followed by a further message that the wind had fallen, and the ships had tacked about and entered Kinsale Harbour.

The small force of English retired on Cork, and the Spaniards proceeded to disembark and take possession of the town. Men remembered, when they heard the news, how anxious Fineen MacCarthy had been during the two past years to get possession of the Old Head of Kinsale, which abutted into the sea south of that harbour.

Kinsale Town, containing not more than two hundred houses, lay beside the river, environed by hills and quite without defence. Don Juan del Aguila, the commander of the fleet, sent out urgent messages to O’Neill and O’Donnell, who were in Ulster seventy-five leagues distant; for nine days he got no reply.

Instead of a general rising, such as the Spaniards had been led to expect, the country remained quiet, only a few followers of Fineen MacCarthy repairing to the foreigners. On the other hand, a large body of Irish under Sir Cormac MacCarthy, Lord of Muskerry, joined Carew’s forces and were ordered by him to parade under the Spanish defences.

Food was beginning to run short, the English troops having destroyed the country, and the country-people were wary of selling to the Spaniards, in spite of the good money offered for their goods, seeing they were so few in number. The wisdom of Tyrone’s advice, that the Spanish troops should land at Carlingford, was amply proved; as it was, a march through the whole length of Ireland was required before the Irish and they could effect a junction.

Instead of the overwhelming force that Tyrone had warned the King of Spain would be necessary to effect anything in the South of Ireland, Don Juan’s army consisted of 3400 men, many of whom began to fall sick as soon as they landed. But the most depressing tidings that reached Don Juan were that James FitzThomas, Earl of Desmond, and Fineen MacCarthy, the two chief supporters on whom he relied for the success of his expedition, were both of them prisoners in the hands of the English, having been taken over on the first sure tidings of the coming of the Spanish fleet and placed in the Tower. This loss of his expected allies deranged all the plans of the Spanish command.

Instead of a strong combination waiting ready for their support, the forces of the South were dispersed and leaderless, and those of the North far away. They were left to meet the English alone, in terribly foul weather, and with their munitions soaked in getting them out of the vessels, and a great part of them rendered useless.

On the English side Carew’s longsightedness had got everything ready. In a hasty meeting with Mountjoy at Kilkenny it was decided that the Lord Deputy should accompany the army into Munster, Carew assuring him that if he came with only his page with him it would have a better effect in gathering together the troops than any service he could do in Dublin.

With his usual vigour Carew set out, marched straight to Rincorran Castle, near Kinsale, which was occupied by the Spaniards, and captured it after some weeks’ fighting. On November 2 the ordnance was withdrawn to the camp, and on the fifth certain news arrived that O’Donnell was approaching with a great part of the Northern army and that Tyrone would follow a few days later. He had sent into Scotland for fresh forces.

The President believed that he had O’Donnell in his grasp. He heard that he had arrived safe at Holy Cross in Co. Tipperary, and he immediately organized a large expedition, under his personal command, assisted by Sir Charles Wilmott and Sir Christopher St Lawrence, to intercept him. By a forced march he brought his army to within four miles of O’Donnell’s camp, right across his way.

O’Donnell was perplexed and knew not what move to make. Beside him lay the mountain of Slieve Felim, now impassable by reason of the heavy rains, no carriage or horse being able to cross the boggy ground. But on that night, while the English army was resting in camp, “there happened a great frost the like of which hath been seldom seen in Ireland,” which so hardened the ground that during the night O’Donnell with all his forces, having first lighted camp-fires to deceive the enemy, slipped silently away and across the mountain.

When morning came Carew found the camp deserted. Hastily he pursued them to the abbey of Owney, eight miles east of Limerick, expecting to find the army encamped there to rest; but O’Donnell was already gone on twelve miles farther to Croom, a march of thirty-two Irish miles without any rest, “the greatest march with carriage that hath been heard of,” admitted the baffled but admiring Carew.

For two days more the two armies kept near each other, and then Carew thought it prudent to return to Kinsale lest the enemy, who was taking a circuitous path, should nevertheless arrive there before him. As they came toward the camp they met the Earl of Clanricarde bringing in his regiment to the assistance of the English, while the Earl of Thomond was endeavouring to bring up supplies and men by sea, but in the furious storms these had been driven westward to Castlehaven. Shortly after he succeeded in making Kinsale Harbour Don Juan also received the supplies of ammunition and food for which he had been waiting; they arrived in seven transports, which had been long detained in the harbour of Corunna by the wild weather.

They found the English on the point of landing, but a hurried message to O’Sullevan, chief of Beare, for the first time brought this hitherto neutral chief to their assistance with five hundred foot and a small body of picked horsemen; and the English, shut in between the town and the transports, were heavily bombarded and suffered severely in losses both of men and ships.

