Ireland’s Wars: The Siege Of Dunboy And O’Sullivan’s March

Hugh O’Neill had retreated back into Ulster, Hugh Roe was on his last mission to Spain. But while Mountjoy was preparing to attack Tyrone and Tyrconnell again, events down south were taking all of the headlines in the year of 1602. The last of the Munster rebels was still to be put down.

That rebel was Donal Cam O’Sullivan Beare, ruler of the O’Sullivan family in south Cork. Donal had been fighting the English for most of his life, and had come out in support of Hugh O’Neill’s revolt early on, playing a key role in the somewhat doomed uprising in Munster. Unlike nearly all of the other rebel lords, who called it quits after the capture of the Sugan Earl, O’Sullivan Beare kept at it, probably aware that his letters to the Spanish King, intercepted and known to the English authorities, would mean his death if he surrendered or was captured. Up to the Battle of Kinsale his activities were mostly small fry, Munster long since past the point of being able to support a major rebellion against the crown, and with George Carew wielding a large army throughout the province.

The Kinsale affair provided O’Sullivan Beare an opportunity to have more of an impact and he certainly took part in the siege and the battle that followed. In the aftermath he fled back to his own safe holds in Cork along the Beara Peninsula, where he would continue to hold out for some time.

One of Donal’s key fortresses was Dunboy Castle, near the very tip of the Beara Peninsula not far from the modern day town of Castletownbere. The actual fortress itself was somewhat rudimentary, a stone towerhouse really, but it was a key strong point of the Bearhaven harbour, and was a place from which much trade and business was done with the European continent. With a narrow channel on one side and difficult ground on the other – part rock, part bog – Dunboy was a surprisingly hard nut to crack. As TD Sullivan would write, several centuries later:

“Dunboy, Dunboy, the proud, the strong,

The Saxon’s hate and trouble long,

All Ireland’s hope and Munster’s boast,

The pride of Beara’s iron coast”

That’s near the beginning of his “Dunboy”, an epic poem describing the life of O’Sullivan Beare, the coming battle and what happened afterward. In the aftermath of Kinsale, with his forces scattered and largely defeated, Donal knew that he would need to hold what few fortresses he had. A garrison of Spanish troops had actually been allowed to occupy Dunboy, and O’Sullivan first had to get them out of the place. With the surrender of Aguila at Kinsale, the handover of Dunboy to English forces was made part of the same deal. Before they could attempt to get their hands on the castle however, O’Sullivan got there first, seizing back control of it before the Spanish knew what was happening, probably seeing no danger in allowing an “ally” back into, what was, his own keep. O’Sullivan kicked the Spaniards out, but kept their significant stores of muskets and gunpowder. The Spanish headed home, and George Carew was left fuming at the missed opportunity.

Some sources indicate that Carew became obsessed with the notion of attacking and capturing Dunboy, against all the advice he received to the contrary. The fortresses’ remoteness, its natural defences, the guns and cannon of its defenders, the potentially high cost in lives and resources in any assault and the sheer lack of necessity – O’Sullivan was in no danger of overturning the English position in Munster after all – were all mooted as reasons to leave the castle be. The Earl of Thomond warned him it would have to be a large and costly operation. The Earl of Ormond advised him to drop the matter.

But Carew would not be dissuaded. Maybe he wanted to crush the last vestiges of rebellion. Maybe, unable to hit O’Sullivan’s raiding parties and ambush groups, he simply wanted to have a go at a static target. Maybe it was pride. A more logical reason might have been the fear that such a coastal position would be used for any future Spanish landing, the possibility of which was unknown at the time. The castle could still be said to have been held in the name of the Spanish King after all. In that regard, Carew was seeking to capture and hold as many, if not all, southern ports as he could. It should also be noted that the objections were probably in line with thoughts that up to a thousand men could have been defending the castle and the area, which was not the situation in reality.

Regardless, after spending the first half of 1602 chasing shadows in south Munster while trying to bring O’Sullivan to heel, Carew determined to march on Dunboy with nearly the entirety of his military strength. The size of that forces is in dispute, but could have been anywhere between 2’500 or 5’000 men. The number of “effectives” compared to the overall size of the army was probably much smaller, but they still would have easily outnumbered the defenders at Dunboy. He also had the support of a naval detachment, which would park itself off the coast and prevent any escape or re-supply that way. That naval detachment proved the main transport option, as Carew choose to forgo an overland march through the treacherous terrain of Berehaven in favour of a trip to Bere Island, a small island directly opposite Dunboy. This might seem a strange choice of besieging point, but it was actually a better angle of approach than that from the east. If another landing could be made on the point opposite Bear Island, than the English would be in a better position.

