Ireland’s Wars: The Battle Of Kinsale

A note on dates: The English actually kept a slightly different calendar to the Spanish and Catholic Irish, for largely religious reasons. As such, I beg a little leeway if some dates seem a bit off kilter. The Battle of Kinsale is judged to have been held on both the 24th of December 1601 (English time) and the 2nd of January 1602 (Catholic time) depending on who you favour.

This is the second half of what was originally a single post, that has since been split up as part of a re-editing process. The first half is here.

Hugh O’Neill and Hugh Roe O’Donnell were not exactly sure of how to proceed once they had gotten their respective armies into position near Kinsale. They had been bolstered by some of the Spanish troops that had landed further west at Baltimore and Castlehaven, but were cut off from the majority of the Spanish army in Kinsale itself where Juan del Aguila was still besieged. Mountjoy was not about to move, or so it seemed, so a decision had to be made.

What occurred next has proven to be the most controversial aspect of the entire campaign, and perhaps the entire war. There is no clear concise account of the feelings and opinions of the various commanders, or why the decision to attack was taken. Del Aguila and the Spanish undoubtedly wanted an aggressive approach, being besieged and unhappy at the less than average response of the locals to their presence. It may be safe to assume that O’Donnell, always the most active and aggressive of the rebel leaders, and with a track record of impatience with sieges, would have agreed with such a course of action as well.

It is Hugh O’Neill, the chief architect and director of the rebellion, who probably had the decisive vote on what to do next. Most sources mention his hesitance to embark on any offensive and I would judge, based on his past record, for this to be correct. O’Neill had never really fought on the offensive before, not in numbers as great as this. His victories had been of the reactive kind, of well placed ambush and well-prepared defences. His soldiers were experienced and fairly well trained for the time and location but had never fought a set-piece battle of the like being proposed, in those numbers or on the offensive.

Moreover, from their position to the north of Mountjoy, they had effectively besieged the besiegers. Disease, desertion and cold were ravaging Mountjoy’s army, and O’Neill could well have been right in any assertion made that the English were doomed as it stood. Better perhaps to dig in themselves and wait for nature to do their job, or perhaps force Mountjoy to fight a breakout operation that would either fail or cost the English immense casualties.

These were no small considerations. O’Neill must have painfully aware of how much he was risking, considering the troops that he had brought. But del Aguila was insistent that something be done, and there were concerns over his commitment to the mission, worries that he would choose to surrender rather than stay and fight on his own for much longer. The Spanish court back at home could do with news of a victory to help with their resolve too.

Del Aguila dangled the carrot of a combined offensive of the Irish with the Spanish, with the Kinsale commander to launch a mass sortie out of his gates just as the Irish attacked Mountjoy from the other side. The English, trapped in the middle of two large forces, would be cut to pieces. It sounded like a great idea, but only a fool would have bought into the plan without reservation. Such a combined assault would take a good level of co-ordination and perfect timing, and communications between the Irish camp and Kinsale were sketchy at best. Worse still, it was proposed for the Irish to form up at night, march out from their camp, and attack the surprised English at dawn. Night movements were never to be guaranteed at the best of times, as any native of Tyrconnell and Tyrone should have known.

It is almost comforting, for those who want to play up the reputation and intelligence of O’Neill, to paint him as a man who fought against the plan to attack Mountjoy head on, but in the end the Tyrone Chief agreed to the operation. His forces, along with those of O’Donnell and their allies, would move out from their camp at Belgooly, north of Kinsale, in night-time hours and engage Mountjoy’s army with the coming of the dawn.

I suppose I should note that some sources mention a traitor at this point in the record, an Irish noble named Brian MacHugh Og MacMahon, who tipped off the English about the intended attack (some go even further and claim it was for a bottle of whiskey). MacMahon was presumably one of the Monaghan MacMahon’s and one of O’Neill’s chief officers. The story of betrayal is not taken up by other sources and is the sort of familiar apologising that some Irish chroniclers are known for including, in order to cover up the mistakes and poor decisions of the major players. We might remember how the rebellion of Silken Thomas is said to have been betrayed by someone who opened the castle gates of Maynooth to the English as well, without a strong basis in fact. It could also be the other way, English-induced propaganda to make the Irish look foolish and ridden with traitors.