The English main army also was not well placed. Their great camp lay north of Kinsale Town, which they were investing, and they captured and held Castle ny Parke, a strong fort on an island in the harbour; but as the forces of O’Donnell began to arrive they found themselves hemmed in between his army and the town, unable to get out to forage for food, or to obtain the supplies which the country-people were trying to get through to them. They only ventured out at night and later not at all, so that they began to suffer badly from want of provisions.

Pestilence broke out, and O’Sullevan Beare, whose father was acting with the Spaniards, heard that, out of fifteen thousand men with the English at the beginning of the siege, eight thousand perished of want, cold, and hunger, or by the sword.

Carew was seriously contemplating raising the siege and retreating to Cork.[12] There were other causes of anxiety. O’Donnell and O’Neill, who was now approaching, were both accompanied by a large number of the Northern chiefs and their followers, and Carew had reason to know that a considerable proportion of the pardoned and protected Munster lords, lately come in, were intending to join their forces and make one last cast for the deliverance of their country from the English. Nor was he sure of his Irish troops; it was unlikely that they would stand steady if all their own chiefs were fighting on the other side. Even a man like Sir Fineen O’Driscoll, “who never in his whole life had been tainted with the least spot of disloyalty,” was ‘out’ on this occasion and gave up his castle of Baltimore to the Spaniards, who thus now commanded the three harbours of Kinsale, Baltimore, and Bearehaven, Donal O’Sullevan Beare having surrendered his castle of Dunboy into their hands.

At the moment when O’Neill’s great army was reported in sight there seemed to be nothing to prevent the complete annihilation of the whole of the English forces. Don Juan declared in a letter to O’Neill that there were not sufficient of them left to man a third part of their trenches; and when O’Neill sat down between them and Cork their only possible way of retreat seemed closed.

But the great blow that was to have been decisive for Ireland was never struck. A division of opinion arose among the leaders.

O’Neill, seeing the English so weakened, advised that no attack should be made, but that they should be hemmed in until want of food brought about their surrender. Don Juan, on the other hand, was urging him in letter after letter to strike at once and hard, promising that he would sally out of Kinsale and form a junction with him.

Most of these communications were delivered to Carew and not to O’Neill; still, he was well aware what the Spaniards wished, and to meet their views he arranged a rendezvous for a certain day. Carew, possessed of full information of all that was going on, arrived at the place before him and set his troops to work on a sham fight with much beating of drums and firing of musketry. By nightfall O’Neill and O’Sullevan, thinking that the Spaniards were already engaged, had hurried to the spot, but Don Juan, better informed, kept safe within Kinsale.

A series of curious errors occurred. O’Donnell, who was to follow, lost his way in the darkness and wandered far from the scene of action. Don Juan lay quiet, and O’Neill, examining the English trenches from a hillock in the early morning, saw that they were strongly fortified and filled with a fine body of soldiers, sleeping under arms with their horses bridled beside them. In these circumstances he thought a retreat was the path of prudence, and he was retiring to his camp when O’Donnell’s cavalry, led by himself, came up with him.

Meanwhile, the Lord Deputy and President, expecting the decisive battle to take place that day (December 24, 1601), were consulting in the early morning about the disposition of their forces and had sent out orders that they were to post themselves strongly between the town and the enemy camp.

The Spaniards were so confident of victory that they were disputing among themselves whose prisoner the Lord Deputy should be, and whose the President. While this was going on news was brought in that O’Neill was retiring, and some of the Viceroy’s cavalry, following him, were impatient to charge. O’Donnell’s army lay beyond a ford, and, Mountjoy having given permission to his Marshal to use his own discretion, the English horse charged across the ford. They were driven back by O’Donnell’s cavalry, but turned and charged again, this time throwing O’Donnell’s horse into confusion.

Meanwhile, the main bodies of the two armies became engaged, and for a short time O’Sullevan, Tyrrell, and the Spaniards stood firm on the crest of a little hill, with a bog on their right. But a general panic had seized the troops of O’Neill and O’Donnell; they scattered right and left, and no persuasions would recall them, though even some of the Irish gentlemen in the English army, ashamed of their countrymen’s conduct, tried to hearten them, promising that they would not attack them.

For an hour and a half the Queen’s soldiers followed the flying army, cutting them down till they were tired with killing. On the battlefield the Earl of Clanricarde was dubbed a knight for valour, he having been shot through his garments, for “no man did bloody his sword more than his lordship did that day.”