Those defenders were small in number, just over 140 men total. By the time Carew had his forces in position, early June, the defenders did not even include O’Sullivan, who had either rode north to consult with the rebels in Ulster about what to do next or had travelled to another sea port in order to secure a Spanish ship that had recently docked with supplies, trusting in his garrison and their guns to hold out. A confident and ally, Richard MacGeoghan, was left in command. His troops might have been few in number, but they were battle-hardened and well armed.

Carew successfully landed a force of men on the rearward side of the castle in a daring move, though they suffered some loss in driving off the defenders who had been placed there. Carew had feinted an assault on a obvious landing point of a sandy cove that had been entrenched by the Irish, only to land his main force somewhere to the west, outflanking them and winning a key fight in the battle to take the castle. Failure to prevent this landing was the first in a series of unlucky moves the Irish suffered, as holding the landing points opposite Bere Island was one of the only ways that Carew could have been stopped. An Irish source sarcastically dubs this sort of ruse “pretty tactics”.

For all of the castles strengths, there was only so much that it could endure. Carew had an advantage in artillery, and though the defenders blasted back with the guns they had, they could not hope to match the English firepower from land and from sea. Local allies, including members of O’Sullivan’s family, informed Carew of the weaker points of the castle, and soon the cannon balls were raining down from positions he had been able to prepare since effecting his landing. Choosing to go about his business via the sea and Bere Island had been a risk, but it had now paid off.


Carew also busied himself reducing the surrounding area, capturing the mostly undefended point of Dursey Island, on the very tip of the peninsula. Dursey was the intended “last stand” point of the Dunboy defenders, and its loss severely reduced their strategic options. MacGeoghan ordered several sorties, usually attempts to capture or destroy the English cannon, and was wounded for his trouble without gaining the objective. Such attacks were now of critically importance, as the rebels position was being torn apart all around them.

After 10 days of siege and shelling, Dunboy had been largely reduced to rubble, its walls shattered and its tower felled. The old Irish stone, like so many castles in Munster and beyond, was not built to withstand cannon fire. The defenders, being gradually reduced themselves, still held out under the bombardment.

Attempts to get the garrison to surrender near the start of the siege had failed (MacGeoghan apparently used the opportunity only to warn off the English from an attack, which probably enraged Carew), and now MacGeoghan, realising his position was untenable, tried to re-open the negotiations. The messenger he sent out with a white flag was hanged and the attack continued. While this may seem an act of savagery, the understood laws of war at the time meant that acceptance of negotiations, after terms had been previously offered and rejected, was entirely at the the besiegers discretion. Carew, playing hardball and intent on his prize, did not go the Mountjoy route of generous terms. One source also claims the Irish maintained fire while the messenger was sent out, but this is impossible to determine.

On this, the tenth day of the siege, Carew sent forward assault parties to swarm over the reduced walls and make an end of the battle. They were resisted fiercely, and the hand-to-hand fighting that took place was noted as especially bloody. MacGeoghan, though mortally wounded in the battle, was able to hold off the English for one more day. 30 or so of the defenders made a dash for the sea and a potential swim to safety, but the English Navy was on hand to kill them all in the water.

Thomas Taylor, an Englishman married to the niece of Richard Tyrell, now took command, but could do little more than retreat with the 77 men he had left into the still standing cellars of Dunboy. Escape was impossible, and no surrender terms were offered. In desperation, Taylor sent word to Carew that he would set alight the barrels of gunpowder he had in his possession, blowing the castle remnants and any nearby attackers sky high, before giving it up without terms. Carew ignored this threat and cannon were brought up even closer to launch a continuous fire into the final rebel holdout from near point blank range.

After one more day of this Taylor marched what few men he had left out of the cellar and into English custody, an unconditional surrender. They were all executed shortly after, some after being tortured. While the sources admire the “pluck” of the defenders, Carew’s actions were probably meant as a warning to others who had thoughts of such a defiant holdout. Many sources relate a story that McGeoghan, still clinging to life, was stopped from lighting the gunpowder stores at the very last second by a fast acting group of advance soldiers before they ran him through. That may be a simple addition of romanticism to imbue the story, and the Irish, with a degree of fatal heroism, but is mentioned all over the place as happening. At least 80 English casualties occurred in the siege. While the overall numbers seem quite low, I am struck in my readings by the attention given to the battle and the fighting that took place there, which is written about in the grimmest terms.