I remain somewhat skeptical, as have many historians, amateur and professional, since. The claim is used as an explanation for why Mountjoy had regiments of his army on guard that night, but it is perfectly logical to assume that he had his men on guard because the Irish were encamped nearby and liable to attack, not because he had forewarning of a specific assault.

The more specific points of the plan were hashed out after the decision to attack. The Irish were to arrange themselves in three “battles”, a vanguard in front, a rearguard in back and a main formation in the centre.  O’Donnell would command the rear, with 2’000 men from Tyrconnell and Connacht. Richard Tyrell, a commander of rebel forces in Leinster and one of O’Neill’s most trusted lieutenants, commanded the centre with 1’300 men from throughout Munster and Leinster, along with the Spanish contingent that had arrived from further west. O’Neill himself took command of the van, made up almost entirely of his own Tyrone army, 2’000 or so men, and the largest amount of cavalry between the three battles.

O’Neill and O’Donnell were to march south through the night and attack Mountjoy in his own camp directly. While they were on their way to do that, Tyrell was to take a more circuitous route by the left bank of the Bandon River, head to Kinsale to join up with Aguila and his men, and from there assault the encampment of Thomond, the other main part of the English force. The plan was, as stated, solid enough and would have caused Mountjoy huge problems if successfully implemented. But it all hinged on perfect movement in the dark.

This was difficult enough, but was only made more so by the chosen formations. Probably on the advice of the Spanish and at Hugh O’Neill’s direction, the three battles formed, or attempted to at least, into “tercio”  formation. The tercio was a largely Spanish designed unit formation of the time that they had employed to great success in their conflicts in the Early Modern period. Usually involving groups of 3’000 men, the tercio saw a large core of pikemen and other infantry form into a square, with the corners made up of smaller units of “shot” troops. The gunners would harass and skirmish with the enemy, while the core of infantry would be the key battle point.

The tercio was a good formation, though it would only be a few decades before it began to vanish from the battlefield, especially after clashes like Breitenfeld in the Thirty Years War. But it required extensive training and experience to work properly, especially in conjunction with other tercio’s. The Irish lacked that experience, or any significant experience in using such a compact formation in a set-piece battle. Hugh O’Neill persisted though, and as the Irish set out that night, they did so in what we can only assume was the rough shape of a tercio.

Things started to go wrong almost at once. The three battles became hopelessly lost in the darkness and blundered off in completely the wrong direction. Communication between the battles was poor, with the distance between them too great to maintain cohesion. At least one source mentions lightning throwing off the Irish directions, though this might be an additional detail to supplement post-battle feelings that can be summed up as “God did it”. After reaching where he was supposed to be on his own, O’Neill was unhappy, and his portion of the Irish army moved itself a few miles to the west of Kinsale, nowhere near where the collective force were supposed to be. By the time the sun was starting to come out, the Irish were on the western side of a small stream called the Millwater, in boggy ground.

O’Neill was still ready to pursue an attack though, even after things had gone awry. It would not have been too late even then to withdraw and start over another night, but perhaps he had simply decided to commit and maintain the assault. That being said, the Irish army did hold up for a crucial amount of time at this point, neither attacking or retreating. The Irish musketeers were ordered to light their fuses in preparation for battle, an action seen by forward English units. Mountjoy had several formations in readiness as previously mentioned, whether by default or by an intelligence tip-off, and he soon knew the location of the Irish army.

Mountjoy sensed an opportunity and decided to strike. He may well have realised that the Irish would attempt to attack him from two sides and resolved to not allow himself to be caught in such a manner. His men were cold, hungry and sick, but a quick blow could win the day early. He still had eyes on Kinsale though and for the coming fight quickly split his army in two, leaving Carew and the Earl of Thomond with a sizable amount of his remaining force, several thousand men, to guard against what may have been seen as an inevitable sortie from the besieged Spanish. The rest, several regiments of infantry and a large amount of heavy cavalry, rapidly proceeded westwards.