The Spaniards, hearing the volleys of shot discharged for joy, thought it was the Irish troops approaching, and made a sally out of the town; but seeing the Spanish colours being carried by an Englishman they made a speedy retreat. The great religious and national crusade had come to an end.

O’Neill’s disheartened clansmen refused to fight any longer; O’Rorke slipped away home to fight his own brother, who had proclaimed himself chief in his absence, and the Scots departed to their homes.

O’Donnell, Redmond Burke, and Hugh Mostian, with their followers, took ship in the Spanish transports in the bay and sailed away to Spain. They were followed by a large number of chiefs’ sons and men who had taken part in the fighting. Moryson says that the peace enabled them to fly their devastated land and seek refuge in England and France, where multitudes of them lived for some years after the peace was made.[13]

Tyrone had a disastrous journey back to the north, being himself wounded and carried on a litter, his army broken up and many men perishing in the swollen streams or at the hands of the country people. Don Juan del Aguila, seeing his allies “broken with a handful of men, blown asunder into divers parts of the world,” surrendered Kinsale, with the other castles possessed by the Spaniards, into the hands of the Viceroy, and over three thousand men—Spaniards and Irish, soldiers, priests, and religious orders—re-embarked for Spain.

Fierce anger seized upon the Irish when they heard that Don Juan had agreed with the Viceroy to hand over to him the castles of Baltimore and Dunboy. All the wrath that they had hitherto felt against the English was now turned against their late allies.

At Castlehaven the O’Driscolls managed by a ruse to get back their ancestral home, and when Captain Harvey entered the harbour he found the Spaniards assaulting it, in an endeavour to recover it from its owners. At Baltimore, where the Spaniards were still in possession, the castles of Donneshed and Donelong, on either side of the harbour, were “with Spanish gravity” rendered to her Majesty’s use, and the garrisons set sail for Spain.

Dunboy was a harder problem. Its remote situation, great strength, and the wild seas which swept the entrance to Bantry Bay, on the north side of which it lay on a point of the mainland close to Beare Island, made it a difficult place to capture, and on Harvey’s first attempt to make the entrance of the bay he was driven back by storms with a loss of fifty of his men and nearly all his crew.

Meanwhile, Donal O’Sullevan, chief of Beare, the owner of the castle, determined to make an attempt to get it back into his own hands. He knew that having been in arms against the Queen he had little hope of pardon. He had heard that Hugh Roe had been well received in Spain, and that King Philip had promised further substantial succours in men and money.

One ship had already been seen hovering outside Kinsale, but on hearing that Don Juan had surrendered, it had sailed hurriedly away again, taking back the bad news of the defeat of Kinsale to Spain, and effectually putting an end to the preparations which the Spanish King was pushing forward.

At dead of night O’Sullevan surprised the castle and effected an entrance through a breach in the wall, so that when the Spanish captain awoke in the morning he found himself prisoner and the fort in the possession of its original owners. O’Sullevan disarmed them all and sent the larger number of the Spaniards to Baltimore to be embarked for Spain, holding the captain and a few of the best men as prisoners, with all the stores and guns.

This was in February 1602, and in April the President, turning a deaf ear to all who tried to persuade him of the uselessness of such an enterprise, determined on a land attempt to reduce the castle. “Neither bogs nor rocks,” he said, “should forbid the passage of his cannon,” when he was warned that there were places in the mountains at the head of Bantry Bay impassable for horse and carriages, and passes where men could only walk in single file. He was himself ill, both he and the Viceroy having been seized with sudden illness on the day after they had separated, Mountjoy to go to Dublin and Carew to Cork.

The Viceroy had to be carried on a horse-litter, and Carew was at the point of death. It looked suspiciously like a renewal of the attempt made before the battle of Kinsale to poison the President. But neither illness nor difficulties would turn him from his purpose. On April 23 he drew out of Cork, having been able to get together only fifteen hundred men out of the three thousand on the lists, sickness during the long winter’s siege of Kinsale having taken its usual heavy toll. They marched along the sea-coast as far as Baltimore, and then struck northward, effecting a junction with Captain Flower’s garrison at Carew Castle, the home of the President’s ancestors, near Bantry Abbey. Here, while the President awaited the arrival of his provisions by sea, Sir Charles Wilmott was scouring North Kerry, capturing the castles, receiving submission from a number of the chiefs, and clearing all the district, so that the President should have no enemy at his back when marching on Bantry.

On the same day that the transport vessels sailed into Bantry Bay he joined his forces to those of Carew, and it was decided that the way round the head of the Bay having proved impassable, as had been predicted, the attempt should be made by sea, and the Earl of Thomond was sent across to tow up the vessel under Beare Island (called the Great Island) opposite Dunboy, from which it was intended to make the attack.