Having captured the prize he set out to take, Carew then added one last bizarre addendum to the brutal struggle, using the same gunpowder stores to blow up the pitiful remains of Dunboy himself. Why he did so is unclear. I would posit that the damage done to the castle was so severe as to rule out any rebuilding effort – it remains a ruin to this day – and the final destruction of the stronghold in such manner was a clear signal of Carew’s intent to destroy the rebels and any places they choose to hide in. TD Sullivan was right in his description:

“Those grass-grown heaps, this crumbling wall

This low green ridge – can these be all,

That was and time have left to tell,

Thy lofty turrets crashing fell”

O’Sullivan was devastated by the destruction of the castle, and though he continued his guerrilla campaign, he was operating on borrowed time. Carew went back on the tried and true methods of crop stealing/burning in order to reduce his enemy’s access to supplies and weaken his connection to the local population, already living on the edge of starvation. This “devastation” policy, as I have come to understand it was called, would soon be mirrored in other parts of Ireland, and was part of a Pale-ordered effort to strangle the last support that the rebels across the country had. Cork and Kerry received the worst of it, with reports of mass executions and slaughter of wounded and sick, all “accounts” to be taken with a degree of salt.

Though O’Sullivan still held a few lesser fortresses and remained an irritating source of raids and ambushes for the rest of 1602, it couldn’t last. All of the Spanish gold would not help him and his few remaining followers if there was nothing to spend it on. Tyrell and the last of his meagre force left the area, leaving Donal alone. The loss of Dunboy, according to at least one source, was the final death knell in Spanish plans to send a new force to Ireland, though I personally find the idea of Philip III sending any more troops to be highly improbable after Kinsale. Still, if O’Sullivan believed this, it might explain the suicidal course he took as 1602 drew to a close. His last retreats had been captured or cut off, he was out of crops and herds, and Carew stood poised to bring him to heel at last.

With the last thousand of his loyal followers – half of whom would have been soldiers, the rest elderly, women and children – O’Sullivan made the decision to strike out of Cork, out of Munster, and head to the relative safety of allies in the north of Ireland. His letter connections to the Spanish court continued to make his survival upon surrender unlikely, and he could not continue to stay where he was and live. Carew pushed him too hard, necessitating the leaving time being one of the worst possible, December 31st. In a grim mirror of the Gaelic Army’s march from the north the previous year, O’Sullivan would now lead a force in the other direction in the height of winter.

This march has become famous – or infamous if you prefer – as one of the great struggles of Gaelic Ireland. The thousand strong host left Glengarrif, not far from Bantry, and headed north towards Limerick. Sanctuary was hundreds of miles off, with some of the only allies O’Sullivan had left, in North Connacht and Ulster.

All along the way, more especially after they had left Cork, this column would come under attack, from both English forces, Irish forces and just whatever local population they would stray near. The intent of the attacks would have been both military and opportunistic, as the slow moving host would have been a ripe target for brigands as well as Carew and company. Covering anywhere between 20 and 30 miles a day, O’Sullivan kept his people moving at a pace that was near murderous at times, but was a result of their many enemies. The route they took varied from roads and countryside depending on the environment and suspected attack. I have replicated their journey below to the best of my ability, with the green dots representing major camp sites, and the red dots representing major fights. It should not be taken as anything other than a very rough guide to their route and progress.

osm 4

(The dots, from south to north, would be Glengarrif, Millstreet, the East Limerick region (Hospital perhaps), Donohill, North Tipperary camps, Portumna, Aughrim, Glinsk and Leitrim Town.)

The first major combat, aside from a few raids near Millstreet, occured as the group entered East Limerick, and came under attack from White Knight forces based out of Kilmallock. Supplemented by soldiers from Limerick City itself, they caused many casualties and drove O’Sullivan and the survivors on to the mountains in Tipperary in a running battle. O’Sullivan and his people survived, perhaps due to the piecemeal and undisciplined way the English attacked, not to mention their own soldiers firing back with their stock of muskets. The Shannon had to be crossed, a passage on the eastern side not something that could be contemplated due to the English domination of the regions there. A direct approach was also out of the question, due to the English control of the estuary and the immediate area. So, O’Sullivan was obliged to swing into Tipperary and pursue a curving path northwards past Lough Derg.

Along the way they raided the small fort at Donohill for desperately needed supplies, but came under constant attack from local raiding parties and some forces under the Earl of Ormond. None of these was large enough to cause a fatal blow, but the attacks chipped away at the column’s strength, and over 300 of them had already fallen or left. The winter froze some to death, starvation took others. Carrying no food, they were forced to eat what they could find on the road, which was slim picking at that time of year.