The Irish, after several cold hours marching in the dark, were tired and sluggish, allowing Mountjoy’s men to advance close to the Millwater without opposition. What happened next is disputed somewhat. Some English cavalry forded the stream and attacked O’Neill’s battle, in two small waves, and this attack was beaten off. Some sources indicate that it was troops of O’Donnell’s rearguard that moved up and did this, skirmishing successfully and firing at Mountjoy’s men across the stream. They allege that O’Donnell’s  men were then distracted and caught up in the disasters that followed. Other, more numerous, sources indicate that O’Donnell’s battle lagged behind the others and did not arrive to the fight until much later, when it was far too late. Judging by the nature of the night time march and the general shoddiness of the Irish movement, I can well believe this, despite O’Donnell’s typically brash nature.

Tyrell’s vanguard was out of position to help O’Neill, who now came under more sustained attack. Mountjoy sent most of his heavy cavalry, well armoured and battle hardened, over the stream to hit his opponent. Initial frontal assaults failed, before the English cavalry were able to regroup and hit at O’Neill’s flanks. The Tyrone chieftain had plenty of horses himself, but they were of the lighter kind, and completely unused to a set-piece fight. They had never faced a charge from heavy cavalry before and the results were a calamity. Despite trying to place the boggy ground between himself and the enemy, O’Neill’s horse was scattered and slaughtered and very quickly his infantry core was under serious threat. Under sustained attack, they began to break up. Mountjoy pressed the advantage as much as he could.

Tyrell swung his battle backwards as O’Neill tried to organise matters before a rout began. Tyrell aimed to place himself between O’Neill and the advancing Mountjoy, but all he did in the end was add to the unfolding catastrophe. Mountjoy piled forward with his regiments of infantry and musketeers, smaller and more mobile than the Irish tercio’s. Tyrell’s battle was hit hard on the flanks too and bloody fighting commenced. The battle was now a charnel house and any opportunity for a more manoeuvrable type of fight was gone.

This was the crucial moment really and it was here that the lack of experience in conventional battle probably told in the worst way. The Spanish in Tyrell’s formation fought hard and suffered badly before being overrun, with the rest of the Irish breaking far before that. The English assault was just to deadly, with too much momentum. Tyrell’s tercio broke apart with the men starting to flee northward. Their panic only exacerbated the continuing break-up of O’Neill’s battle, and soon a general flight was occurring. The immediate area of the fight became filled with carnage, as the English infantry and cavalry broke into a short range pursuit, cutting down those who were running and finishing off the isolated few who remained.

O’Donnell probably came close to the battlefield at this point, but only in time to see the rest of the army running away. He allegedly tried to rally them with screamed words, shocked to see the disintegration, but there was nothing he could do. The retreating Irish paid him no heed, and before too long his own battle was joining them, unwilling to face the English alone.

It had only taken a few hours but the battle was over. All of the hopes and dreams of the Irish were smashed on the boggy fields west of Kinsale.

The casualties are disputed, as you would expect, but they were enormous. At least 800 Irish were killed, probably closer to, or above, a thousand. Another 400 or so were wounded, making the battle the equal of the Yellow Ford for the Irish. The Spanish contingent was wiped out. It was a near-total victory for Mountjoy, a justification for his decision to stay and fight it out, the decisive triumph over the Irish that the English had been seeking since the war started.

Mountjoy’s men were tired from the attack and their own situation, so did not have the energy to pursue. They did have the energy for an impromptu victory celebration as they returned to their camp, firing off guns and waving captured colours about. Unfortunately for the Spanish in Kinsale, this was misinterpreted as the arrival of their allied Irish, and del Aguila was soon sending out a sortie in force to help out, attacking into the entrenched troops of Carew and Thomond. It took a time and some casualties for the Spanish to realise their mistake and to understand that no one was coming to help them. It took another ten days for Aguila to surrender the town and his men. He received generous terms from Mountjoy, who allowed the Spanish to head home with their lives and their flags. Mountjoy would return back to the Pale a hero.