The crossing of the Shannon took place at the top of Lough Derg, near the village of Portumna. The mighty river could not be forded, so O’Sullivan took the measure of slaughtering the last of their horses and skinning them to make currachs (a small Irish boat). Two were constructed to ferry the remainder of the column across. One of these sank on the way, though close enough to the shore that no one drowned. The other, after an agonising time, got the rest across and into modern day County Galway. Local Irish out of Redwood Castle, loyal to the English, launched a number of attacks while the refugees waited on the eastern side, inflating their misery.

O’Sullivan, his group leaking members all the time, continued north. In the Aughrim area of Galway he was able to stop for a while and raid about for supplies, which would not have endeared him to the local population. North of this area the forces of the Clanrickarde got involved, having been warned off his approach. A small army under the Earl’s brother, Thomas Burke, attacked O’Sullivan and his group, but was beaten off. Thomas is depicted in most accounts as severely outnumbering O’Sullivan, making this fight an historical oddity. Given the lack of information, it is odd that, with a 3-1 advantage over a group of tired, starving wanderers, Burke was not able to destroy his foe, so we must assume that the numbers are exaggerated, or that the attack failed for other reasons – poor weather, bad timing, etc. One account claims O’Sullivan made use of a false retreat tactic to put his enemy to (temporary) flight, allowing he and his followers to escape the danger.

As O’Sullivan maintained his pace, snow began to fall, leaving the threat of exposure ever present in the minds of the few who now remained, well less than half of who set out. Some would not have died, but simply turned aside or gone home, seeking shelter wherever they could, rather than continue the brutal journey. When it wasn’t snowing, it was raining.

O’Sullivan went on, now following the course of the Suck River. Eventually this brought him close to Glinsk Castle, controlled by the Burke’s. O’Sullivan approached the castle, apparently hoping to find help or shelter there, but the castles owner not only shut his doors, but organised the locals to drive O’Sullivan off. Though mostly unarmed, they heavily outnumbered the marchers, and O’Sullivan was hesitant to confront them. One source claims Donal tried to trick the garrison of Glinsk into opening up by displaying colours captured from Thomas Burke, but this ruse failed to work. A constant pursuit until they were clear of Burke lands continued, a consistent harassment, that meant O’Sullivan could find no succour there.

So, O’Sullivan’s column, now a week and a half in the wilderness, was compelled to keep moving, the numbers now dropping low. The route went into Roscommon and the many lakes in the north of the county. This was far closer to rebel territory, and the welcome the group received was probably friendlier here, or at least somewhat neutral. The last part of the march at least had a local guide of some sort. O’Sullivan made the pass through the Curlew Mountains, probably through the same point where Hugh Roe O’Donnell had defeated Conyers Clifford a few years earlier, then around Lough Arrow and into Leitrim, where the last of his exhausted, hungry troop fell in the doors of O’Rourke’s castle, probably where Leitrim Village is today.

Of the thousand or so that set out, all that remained, apart from O’Sullivan himself, were “18 soldiers, 16 horseboys and one woman”. Just 35 of the group made it to the relative safety of the north, two weeks after they had set out. A few dribs and drabs, groups of two and three, would follow over the following days. The rest had died from starvation and the cold, been killed by the near ceaseless attacks, or had turned aside and sought their own end. O’Rourke, long a rebel, freely offered comfort and what relief he could to them. The nightmare, for now, had ended.

O’Sullivan’s movement north was a desperate move that resulted in the loss of nearly all of his remaining followers. One could argue that it would have been better if he had just turned himself in rather than let the last of his people be slaughtered, but this thought does not seem to have occurred to most Irish sources, who paint the march with the most tragic/romantic brushes possible, emphasising the cruelty of those who were opposed to the marchers over the insanity of the marchers themselves. A famous jig may not have helped matters in that respect. The march was a near hopeless endeavour from start to finish, as O’Sullivan lacked the soldiers to defend all of his people, and moved through an environment that was as hostile in nature as it was in locals.

The march offered nothing to the rebellion in the north, given the tiny numbers of military “effectives” who made it that far. By then, the Nine Years War was rapidly heading to a close anyway and the final moves will be the focus of the next entry.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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6 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The Siege Of Dunboy And O’Sullivan’s March

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

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  3. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: A Summary Of The Nine Years War | Never Felt Better

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  5. I take it that the native Irish were cruel to their own just as the English Army was extremely cruel. Carew and others don’t realize that when you are too cruel, it only makes the oppressed more desirous to someday kill you, witness what Israel has done to the Palestinians.

  6. Pingback: Four Curious Wells enroute to Allihies | Holy Wells of Cork

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