Del Aguila’s role in the defeat has long been criticised. The Irish judged him a coward and dishonourable, for refusing to send his forces out earlier than he did, and for generally acting like the Irish were an inferior lot he despised. I would place no great blame for the defeat on his shoulders though. He did not have the manpower to face down Mountjoy himself, and could not have been expected to send his troops out on the assumption that the Irish would be along shortly. The Spanish did sally out when they thought help was coming after all. As for his relationship with the Irish, it can hardly be said that O’Neill or O’Donnell did much to alter his opinion. Aguila died shortly after returning to Spain, so was spared any further inquiry into his performance.

The reasons for the Irish defeat are obvious and manifest. The offensive movement was unwise and unnecessary, commenced with more out of brash desire to do anything rather than nothing. The Irish formations were unwieldy and poorly organised. The night time march was badly done and left the Irish army incredibly vulnerable when the sun came up. Mountjoy took his chance when it appeared, pressing the attack and forcing the rout to occur. O’Neill failed to take advantage of the terrain and his cavalry were utterly unsuited to the task they were expected to accomplish. O’Donnell probably lagged behind the others and his absence would have been keenly felt. In the end, the Irish were too tired, too inexperienced, too stretched and too lacking in resolve to face down even Mountjoy’s damaged army. The Lord Deputy’s decision to stay and besiege Kinsale had been a risky one, but he had taken his chance when it came and successfully managed what forces he had available to him in order to combat the Irish and contain the Spanish at the same time.

For those Irish, the following days were the lowest ebb. Most realised how bad the defeat was, not least Hugh O’Neill, who may very well have opposed the entire operation. The losses he had incurred were staggering and worse was to come in the slow retreat back to the north, through the harsh cold of January, with few supplies and many walking wounded to care for. Many more Irish would have fallen to cold, disease and wounds on the way back to Tyrconnell and Tyrone. When they got home, they would have been met with the realisation that the English and Niall Garbh were still encamped and threatening, that their own numbers had been whittled down significantly, that they no longer had any great prospect of gaining further Irish allies or for further Spanish involvement. Hugh O’Neill, already well advanced in years at 52, must have realised that his cause was probably lost, and that he lacked the time or resources to recover them sufficiently. The great gamble had failed.

Further heartbreak was to follow, though it would take a time for the news to come back to Ireland. It was decided very shortly after the defeat that only a direct plea to Philip III would do in order to revive Spanish sentiment after the defeat and that a leader of the rebellion must be the one to do so. Leaving his brother Rory with the chieftaincy of Tyrconnell, Hugh Roe resolved to go.

O’Donnell did make it to Spain and did meet Philip. The meeting apparently went well and the Spanish King seems to have expressed some positivity for another expedition. O’Donnell remained in Spain to perhaps try and organise this force but shortly afterwards, in September 1602, he took ill and died. He wasn’t even 30 years old. Rumours quickly spread that an English agent had poisoned him, but these can never be confirmed. It was immaterial in the end. Hugh Roe O’Donnell, the firebrand of the rebellion, the master of the raid and one of the most brilliantly aggressive leaders of Gaelic Ireland, never set foot back in his homeland after Kinsale. He had proven himself a very capable young leader in terms of raid and ambush and his speedy attacks and string of victories had done as much as anything to insure the dominance of the rebels in the early years of the war. But his final martial engagement was a poor one, and his inexperience in dealing with sieges and with leading large volumes of troops dragged him down. His death was, for such a character, somewhat ignoble, though his memory as the “Fighting Prince of Donegal”, a Catholic champion, would last down through the ages.

For those who remained behind under Hugh O’Neill, the war now changed. Any goal of an Ireland free from English rule vanished, as did any idea of O’Neill dictating terms to the Pale regards Catholic freedom. The losses at Kinsale and everything that came with it were too much to bear. From the end of Kinsale to the end of the war, the fight was one for more favourable terms of surrender. It would become a deadlier conflict than ever before, one in which the population of the rebel countries would bear the brunt of English retribution and their war machine.

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

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